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LBL fallow deer go from riches to remnants

By Steve Vantreese

The fallow deer, an exotic critter of European origin, has quite a history in the Land Between the Lakes.

After almost a century in the area, the species now is just hanging on. The future seems rather clouded at best.

The fallow deer is a different critter than the native white-tailed deer. At first glance, they're similar. But closer inspection shows that the fallow is a bit stockier, shorter of limb and somewhat more goat-like.

Colors vary, too. The typical fallow runs to a cinnamon red-brown coat on its back, lighter brown on sides and a light underbelly â “ but the back is spotted in white. An adult fallow has the same sort of dappling seen on a whitetail fawn.

Another color feature is black striping that may run from the lower back and rump and, most often, down the tail. This black on the tail is a feature that most easily set fallows apart from whitetails â “ especially when they're moving away.

Other fallows vary to solid colors of buff white, black and chocolaty brown.

Fallow bucks develop palmated (flattened, moose-like) antlers at 3 to 5 years old. A young fallow buck, however, will have spiky antlers more like a young whitetail's.

The Land Between the Lakes inherited a population of fallow deer along with whitetails when the public recreation area was established in 1966. At one time the best guess estimate was that fallows numbered 1,200.

Nowadays, instead of hundreds, only a few dozen remain. Managers believe only about 50 survive in the LBL, most concentrated in the Environmental Education Area, the forest and fields around the Woodlands Nature Center, Empire Point, the wildlife viewing area that once was Empire Farm and up Barnes Hollow.

Fallow deer date back to the importation and release of several animals by the Hillman Land Co. in 1918. Senior LBL wildlife biologist Steve Bloemer notes that the Hillman folks also imported larger European red deer. The red deer apparently didn't adapt well, never flourished and died out in fairly short order.

Bloemer said the fallows took to the area and virtually boomed. Fallows are grazers, whereas whitetails are browsers, he said. Fallows flourish in open areas where they can eat grasses, while whitetails fare better nipping shrubs and branch tips.

With fallows favoring open grasslands, they found ideal circumstances in the Cumberland River bottomland fields on and around Hillman private lands â “ and later, those same grasslands that became part of the Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge.

The major land change that was a forerunner to the very creation of the Land Between the Lakes â “ the impoundment of Lake Barkley in 1966 â “ cast a cloud over the future of the fallow deer population, Bloemer said. Formation of the lake flooded most of the open bottomland fields in which the grass-nipping deer flourished.

Thus, when TVA took over management of the new LBL resources, the best fallow deer habitat already was eliminated and the exotic grazers were forced to move into the uplands and live where more of the acreage was wooded.

Sharing habitat more directly with whitetails, fallow deer were probably already in decline throughout the 1970s and more so in the '80s as whitetails increased.

Fallows can't compete reproductively. That is, fallow does don't typically breed until age 21⁠2 years, while whitetail does start breeding at 11⁠2 years old. Fallows only produce one fawn, while whitetail does usually have twins from their second breeding and thereafter.

Fallow deer aren't as wily, either. Not as spooky as whitetails, they make easier game for hunters and easier prey for predators. Hunting has never been much of a factor in the herd survival. Bowhunting was allowed only in brief quota hunts in prime fallow locations. Fallows now have been prohibited from hunter harvest for decades.

Coyotes may be more of a problem. Since their arrival in the '70s and proliferation in the '80s, the canine predators probably have hit fallows harder than whitetails by taking fawns. The fallows gravitate to open areas most favored by coyotes, and fawn loss is more costly to fallows because they have fewer of them than do whitetails.

Bloemer said poaching still may cost the LBL some of its fallow bucks. The unique antlers of the older bucks and fallows' willingness to graze in the open may tempt some illegal taking by opportunistic trophy thieves, he said.

However, Bloemer said annual survey work indicates that fallows, while a shadow of their former numbers, nowadays have stabilized. For the past few years, at least, they seem to have held their own, he said.

The LBL now has even less open habitat than it once did. Trees growing back into former cleared areas have reduced LBL open lands from about 18 percent of its 170,000 acres to only 7-8 percent, Bloemer said. But managers have vowed to keep that reduced acreage open to benefit the wildlife types that need it.

Perhaps the nowadays-miniaturized fallow population has adapted to its reduced prime habitat. Maybe the LBL's exotic deer have settled into a niche into which they can sustain themselves. After nearly 100 years, maybe that's what it's come to. A few more years may tell.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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