My daughter and I have taken on several new adventures after last November's deer season was over. Winter was spent hunting rabbits and curing the pelts, and with my encouragement, Teresa started trapping for the first time. She snared two raccoon and two beavers. Those are the subjects of other articles. Today I want to focus on our shed hunting adventures, which proved far more intriguing than we would have imagined.
We own 240 acres of very rugged canyon land in Bennett County, South Dakota. Our house is totally "off grid", with solar power providing most of our electricity. Hunting is not simply a preferred pastime, but is absolutely crucial to our family's winter survival, so we are not primarily trophy hunters. We do prefer to shoot bucks rather than does, to keep the population high, especially since whitetails in our region have suffered losses from EHD over the past few years. Fortunately, our land and the surrounding land, much of it tribal land of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, still holds a pretty good population in spite of the disease. Our family was fortunate enough to put two big bucks and two smaller bucks in the freezer last November, and we saw several more. Each buck that evaded us is promise for another season.
I must admit I have never been much of a shed hunter. You can't eat the antlers, after all, right? Now that we have all of this beautiful land, though, we could think of no better excuse to get to know it better and learn more about the deer herd to improve our hunting next season. So, we set out on an unseasonably warm and seasonably sunny afternoon in March, trying to see if we could find the antlers from the huge buck we had seen on the trail cam, or one of the many evasive bucks Teresa had seen during the season.
We decided to start with "Dead Horse Draw", which earned its name when we first came here and found the skeleton of a horse at the entrance to the deep, dark canyon draw. We had learned during our deer hunts that deer do not like to be in the deepest parts of this structure, probably because it could make them vulnerable to attacks from above by mountain lions. Besides, the place kind of gives us the creeps, and we imagine deer feel the same way, because there are few if any tracks in the bottom. They do, however, skirt along the edges, where their narrow trails cut defined paths which follow the contours, so that is where we hiked. It is grueling terrain, and a winter of relative inactivity left me short of breath and wishing I had not gained a few pounds during my semi-hibernation.
We carefully scanned the ground as we went, checking every stick that looked suspicious. There was not a shed to be seen anywhere. Finally, we came to the beginning of the draw where it levels out to meet the high ground, near the southwest corner of our quarter (A "section" is a surveyed piece of land one mile squared. A quarter of that is one half mile by one half mile, which equals 160 acres. This is the size of land given to settlers in the Homestead Act.). I felt more at ease here, with the more gentle terrain and the deciduous trees that remind me so much of Pennsylvania. It looked like a perfect place for a Whitetail buck to rest in the shade, away from the treeless prairie which opened up just yards away. And there Teresa spotted it- not just a shed, but the entire skeleton of a deer that apparently did find this a quiet place to rest- for good.
It is very sad to see that such a beautiful buck had died. The antlers on this one were five inches around at the base. He had an impressive rack for a deer with no crop or mineral supplementation. There were four points on one side, and the other had five, one half eaten by mice, and one tiny sticker at the base. He looked old, probably at least five and a half, but how did he die? Was he killed by a mountain lion or a coyote, or by EHD? When we picked up the skull, we found our answer, and it was a more horrible and agonizing death than we had thought.
His second and third top teeth had cavities, and the infection had obviously spread to the bone. It was so bad, a large chunk of the bone had deteriorated. The teeth were loosely hanging on, which means the poor fellow had not done much chewing that would have dislodged them by the time of his death. Most likely, the once magnificent buck died from infection and starvation. We showed the skull to a friend who is a physician's assistant, and she said the infection had been massive and systemic. It is called osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone. Without antibiotics, it usually will not resolve, but goes systemic, the infection causing debilitating fever, heart trouble, septicemia, and death.
I do not know what could have caused this poor animal to develop such horrible dental disease, but I do know that growing such a nice rack is a drain on the body, and perhaps the minerals that would normally keep the teeth strong are shunted to the antler growth. It is just a theory, but it makes sense in a wild place such as this. I think perhaps we should invest in some minerals for the bucks that pass through our land. It might mean the difference between life and death.