published Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Rabbits as a gauge

Rise or decline may reflect coyotes’ presence


by Dan Cook
  • photo
    Contributed photo by Georgia DNR, Wildlife Resources Division See-saw effect: When coyotes rise, rabbits disappear.

The occasional reduction in rabbits in this part of the country has interested biologists for years.

Is it simply a result of the continued spread of suburbia? What other factors may be present?

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologist Gary Cook believes he knows one. He has studied and written extensively about coyotes for years and says a recent rise in the rabbit population corresponds to a drop in coyote numbers.

Traveling east through Tennessee after adapting well in Memphis, coyotes have been known to devour cats and similar small animals for food, but their apparent numbers rise has been reversed for some reason.

“The coyote population is suppressed right now. When you have that, you have increased numbers of rabbits,” Cook said recently from the TWRA’s Region II office in Jackson.

He said the Tennessee rabbit population is at its highest level in 20 years.

On the one hand, that’s good news for rabbit hunters. On the other, it could indicate that some disease — a possible threat to other animals as well — is killing coyotes.

“It may be something we have to address,” Cook said. “Coyotes run in highs and lows, and it could be that we’re at the bottom of one of those valleys. Coyotes have been depressed for five years.”

Not everyone, even in the TWRA, accepts the rise in rabbits as fact, however. Roger Applegate, the agency’s small-game coordinator, said he’s had reports both ways — that rabbits are increasing and that they’re in decline. Apparently it depends on the area, he said.

“Some places may have done better breeding-wise this year,” he reasoned, noting that the weather could have been a factor.

Regional supervisor Chuck Waters from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division, echoed Applegate’s contention that rabbit numbers depend upon where you’re talking about. And he agreed with Cook that coyotes reduce those numbers, although he did not want to speculate on why the coyotes seem fewer.

“Generally speaking, if the habitat is fine, prey will do fine even though the predator will have a negative effect,” Waters said.

He cited an area near where he lives in Armuchee that is mowed only two or three times a year, leaving good overhead cover and a good rabbit population.

“Rabbits are a little more plastic in where they can live,” Applegate said. “They can live in more wooded terrain than quail.”

Turkeys, quail and some other small game have appeared — like the coyotes — in suburban and even urban areas.

“Quail can live in shrubbery and (areas of) fescue lawns, and they seem to do all right,” Applegate said.

About turkeys, which show up sometimes in heavily inhabited areas, he said, “We missed the boat on their habitat many, many years ago by thinking of them as forest birds. They can live in a variety of terrain.”

TWRA personnel such as Cook and Applegate closely watch small-game trends with hope that diseases aren’t the reason for the decline of coyotes or any other animals.

They must use the best tools they have in their studies. Radio telemetry — equipping animals with signal-sending devices for monitoring their movements — is a good way to gather data, but it’s costly.

“We can barely afford telemetry,” Applegate said. “If they’re $100 apiece and you need a thousand, that’s pretty expensive.”

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