Cactus bucks increasing in Hotchkiss area

Kyle Banks, district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the Hotchkiss area, holds one of the “cactus bucks” trapped in January as part of a five-year study. The antlers on cactus bucks are velvet-covered and very britle, breaking easily. The deer were blindfolded while biologists fitted the deer with tracking collars.

A curious condition that leaves mule deer bucks carrying velvet covered antlers year-round apparently has cropped up in the Hotchkiss/Crawford area.

State wildlife officials say reports about what are known as “cactus bucks” have increased over the past decade in parts of the North Fork Valley.

It isn’t known why so many reports of cactus bucks have surfaced in the past few years in this one area since the condition, while infrequent, isn’t entirely unknown in other parts of the West.

Studies of cactus bucks in Texas white-tail deer herds indicates the condition (known as cryptorchidism) has to do with a reduction or loss of testosterone, which affects antler growth and development.

Whether through injury or lack of proper testicular development, the production of testosterone is affected and normal antler development is halted.

Antlers grow in strange shapes, often attracting hunters eager for a unique trophy. In 2006, a hunter in Nevada killed a cactus mule deer buck that scored 304 points, which would have qualified as No. 17 in the Boone & Crockett Club’s 12th edition record book for non-typical mule deer.

However, Jack Reneau of the Boone & Crockett Club said the organization does not record cactus bucks because the antlers are in velvet and are never shed.

The bucks in the North Fork Valley may be deformed because of hemorrhagic disease, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists.

The disease is transmitted by the bites of midges and can also affect white-tailed deer and pronghorns.

The Texas studies indicate cactus bucks, because they lack functioning testes, also lack the testosterone that causes velvet shedding and antler drop.

Instead, cactus bucks remain in velvet year-round and their antlers continue to grow indefinitely, often resulting in antlers with numerous abnormal points, from which the name cactus buck derives.

But why the disease seems more prevalent in this one part of Colorado isn’t known.

Part of the research into the disease included capturing eight affected bucks and putting radio collars on them, said Brandon Diamond, Gunnison-area terrestrial biologist for Parks and Wildlife.

Diamond said blood samples were taken from each deer and the deer’s physical condition was assessed.

“With the radio collars we’ll be able to follow their movements, determine if they lose their antlers, and whether they re-grow normal antlers,” Diamond said.  “At the same time we’ll also be able to evaluate their annual survival rates.”

Because the disease affects hormonal levels in bucks and prevents them from breeding, there also is some concern as to how a prevalence of this disease may affect a herd’s viability.

Biologists say midges are common around wet areas and it’s possible bucks become infected when gathered around watering holes.

Affected bucks also may show other symptoms, including fever, lethargy, respiratory distress, loss of appetite and internal bleeding.

That said, biologists assured hunters the virus does not infect humans and there is no risk from handling or eating venison from these deer.


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