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‘It’s pretty unique:’ Rare Piebald deer spotted in South Dakota

White patches a result of partial albinism, GFP official says

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Mitchell, South Dakota, resident Fred Bailey spotted a rare Piebald deer near North Ohlman Street in Mitchell Monday afternoon.
Photo Courtesy of Fred Bailey
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MITCHELL, S.D. — Fred Bailey thought the multi-colored deer he spotted earlier this week in southeastern South Dakota was a decoy.

And then it moved.

“It was on North Ohlman almost to Lake Mitchell. It was in a shelterbelt, and I drove by it and thought it was a decoy when it was standing sideways like that,” Bailey told the Mitchell Republic. “I had to back up to take the picture because I didn’t think it was real. (But) it was that close to town.”

The deer Bailey spotted appears to be a rare Piebald white-tailed deer, which is distinguished from typical white-tailed deer by patches of white intermixed with the traditional brown-tinted hair. Bailey snapped two photos of the animal, which appeared to be in the company of another deer that looks to sport the typical hide color.

Though he couldn’t confirm for certain, he said it appeared to be a white-tailed doe, except for the unusual coloring.

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“I’m pretty sure it’s a white-tail because when it turned and trotted off — I’ve seen a lot of them over the years and it’s definitely a white-tailed, not a mule deer or anything like that,” Bailey said.

Bailey, who lives just outside of Mitchell, is a native of Bonesteel, South Dakota, who grew up on a farm. Now 68, he used to hunt deer in his younger days, but he estimates he hasn’t been out to harvest one since the early 1980s. But he knows what typical deer look like, and the one captured in his photos was the first of its kind he had ever seen.

He polled his friends about it, as well, and they all said they had never seen one quite like it.

“I talked to a lot of guys at coffee, I’m retired myself, and I probably talked to 20 or 30 people who were avid hunters and they’ve never seen anything like that. So it’s pretty unique,” Bailey said.

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Mitchell resident Fred Bailey spotted a rare Piebald deer Monday afternoon near North Ohlman Street in Mitchell.
Photo Courtesy of Fred Bailey

The color variation on a Piebald deer comes from genetics and is considered a partial albinism. Some sources suggest that it occurs in about 1 to 2% of white-tails, though some believe they are even more rare than that.

The color difference has no effect on the health of the deer, and they are legal to hunt, according to Jeremy Roe, a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks conservation officer regional supervisor out of Sioux Falls.

Roe agreed with Bailey and his friends that Piebald deer are a rare sight.

“It is obviously very rare. We don’t see very many,” Roe, who was deer hunting in West River when reached by phone, told the Mitchell Republic. “We’ll see some white spots and some unique stuff, but not the big white patches that you see on TV or in magazines.”

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In fact, Roe struggled to come up with another recent known sighting, although he admits sightings likely do happen and simply aren’t reported.

“It’s been years. I want to say we saw a picture of one five or six years ago that made it online, but I don’t even know if that one was confirmed,” Roe said.

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Piebald deer have unique coloring due to partial albinism. It is estimated that less than 2% of deer have the characteristic. Pictured are Piebald deer running on the campus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in 2002.
Photo Courtesy United States Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

While Piebald deer are legal to hunt, Roe said some hunters may be hesitant to shoot them because they’re unsure of the legality of the matter. If they are aware that it is legal to shoot them, some may be highly inclined to bag one because they are so uncommon.

One such deer was taken as recently 2014 in Perham, Minnesota.

“I’m sure there are guys that would be a little hesitant to shoot them. I would imagine that if they knew it were legal they would want it, just because it’s something unique,” Roe said.

Nick Schrag, of Freeman, South Dakota, has been deer hunting since he was 12 and holds the unique distinction of having shot what was, at the time, the ninth-largest deer ever taken in South Dakota when he was 13 years old. Now 39, he said in all his years of deer hunting since then, he had never seen an example like the one in Bailey’s photos.

“That is extremely rare. I’ve never seen an albino deer, never seen any of those things. I just know of their existence,” Schrag said.

He said in his younger days, he would have likely jumped at the chance to take a Piebald or albino deer. But as he has gotten older, his perspective on what deer he takes has changed somewhat.

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“It would be like one of those moments when you see a monster buck or the old 30-pointer. I guarantee when I was in my teens, if you would have asked at the ages of 12 to 27, I would have told you that I would have taken that deer. If I saw something that weird. It’s like a trophy,” Schrag said. “(Now), if it was that special a deer, I wouldn’t even take it. I need to let that specimen go. It’s such a unique thing to see.”

South Dakota’s regular deer season began Nov. 12 in West River and Nov. 19 in East River, and Roe said the season so far has gone smoothly.

“Our East River season has been really good, we’ve seen a lot of success. A lot of guys are shooting really nice mature deer this year,” Roe said. “West River seems to be a little slower for guys. I’m not sure if the weather was a little tougher that first weekend, but we’ve seen a lot of deer (Friday) morning. There are definitely still a bunch around.”

West River deer season ends Nov. 27 while the East River season ends Dec. 4.

It’s not likely many hunters this season will run into an example like the one Bailey spotted on North Ohlman in Mitchell on Monday afternoon, and Bailey said he hasn’t seen the one he took pictures of since it bounded off to parts unknown.

But he’s keeping his eye out for it and ready to grab more photos if it does show up again.

“I’ve been by there twice since Monday and (it’s) not there anymore,” Bailey said. “I get tired of sitting around at home this time of year. I don’t have much activity to do on the yard, so I go for a drive quite often. I kind of keep my eye out.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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