Each spring, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks receives several calls from people who have picked up deer fawns or other wildlife.
According to FWP Region 7 Warden Ryan Karren, a California couple traveling through the area this weekend saw a new fawn off the road and stopped and picked it up. They transported the fawn in their vehicle for about two hours on the woman’s lap.
“Mother had abandoned it, and it was starving,” the couple told Karren.
FWP no longer accepts, holds or rehabilitates deer and elk because the animals rarely survive the stress of captivity, and because of concerns with the spread of disease. So Karren had the couple return the fawn to where they found it, but he doesn’t know what happened to the animal.
“I am sure it was stressing out,” he said of the fawn, which he estimated to be a day or two old. “It most likely did not survive the stress.”
“People mean well,” Karren said, “and they never like it when you tell them that they have actually most likely killed the animal versus saved it.”
Unfortunately, this is just one of many cases in which good intentions can lead to dire consequences.
One spring in Miles City, a person saw a fledgling bald eagle hopping around on the ground, which is normal behavior as they learn to fly. Thinking the bird was injured, the person threw a blanket over it and brought it to the FWP office. The eagle escaped and flew in the opposite direction of the nest, and it’s not known if it returned.
In a more high-profile case in Yellowstone National Park last spring, a bison calf was picked up and transported by tourists who believed it had been abandoned. The calf ultimately had to be euthanized because it couldn’t be reunited with the herd and continued to approach people and vehicles.
If You Care, Leave It There
To prevent outcomes like this, FWP emphasizes that all wildlife species and their young should be left in the wild. If you see a young animal alone or injured, whether a goose or a grizzly, keep your distance. It is illegal to possess and care for a live animal taken from the wild.
Animals often thrive without our intervention, and their odds of surviving in the wild are much greater if they are left alone. Once young animals are picked up by people, they usually can’t be rehabilitated. They may be abandoned by adult animals once human scent is transferred to them. People handling wildlife also may injure themselves or the animal, or habituate it to humans, potentially causing problems if the animal is released back into the wild.
It’s natural for deer, elk and other animals to leave their young alone for extended periods of time. What appears to be an orphaned animal may not be, but chances are the mother will not return while humans are present. Fawns are seldom orphaned, but if they are, another doe may add them to the group. In 8-10 days, a fawn will have the appropriate gut flora and can survive on its own by nibbling grass. Young fawns have no body odor, which lessens their appeal to predators. Their spots also help to camouflage them while their mothers stash them to feed.
If you have dogs, please be careful to keep your dog under control, especially in the spring when newborn wildlife is most vulnerable. Pet owners can be cited and dogs that harass or kill wildlife may by law have to be destroyed.
What FWP Can Do
If an animal truly needs rehabilitation and can be helped, FWP does have a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Helena. But an intake policy governs what animals are permitted, and space and staff are limited. Again, because of disease and stress, the center does not accept any ungulates. Should someone bring a deer or elk to FWP, they will be asked to take the animal back to the site where it was found. If the animal can't be returned, it may have to be humanely euthanized.
The center also does not take animals considered rabies vectors, such as raccoons, bats or foxes. Some raptors are accepted, but game species like geese and ducks are not. The center takes orphaned bears and mountain lions, but grizzlies and mountain lions cannot be released into the wild and options are limited.
If you see what you think is an injured or solitary young animal in the wild, keep your distance and monitor the animal. If you have questions, you can call FWP Region 7 headquarters at 406-234-0900 or FWP’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at 406-444-9944. As a wildlife agency, FWP’s priority is to keep wild animals wild, and we urge the public to help us in this mission.