It wasn’t a ghost that Nels Houghton first saw while jogging in the early morning near his home a few months ago, but the albino mule deer fawn proved just about as elusive.
Houghton would only catch glimpses of the animal every couple of weeks. The fawn was with a doe and another fawn, likely its mother and twin sibling.
Last weekend, though, he spotted the albino deer and hurried home to get his camera. Stalking to within 75 yards, he snapped about 50 photos of the rare deer as it walked warily across a hillside. Many of the shots show the deer holding up one of its front hooves as if it were part pointing dog.
“I’ve hunted all my life and have never seen anything else like that,” he said. “I was pretty excited about it.”
Albino deer are rare, but just how rare is open to debate. One 1989 book, “The Deer of North America,” estimated the rate of albinism in mule deer at 1 in every 500,000 deer. An Outdoor Life article on albino whitetail deer put the number at 1 in 20,000.
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Former Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jay Newell, of Roundup, said he thinks the 1 in 500,000 odds are low. He’s seen three albino mule deer — spread out along the Musselshell River and in the Bull Mountains — during his work in the area. Yet Newell has never seen an albino whitetail deer.
“It seems like I was seeing a lot more early in the 1990s when mule deer numbers were higher,” he said.
Last year near the town of Musselshell, east of Roundup, Ken Bryan snapped some photographs of an albino mule deer fawn, also a twin.
“It was kind of a big deal the first time I saw him,” Bryan said.
After he shot the photos of the deer grazing in an alfalfa field in the spring of 2010, he never saw the animal again.
“I’m pretty sure someone decided they wanted a white hide on their wall,” he said. “It was right along the highway. All the locals were watching it.”
A search of the Internet shows that albino mule deer have shown up everywhere, from one shot in 1963 by Pete Peterson in Ekalaka to a coveted doe killed and stuffed and hidden in a farmer’s basement in Canada. Albino does showed up in California years ago, while one was more recently seen in a suburb of Boise, Idaho.
Albinism is caused by the mating of two adult deer that both have the recessive gene. A lack of pigment, normally produced by the pituitary gland, makes an albino mule deer’s coat white, eyes appear pinkish or red because the blood vessels show through and its hooves are grayish instead of black.
Some deer are born with white coats, but are not true albinos as they lack the other traits.
Albino deer typically don’t live very long. For one thing, their coat makes them stand out to predators, such as mountain lions. Albinism can also have the side effects of poor eyesight or less sensitive hearing.
Despite these recessive traits, people like to see them because they are unusual. In the 1990s, a Ryegate-area legislator had the state’s hunting law changed in his district to outlaw the shooting of deer that are 75 percent or more white in color, a law that is still on the books.
One area of Wisconsin has an unusually high number of albino whitetail deer, possibly because it is illegal to shoot them and the residents are protective of the unusual animals. In 2008, Michigan lifted its restriction on shooting albino deer.
Neither Houghton, a hunter, nor Bryan, a former hunter, would think of shooting the unusual albinos they photographed.
“I’m not against hunting or anything, but I would never have shot something like that because it’s so darn unique,” Bryan said.
Houghton worries someone may poach the Billings animal if he reveals the albino mule deer’s home territory.
“It might be nice to see it around for a few seasons,” he said.
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.