Deer 226 was our last deer on the last day of a weekend trip out to the sagebrush spotted flats of the Red Desert. I had accompanied Luke, a PhD student studying mule deer migration, out to his study area to help with fawn recruitment surveys. For the uninitiated, fawn recruitment surveys focus on recording how many fawns are born and survive. Given that mule deer populations have been on the decline in Wyoming, these recruitment surveys are useful in tracking if those numbers are recovering or continually declining.
Luke had placed collars on does earlier in his study. The collars contained both an ID tag and a tracking device. It was our job to brave the cold November days and track the does around the desert. More accurately, it was Luke’s job to drive a Nissan Frontier down degraded two tracks, and it was my job to get hypothermia from holding an antenna out the window.
Getting a bead on 226 was difficult. We could tell she was down in a huge open basin, but the signal from her collar was bouncing around. I pointed the antenna directly below us down the steep craggy cliff, to the left of us towards a crowded aspen stand, and to the right of us back towards the barren flats. The receiver emitted a woody click when pointed directly down as well as to the left.
When a clearer direction other than ‘somewhere around here’ failed to arise, we drove down into the basin with the hope that she was on one of the slopes where we’d gotten a hit in our advanced hot and cold game. The signal was strongest when our antenna was pointed in the direction of several aspen stands further down the road. We drove along slowly; keeping our eyes peeled on our respective sides of the road. The clicks from the receiver kept getting louder and louder. We had to be getting close. Our antenna was only searching the immediate area around our truck. My excitement rose higher and higher. I strained my eyes along the line of the antenna towards the eastern slope of the basin, looking for any hint of movement.
It was then that I spotted her.
The herd was clumped together among the sagebrush. I would have missed them if not for one of the group taking a step forward. They were the exact same dusty brown as the dirt surrounding them. I alerted Luke and he stopped the car. I retrieved the spotting scope from the back.
“Good eye,” Luke congratulated me, and handed over the binoculars so I could see the bright orange tag that adorned the collar on Deer 226’s neck. We settled in to watch.
The time it takes to do a fawn recruitment survey varies. Sometimes, it’s quick. The fawn is close to her mom, they nuzzle, bed down, or break from the group together. This time the survey was an exercise in patience. There were four fawns and ten does all within twenty yards of each other. The fawns would bed down by a doe but were too close together to determine who the mom was.
We watched the herd for over an hour. Eventually, Deer 226 broke off from the group and bedded down with a pair of fawns further up the slope. It was official, Deer 226 had twins.
I finished making the last notes on our datasheet just as Deer 226 led the herd over the ridgeline. I jotted down that she seemed to be the leader of the group. I’d put that leader comment down in the notes a lot. It was anecdotal, but Luke had noticed that the does they collared were bolder. They were always at the front of the group, leading the herd into unknown wilderness beyond our eyesight, but not beyond the range our technology.
I didn’t expect to hear from Luke again after the trip, but I got a text from him the next day. I checked it between classes. It was about Deer 226.
She was dead.
Sometime between her graceful ascent and Luke’s text to me now, she had been killed. It was a mountain lion. Luke had pointed out potential denning sites in the towering sagebrush the day before. It was quick. One second, she would have been nibbling on a rabbitbrush, and the next the mountain lion’s teeth would have sunk into her neck. She wouldn’t have even had the thought to struggle before it was all over. Luke sent me a photo of her. Her body laid out on the dusty ground in an outdoor autopsy. Her chest cavity was flayed open with surgical precision. Her heart and liver were gone.
“Thank you for telling me,” I didn’t know what else to say. I had seen her just yesterday. She’d stared at me as I stared at her. Her ears had flicked forward, then back, then forward again. She’d tilted her head, then turned aside. I had seen her just yesterday.
“You spotted her; she was your deer. You deserved to know,” Luke replied.
I can still picture her, silhouetted against the ridge. I keep her there, just for a moment, just long enough to imagine all the other ways her life might have played out.
Perhaps, in another life, her signal bounced off the walls of the basin and we never found her. In another life, she stayed still and waited for us to pass. In another life, she made it to Colorado.
In this life, she lies dead not 200 meters from where we last saw her. I am not surprised by this ending. I have seen it play out before with other deer, but none of those deer were ever Deer 226.
Even if there is another collared mule deer doe out there with an orange tag marked 226, that deer will still not be Deer 226. That deer was not there during that singular specific hour on that singular specific day. I did not track that deer across the wide-open expanse of the Red Desert. I did not watch that deer nuzzle her fawns and coax them up the ridge. I did not hear of that deer’s death from a text. I have never heard of that deer at all. I do not know her, not like I know, knew, Deer 226, and that is what makes all the difference.
Ryen Nielsen is a senior studying Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and Management from the University of Wyoming. He’s fascinated by little creatures and can be found sticking his head on the ground to watch beetles, or petting moss and lichens on the side’s of rocks. You can track his latest obsession on his Instagram @noroomforghosts.