Do wolves make it more difficult to hunt deer over bait? Many hunters believe the answer must be, “Yes.”
Previous research has shown that bait piles concentrate deer and deer scent, which in turn attract wolves. Deer soon get wise to this and, according to the theory, start to avoid bait sites entirely. Hunters, meanwhile, find that bait piles are less and less effective after wolves move in, which is yet another reason to dislike the four-legged predators.
This reasoning is sound, and it’s certainly true that the presence of wolves impacts deer behavior. However, as per our usual arrangement, nature is a bit more complicated.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota set out to answer this question. They set up 15 bait sites in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) and 15 in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula (LP). The researchers then scented five sites on each peninsula with wolf urine, five with lemon juice, and five with water.
For those unfamiliar with Mitten State ecology, the UP has established wolf populations while the LP does not. Because of this, researchers hypothesized that the white-tailed deer in the UP would be “predator-savvy” and would increase group size (to better defend from predators), maintain higher vigilance, and avoid bait sites scented with wolf urine, especially at times of day when wolves are most active. The LP deer, which the researchers call “predator-naive,” wouldn’t make the same adjustments.
The team installed a trail cam at each location and analyzed 213,264 images over a six-week period. They were surprised by what they found, and they published their results in the November issue of Ecology and Evolution.
The predator-savvy UP wolves didn’t react how they expected. While these deer tended to avoid bait sites more in the evenings, wolf scent had little effect on number of visits, group vigilance, or group size. Researchers admit that these deer may have reacted differently to signs of immediate wolf presence (i.e., a wolf howling), but wolf scent by itself had minimal impact on deer behavior.
However, wolf presence combined with dense vegetation had a clear effect on deer vigilance. Researchers measured vigilance by how often deer picked up their heads to look around. Deer vigilance intensity increased by 1.3 times for each unit increase in vegetation cover in the UP but not in the LP. This increase in vigilance intensity occurred no matter what kind of scent had been applied to the area.
“Denser vegetation likely represents more predator hiding potential and difficult escape routes, likely causing an increase in deer vigilance regardless of olfactory cues at the site,” the authors note.
Of course, one study does not the truth make (as the old saying goes). Trail cam photo analysis isn’t a perfect science, and sprinkling wolf urine on piles of corn (3.8 liters at each site per week!) doesn’t perfectly replicate hunter or wolf behavior. Still, the study points towards a few hot tips that might be helpful for deer hunters operating in wolf territory.
First, if you live in an area with an increasing wolf population and you hunt deer over bait, this study suggests that you shouldn’t worry too much about seeing fewer deer (at least, not due to deer being afraid of wolves at that spot). Morning hunts might be more productive than evening hunts, but the overall number of visits shouldn’t be affected.
At the same time, you should think carefully about where you place your feeder or plant your food plot. This study indicates that deer will be more jumpy if your feeder is in dense vegetation. Instead, pick a spot where deer can see predators coming and have good escape routes. This might require a more cautious approach to your tree stand, but it’ll keep deer comfortable and give you better odds of success.
“We strongly urge readers, managers, and the hunting community to interpret our results cautiously and constructively,” the authors conclude. “Our results can be formative in aiding carnivore–human coexistence wherein human hunters can have more success if they potentially choose not to bait/hunt deer at vegetatively dense sites.”