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Downtown 'mascot' killed

by Phil Johnson
| September 20, 2013 11:40 AM

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<p>First Montana Bank's Jackson Garrison spotted this buck atop a car last Wednesday, July 3. The vantage point was good for attaining those hard to reach apples.</p>

More than a year ago, people around town noticed a particularly friendly and majestic mule-deer buck. Residents took pictures and closely followed the deer’s exploits. Oftentimes, the buck liked to pick apples from the tree behind Gene’s Body Shop. Sometimes, he stood on cars for a boost to higher hanging fruit.   

This year, as the buck’s five-point rack blossomed, a town bank manager noticed the friendly buck at the beginning of what became daily visits to his business. He named him Spanky. The moniker stuck and spread through town.

But now Spanky is dead.

The loss of a budding town mascot and local celebrity has shaken the community to its core. Children learning of the loss have cried. Wednesday morning radio news talk became mourning news talk as word traveled like it only can in a small town. The reaction was mixed, mostly sadness sprinkled with bits of anger. 

Spanky met his demise during dusk Monday in a vacant lot downtown by the train tracks. Game Warden Tamie Laverdure, her heart split between duty and desire to save the animal, pulled the trigger once and downed the deer as humanely and safely as she knew how, a shot through the head. 

For all the joy Spanky brought to town, there was another side to the wild animal’s presence. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks began receiving complaints in early summer. Many concerned the deer’s appetite for the flowers ladies spent weeks growing and grooming in their yards. A few others concerned Spanky rubbing his velvet on cars, leaving scratches. One person reported a torn screen door. Resident sentiment on these concerns range between silly and the kind of nuisance one comes to expect, even embrace, in Libby.   

Some people—perhaps none more than Laverdure—see the passing of Spanky as a shot through the heart of exactly what makes Libby and towns like it so alluring: the rare chance to live so intimately close with nature. 

“It tears me up,” a distraught Laverdure said Tuesday. “But last week we received a report that I have to take seriously.”

In review, Spanky’s gravest crime may have been growing too comfortable in the town that raised him. Returning home late one night, a Libby woman, who also owns property in Washington, found Spanky resting directly in front of her front door. Unresponsive to animated shoos, Spanky finally budged when struck with a rock. According to the woman’s report, the buck stepped toward her in an aggressive manner. The woman fled and filed the complaint, along with her husband. 

That event set off a series of meetings between Laverdure and her higher-ups. Concerns were raised over the potential of a habituated buck getting aggressive and injuring a pet or person during mating season, commonly known as the rut.

After three years in Libby, there was no future left for the beloved mule deer. 

Not to say Laverdure did not push for alternatives. She wanted to transport Spanky—tranquilize him and introduce him to a wild herd five miles outside town. But strict, no-exceptions rules prohibit such maneuvers. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks see the potential transmission of chronic wasting disease to area deer as too great a risk. To be clear, there has never been a documented case of the scarcely understood disease in the state. Wardens and biologists intend to keep it that way. Faced between the loss of one deer and the potential contamination of an entire year’s hunting population, Laverdure’s superiors instructed her to play it safe. 

But still, Libby residents wish things could have gone differently.

“My butt’s on fire about this,” longtime Libby taxidermist Gerry Mercer said. “I think they should have trapped, collared and moved him. They do that with plenty of animals. And now, one case of aggression, and he can’t get a chance elsewhere?”

Laverdure confirmed her agency employs a case-by-case basis when considering habituated animals. Before dispatching Spanky, several attempts had been made to haze the buck out of town.

Laverdure, along with an intern, sprayed the buck with bear pepper spray from close range. A separate time she tried chasing the deer out of town with her vehicle, only to have him double back. 

Laverdure gave out three cans of bear pepper spray following incidents with the buck. 

Libby police received rubber shot last Friday with the recommendation of striking the buck. Those shots were never fired as Libby police never saw Spanky.

“The whole thing was a surprise,” Libby Police Chief Jim Smith said. “We had never received a complaint about him.”

Like many in Libby, Chief Smith said he was a bit upset about Spanky’s death. However, most can agree it was misguided humans—not bureaucracy or overly aggressive laws—that killed Spanky.

The saying “A fed bear is a dead bear” relates well. Spanky did not fear humans for good reason. Hand-feeding a deer is illegal and can draw a $135 fine. Laverdure says she has written a couple fines this year. However, those can only be given following a warning, of which she has issued several dozen.

Looking back, Laverdure sees nothing that could have prevented this outcome, mentioning the same choice would have been made had Spanky been a doe. She noted people need to remember how to enjoy wildlife responsibly.

“These are wild animals,” Laverdure said. “People need to report others for feeding animals and discourage such behavior.”

Business owner Christi Ellwood said it would be a shame for Libby to lose its unique relationship with wildlife.

“I remember a TV show called ‘Northern Exposure,’” Ellwood said. “Libby is like that with animals walking around town. I think they are a representative totem of how Montanans are: independent and free.”

Mercer, the taxidermist and active hunter, can recall several occasions when he has been challenged by wildlife.

“I’ve been chased by moose, mule deer, even does protecting their fawns,” Mercer said. “It’s a cool part of living here. One time Jon Obst, the old game warden and now warden sergeant, and I went out and shot an aggressive bull moose with 10 rubber bullets. That animal decided he didn’t want to live here anymore. Jon is a good friend, but I really think they blew it on this one.”

Mayor Doug Roll acknowledged resident’s concern.

“Deer are cute and nice, but they can also be a safety concern,” Roll said. “I told Fish and Parks it was up to them how to handle it.”

Spanky’s meat has been donated to the Libby Food Bank. Chronic wasting disease is not a concern for human consumption. Duane Rhodes of Montana Skull Works has volunteered to treat Spanky’s antlers, with plans to display them prominently. 

“We are probably being overly cautious,” Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist Alan Wood said, summarizing the feelings of many involved. “But the concern is too great.”

Mercer fears changes to his town. 

“People move out here and don’t like deer, elk and mountain lions in their yard. They try to make changes to make Libby more like where they came from. That’s just part of living here.”

The loss of one buck does not change that. But this buck, Spanky, was more than a single mule deer. Perhaps he can lead to greater research methods into chronic wasting disease—the only good tests come from dead animals. Maybe residents will be more aware of the perils of feeding wild animals. Either way, that gorgeous, gregarious buck will be missed.