Driving up a steep two-track road with the UTV fire engine, I notice a large white object laying on the ground. The sun glistens from its smooth, branch-like structure and contrasts sharply with the sea of black ash from yesterday’s burn. It’s a shed antler from a male whitetail deer. I pick up the discarded antler and admire it. It’s heavy, has five perfect points and bits of tree bark still cling to the rough surface texture near its base. A ghost among us, I think.
I have been an avid student of the whitetail deer for more than four decades now. During this time, my relationship with the whitetail has evolved, but one aspect remains constant – I admire an old deer that lives among people and rarely, if ever, is seen. Just 12 hours ago when we burned this prairie, there was no antler here.
I had seen this buck only once, on a late December day, while out controlling brush in a remote prairie. His symmetrical 10-point rack bobbing back and forth in the tall grasses as he chased a doe that refused to leave the cover of the prairie grass. The buck and I locked eyes before he melted into the prairie, leaving me to feel I had just violated his place of sanctity.
His shed antler is just one of many I have found on this property in the last few days. The deer have been concentrated on these wind-sheltered southern slopes feeding on oak tree buds – their preferred winter browse. The open, steep slopes are managed with fire, which facilitates plentiful oak tree regeneration and hence, ideal winter browse for deer.
Few deer live long enough to carry an impressive set of antlers. There are many dangers - predators, disease, vehicle collisions, human hunters, domestic dogs, poachers, severe weather, wounds from fighting, barbed-wire fence entanglements, freak accidents, and more. However, deer that learn to avoid being seen by humans have the best odds of growing old.
These deer are experts at patterning the humans they live among and quickly adapt their behavior to give them a wide berth. Landowners, farmers, hikers, sportsmen and restoration practitioners like me are all easily patterned and avoided. Even highly skilled hunters, empowered with the latest science to counteract the deer’s defenses, consistently lose the battle against an old, crafty deer.
Finding a large shed antler of an unfamiliar deer in lands we frequent often is undeniable evidence that wild animals can exist without our awareness of them. These nuggets of discovery remind us of the vast unknowns within nature and our struggle to understand and appreciate our part in it.
I stare at the heavy shed antler still locked in my grip. Are there other ghosts among us, I wonder? Are there species we think are long lost but are still holding on in some unknown mysterious way?
The antler is silent, but I hear a soft voice of hope within me.