Anyone who is awed by natural beauty knows there is no shortage of it in Moab. There are natural bridges, bike trails and rivers. There is only one Delicate Arch, only one Slickrock Trail and only one Cataract Canyon.
And there was only one black buck in Moab, a one-in-a-million phenomenon, according to Adam Wallerstein, a conservation officer with the Division of Wildlife Resources and Moab resident.
The deer, known by many as Cole, Coal, Charcoal or some variation thereof, had fur of a darker tint than its kin in the valley. The rare condition, also called melanism, is caused by excessive production of melanin. It directly contrasts with albinism, which is the congenital absence of pigment.
The black deer died of natural causes last week, leaving many people sad about its fate.
Although albinism and piebald patching – the pattern that appears on the archetypical Holstein cow – are extremely rare in deer, melanism is even less common, according to the Division of Wildlife Resources, which has published various footages of Moab’s black deer over the years.
One video of the black buck, sent when it was a baby in August 2016, showed the deer stuck on the opposite side of a fence from its mother at the Center Street ball fields. Clint Costanza, who captured the video, recorded the two as he corralled them toward one of the gates to reunite. The video ends with the black deer prancing away toward Center Street next to its mother.
Since that time, Moabites have snapped videos and photographs of the deer grazing in backyards, relaxing next to Mill Creek, trying to mate in the middle of the road, and more. The one-of-a-kind animal has developed a close following in Moab, which makes its recent death particularly poignant for many in town.
“We loved that deer,” said Allison VanLonkhuyzen, whose backyard was a common resting spot of the black browser.
VanLonkhuyzen and her partner Sheri Simmons have photos from 2016 and onward of the deer, resting under a tree next to their house, a favorite spot for it since following its mother to the couple’s backyard as a fawn. Since that summer, the black buck had returned season after season, sometimes day after day, to rest and relax under the walnut tree.
“We wondered why he always comes back to our place,” Simmons said. “There’s an area where he always came and sat in the shade, and he seemed to be super comfortable there. Maybe he did that to everyone else; I don’t know.”
VanLonkhuyzen and Simmons called the dear Blacky, but around town, they heard many different names for it. “I think everyone had their own unique experience of that black deer,” VanLonkhuyzen said.
Simmons described it as “particularly at ease for a male deer,” adding that it came across as “kind of awkward.” She added with a laugh, “My sister came to visit, and she said, ‘I feel like that deer always needs a hug.’”
VanLonkhuyzen said she and Simmons sometimes pour some water for the many deer that visit their yard. They sit still so as not to spook them, and wait for the creatures to walk up and drink, although, she said, she has been careful never to feed or touch them.
“I mean, obviously, they’re comfortable and townie deer, but we want to keep them as wild as possible,” VanLonkhuyzen, who works for the National Parks Service, said.
Last week, Blacky as they called it, after a life of piquing the imagination of the many locals who saw, photographed and videotaped it over the years, made Simmons’ and VanLonkhuyzen’s backyard – its favorite spot underneath the walnut tree – its final resting place.
VanLonkhuyzen said she and Simmons saw the little buck come to their yard Monday evening, Dec. 16, as twilight fell on Moab. She noticed a sore near the deer’s nose, and said it seemed weaker and thinner than usual. It also walked with a posture that seemed to suggest that it was unwell.
In the morning, she and Simmons woke to find the deer had passed away in their backyard. After calling Wallerstein to remove the body, the two used leaves and walnuts to build a small monument to the animal.
Wallerstein said that a necropsy on the deer showed no discernible cause of death and that test results in about a month might show chronic wasting disease, which the National Wildlife Health Survey has identified in wild deer, elk and moose populations in Grand County, San Juan County and several other counties in and around Colorado and Wyoming.
Regardless of how it died, VanLonkhuyzen, Simmons and Wallerstein all expressed amazement and relief that it died a natural death rather than being killed during hunting season or car collision. The Division of Wildlife Resources now has the deer’s remains, and a fund opened in the deer’s name at Desert Rivers Credit Union, Moab’s Melanistic Deer, is accepting public donations to fund the taxidermy of the deer.
A representative with Desert Rivers told The Times-Independent that the fund will remain open until at least $650 has been deposited. The fund was at $105 prior to the publication of this story. Once the taxidermy is funded, Moab’s melanistic deer will be put on a shoulder mount and donated for public display.