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Kalispell bids farewell to buck that graced city

Kalispell bids farewell to buck that graced city

KALISPELL - People who caught glimpses of the Swamp King knew he was huge, knew the thicket of bony sharp antler that crowned his head was something well beyond the ordinary.

"He was enormous," said Ben Long, who lives near the cattails' edge in a north Kalispell neighborhood. "I've hunted deer since I was 12, that's 25 years, and I've never seen one as big as him."

But what set the King apart was not necessarily his sprawling rack, impressive though the seven-by-seven trophy was.

No, what really set him apart, what had people whispering about him and trading pictures back and forth like baseball cards, was the King's choice of neighborhood.

One of the biggest whitetail bucks seen in northwestern Montana lived and, last month, died a short six blocks from downtown Kalispell's busiest intersection, a highway crossing where some 40,000 cars blur by on an average day.

His home range also known as Lawrence Park was hemmed in by a regional hospital and medical complex, a college campus, a downtown and a tangle of retail knotted out for miles east of town.

The King, in fact, was adapting nicely on the cold autumn night in 2003 when Long's headlights first caught the antlers, bowed under a neighbor's apple tree.

"It was just a split second," Long said of that initial encounter, "but you knew he was huge. All antlers."

He snatched another glimpse a few days later, on one of those blustery November days when the light is flat and the sky is gunmetal blue. It was just before Thanksgiving, Long said, in the peak of the rut, and the King was "obviously the boss buck in the neighborhood."

Just as he had likely been for several years before.

Tom Litchfield is a wildlife biologist in the Kalispell office of Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. A while back, another biologist brought him a pair of antlers shed by a whitetail in the slough below Lawrence Park.

"I think it was him, three years ago," said Litchfield, who has been studying deer as a professional for nearly two decades. "The rack was very similar, just a smaller version."

Smaller, but not small, and still large enough to generate a bit of interest around the FWP offices.

Then came the pictures, showing up on Litchfield's desk now and again as neighbors lucked into a look at the buck.

Long got a lucky look and, finally, a long look just before Christmas this past year, when he and wife Karen were pulling a Christmas tree up from the back yard. He ran his eyes across the slough below, a place where he's seen urban foxes, resident otters, neighborhood raccoons and whole herds of deer.

And there was the Swamp King, bedded down "a big, handsome animal" resting after the rut.

Long called Litchfield, and together the two took to the swamp on Jan. 18, setting up a remote camera because "we were curious. Where was this old boy living here in the middle of town?"

Ten days later, on the 28th, Long returned to the cattails to replace the film and batteries, only to find the Swamp King again lying in the same bed.

"I was flabbergasted," Long said. "I was trying to get a glimpse of him, and there he was, sprawled out on the ground right there."

This time, though, the King was dead.

The buck had been picked over by ravens and dogs, his hide torn, but there was no mistaking those antlers. And so began what Long calls "an episode of 'CSI: Montana,' " Litchfield's forensic investigation into why, in the prime of life at age 7, the Swamp King died.

"He was just so much bigger than average," Litchfield said. "It got you interested, so you wanted to know more."

The rack, he said, measured big enough to make both the Montana and the Boone and Crockett record books. But he's still waiting the requisite 60 days for "shrinkage" before he pegs the final score.

Regardless of the measurement, Litchfield is certain that "most bucks could never grow a rack that size. He had to be healthy."

So why is he dead?

The Swamp King, Litchfield said, seemed uninjured. All his big bones were intact, which might not be the case if he had been hit hard by a car or truck. And his bone marrow had lots of fat, which would not be the case if he had suffered long-term injury or illness.

"He wasn't malnourished," Litchfield said, "and we know he made his way to that bed under his own power."

A lingering illness would have caused a hormonal shift, a drop in testosterone levels, which in turn would have caused the buck to shed his antlers. But the King still was crowned in death.

Litchfield thought maybe a poorly shot small-caliber bullet had done the trick, but, with the hide ravaged, it was tough to tell. A metal detector, however, turned up no evidence in or around the carcass.

"We figure he either was hit by a car and died of internal injuries, or he was shot by a poacher," Litchfield said. "We'll probably never know for sure."

What he does know, though, is that finding deer even big deer smack dab in town is by no means a surprise. Urban deer aren't hunted, he noted, and they can ride rough winters easily by nibbling neighborhood landscaping.

If they can avoid the cars and dogs and poachers, urban deer can do very well for themselves. "He wouldn't be the first record to live and die within a city limits," Litchfield said.

The Swamp King had excellent habitat, Litchfield said, and probably only ranged over 1,000 or 1,500 acres throughout the year. He likely would have been even bigger next year, and then would have passed out of his prime as he aged past 9 or so.

The oldest deer brought through a Flathead hunting check station, he said, was 14, "and that's pretty darned old."

Even that old-timer, though, was not nearly as big as the Lawrence Park buck, who Litchfield said enjoyed good genetics, good habitat and good luck.

"I guess he had 7-1/2 good years and one bad day," Long agreed. "We're going to miss him. I still find myself looking for him sometimes."

The wire that wraps his trees and the 8-foot fence around his garden notwithstanding, Long, like others in his neighborhood, places a high value on sharing city life with wildlife.

"It's one of the things we enjoy most about this neighborhood," he said. "It really is a symbol of how successful North American wildlife management has been."

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