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On The Trail: Antlered still?


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Early afternoon last week, post-snowstorm ... Wednesday, I think. The phone rings. It’s Killer, my buddy. He gets right to the point.

“I guess your buck may still have his horns,” he reported, basing this assessment on reliable second-hand information he had received from an old friend and hunter who lives in Bernardston.

“Andy saw a nice buck with a big rack eating under his neighbor’s apple tree this morning,” he explained. “I guess the guy doesn’t pick up his apples. He just rakes ’em into a pile around the tree trunk and the deer feed on them. He was watching the big buck feed out his window and noticed another deer moving in. Once it came into full view, it too had horns, a little 5- or 6-pointer. I just thought you’d appreciate the information that they both still had their horns. Seems late to me.”

Yes, interesting indeed. This same friend had called me a few years back in early February surprised that his step son’s trail camera set up near his northern Greenfield home had revealed a buck sporting a nice set of antlers. He thought it unusual, believing most bucks shed their antlers before February, which does in a general sense seem accurate; however, the formula dictating precisely when a buck sheds his antlers can vary greatly from deer to deer, depending on such factors as testosterone levels, available feed and general health of individual bucks. According to reliable sources, though rare, a buck can keep his antlers into April. Nonetheless, it’s true that more typical antler sheds occur in late December and January.

Which reminds me … after Christmas, with the blackpowder season winding down, a friend from Deerfield called to chat and, in the course of our conversation, said one of his employees, and avid hunter, had reported that bucks being killed by his Leverett/Shutesbury buddies were losing their antlers when dragged from the woods, not an unusual late-December phenomenon. So, bucks have been shedding antlers for at least a month now, just not all bucks.

The buck my buddy referred to as mine is a neighborhood deer I’ve watched and written about over the past month. A big, dark, regal animal familiar to many Greenfield Meadows neighbors and passersby, no one seems to have spotted him in recent weeks, since that deep-cold snap enveloped the valley. I had speculated that this buck may have shed his 8- to 12-point rack and was thus no longer easily identifiable. Well, that may or may not be true. That’s why the Killer called. An inexact science, my buck may well have dropped his trophy rack weeks ago. Then again, he may well still be sporting antlers while secreted away in a sheltered southern exposure near available feed.

Obviously, local bucks’ testosterone level has diminished greatly by now, thus the two Bernardston bucks traveling and feeding together under that apple tree. This is not unusual during most of the year. But it all changes during the fall breeding season or “rut,” when friends become rivals and spar for dominance and ultimately “in-season” does. Then, once the does are bred and pregnant, dominant and subordinate bucks that have traveled together as friends all spring and summer, reunite to ride out their winter’s travails. They are definitely right now at that stage, antlers or no antlers.

Hmmmmm? An interesting U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFW) notice was forwarded to me Tuesday afternoon by old friend Karl Meyer, a longtime non-believer of any cougar-sightings who labeled it “fresh off the presses.” What it was is a “final ruling” declaring Eastern cougars forever extinct.

Which reminds me: there was an unfortunate inaccuracy in this column last week, when I placed the infamous cougar road-kill on the Merritt Parkway in Miilford, Conn., in 2013. A slip of the pen, that cougar was actually killed on June 11, 2011, three months after USFW first introduced the concept of changing Eastern cougar status from endangered to extinct.

Since then, the extinct status was officially proposed on June 17, 2015. Now, as of Monday, it’s official. So, it’s official: According to USFW, Eastern cougars are extinct.

The problem with this ruling is that it may be a moot point. Why? Because many credible authorities believe there is only one species of North American cougar, not sub-species in the West, South and East. In fact, wven the USFW’s 16-page, small-print Monday ruling, which includes many online links leading to various related cougar studies, admits there may not be sub-species at all. Likewise, USFW admits there is existing eastern habitat fully capable of supporting a cougar population and/or population expansion of western cats into the East. Nonetheless, they’ve made their ruling and are sticking by it: Eastern cougars (if there is such a thing) are until further notice, extinct — long gone and impossible to find.

So, go figure. Although this newest ruling is described as “final,” my guess is that it’s far from the last word on the matter.

Stay tuned. There will undoubtedly be more western “dispersers” passing through a nearby neighborhood. Take it to the bank; that and the official, knee-jerk denials by state and federal wildlife officials who will tell people reporting such sightings that they’re seeing things. Eastern cougars are extinct.

Enough!

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.