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Color of deer can dictate decisions

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 10:18 p.m.
White and brown piebald deer stand out compared to normally-colored whitetails. Submitted photo

There's no mystery about where white-tailed deer got their name.

The bright white underside of their tails is as distinctive a flag as exists in nature. Many a hunter has despaired to see one of those so-recognizable banners bounding away through the woods.

But deer sometimes can be all or mostly all white, nose to tail.

“Starting about 15 years ago, our history with albinos really began here,” said Doug Finger, manager of Linn Run State Park in Westmoreland County. “From about 1997 through 2010, we always had at least one or two albinos living in the park or Forbes State Forest.”

One of the most impressive was a buck. First spotted as a spike in 2007, it had grown into an 8-point by 2010.

“It had a nice rack. It wasn't a trophy, but for an albino, it was nice,” Finger said.

A number of hunters were aware of the animal, but Finger is pretty sure no one ever got it.

In some places, they never would have had the chance.

Some wildlife agencies treat white deer — albinos, white deer with otherwise normal pigmentation like brown eyes, and piebalds, which are a mix of white and brown, like a pinto-colored horse — as untouchable.

Illinois, Tennessee and Wisconsin prohibit the shooting of white deer. Iowa takes things further, prohibiting the shooting of any deer that's even 51 percent white.

There's no biological reason for such rules, said Tom Litchfield, deer biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

If anything, white deer are inferior animals. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, white deer and piebalds are “frequently associated with other harmful physical conditions, including skeletal deformities (e.g., dorsal bowing of the nose, short/deformed legs, curved spine, short lower mandible, etc.) and internal organ deformities.”

But people like them, and that makes a difference.

“These regulations all happen because a white animal sticks out, and people can latch onto it and want to protect it,” Litchfield said.

Iowa's law against shooting white deer came about after the public “adopted” one in early 1980s. When a hunter in another part of the state shot a different white deer, state legislators passed a law that prohibited the shooting of any white deer, Litchfield said. It's remained on the books since.

“I certainly wouldn't have any problem with the law going away. It's all a social thing,” Litchfield said.

Bans on shooting white and piebald deer have gone by the wayside in a few places.

Michigan's was repealed in 2008 after a legal challenge. In Oklahoma, a 1998 law that said hunters could only shoot white and piebald deer after first getting written permission from the executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation was finally repealed in time for this fall.

Pennsylvania has never had any special protections for white or piebald deer, nor should it, said Chris Rosenberry, the Game Commission's chief deer biologist. Here, as everywhere, they probably represent less than 1 percent of the overall herd, he added.

The traits that lead to white and piebald deer are inheritable, though, which accounts for their regularly showing up in localized concentrations, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

In Linn Run's case, the fate of the big white buck that once roamed the park is unknown. Finger said it was bloody when last seen during the 2010 rut as if “maybe he'd gotten into a fight with another buck and taken the worst of it.”

But that doesn't mean there aren't more white deer roaming the park, perhaps.

“That same year, a white doe and fawn were spotted, so they might still be out there,” Finger said. “No one's seen them lately, but you never know.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or 724-838-5148.

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