Protecting piebald deer makes no biological sense, but are there still good reasons to let them walk?
If you’ve followed Brow Tines and Backstrap this summer, you know I’ve been posting regular updates on the Blog Buck. The buck is nothing special; just a free-ranging, Average Joe of a young 8-pointer that we’ve been able to watch grow because of his predictability. Despite what Hansen says, I might not even shoot him.
But a couple weeks ago, I pulled the card on that same camera and was more than surprised by the dozen images of this piebald fawn. I can’t tell yet if it’s a young buck or doe, but it does have a normal-looking sibling and mother. And judging by the additional photos captured of the fawn the following week, it seems to be living a normal lifestyle.
I was curious to learn a little more about the fawn, so I called David Osborn, wildlife research coordinator at the University of Georgia Deer Research Facility. You may remember him from this Realblog post last month, when a doe at the research center gave birth to a piebald fawn. That fawn, unfortunately, died the same day. Like many piebald deer, that one was born with numerous birth defects.
“The birth defects in piebald deer can vary widely,” Osborn says. “One deer may not have any ill effects at all. Another might look normal, but actually have problems such as scoliosis, arthritis and internal issues. Obviously, in nature, being white is a disadvantage because they can’t elude predators as well.”
Osborn says that while numbers and statistics are often cited on the frequency of piebald deer, they should be taken with a grain of salt. “It’s been reported that less than 2 percent of deer are piebalds, and even fewer than that are totally white,” he says. “But if piebald deer in a given area are protected or confined so that they can reproduce, the frequency of piebald genetics becomes more prominent.”
Piebald and white deer have long been the subjects of hunting myth and legend. Osborn says that some believe killing them “brings a curse of bad luck during future hunts … and in parts of Europe, killing a white deer is said to ensure you will die within one year.”
White (whether albino or leucistic) and piebald deer are protected from harvest in a surprising number of areas to this day. Oklahoma required written permission from the state wildlife director to shoot a piebald deer up until a few years ago. In Iowa, the holy land of deer management, it is illegal to hunt deer that are “predominantly white,” or 50 percent white. Albino deer are off-limits in neighboring Tennessee.
In a day and age where the concept of a “cull buck” exists, these laws are dumb. They're the definition of emotion-based regulation.
It seems most hunters recognize that there is no biological reason for protecting white and piebald deer. In fact, protecting these deer can directly lead to more fawns being born with serious, even crippling, health issues down the road.
Yet, there is something to be said for such a special-looking animal. “Protecting them really boils down to whether the people managing the land value seeing them,” Osborn says. “I shot a piebald buck in October of last year, and I really have mixed feelings about shooting him. We had watched that deer on our cameras for years, and by the time I got him, he was 6 ½ years old and scored 142. Seeing him on trail cameras, and occasionally in the field, was such a part of our experience during deer season that I’ll really miss not having him around this season.”
Osborn also pointed out that allowing a piebald deer to live and reproduce has little bearing on the overall health of an area deer herd. "We manage deer for overall population and herd health, so what happens with a few local deer won't affect the big picture," he says. "If you selectively remove them (piebald and white deer), hidden genes will continue to be spread by normal-colored carriers in spite of your efforts."
Bow season opens here in a little more than a month, and I’ve been asked by more than one buddy if Michelle or I plan on shooting the piebald fawn given a chance. Understand, I have no objection whatsoever to shooting a fawn. They’re legal game here, quite delicious, and easy to carry out of the woods. Nor do I have any moral objections to killing a piebald deer, and thankfully, neither does the Commonwealth of Kentucky. (Be sure to check out the story on Justin Smith's giant piebald buck, killed on public land in Kentucky last season.)
But as Osborn said, I’ve found that I enjoy seeing this deer on camera and knowing that it’s around. At the end of the day, it’s an extremely rare glimpse of nature that most people just don’t get to see -- especially if they're not deer hunters.
So this fawn, at least for now, is safe from me. It might be a different story if it wanders past my stand in December, after it’s weaned and mostly grown. But I'll have to make that decision if and when the time comes.
Of course, I’d just as soon that European legend be untrue.
(Be sure to read the article on white and piebald deer written by David Osborn and Dr. Karl V. Miller in the upcoming October / November 2014 issue of the QDMA's Quality Whitetails magazine)
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