MOAB — Residents in southeastern Utah quickly fell in love with an extremely rare melanistic mule deer that frolicked through their yards and around town over the past three years or so. They would go on to playfully name him “Coal” for his extremely rare dark coat.
Coal first appeared in town as a fawn in 2016, said Moab resident Sherrie Costanza.
“Everybody would see him. He’d pop up in people’s yards,” she said, adding that residents were quick to upload pictures of Coal online once he appeared.
It's difficult to quantify how rare melanistic mule deer are. Outdoor news outlet Wide Open Spaces reported there had only been sightings of a rare melanistic deer in 29 states as of 2018. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources conservation officer Adam Wallerstein estimates only 1 in about 2 million mule deer have the same coat complexion, which is created by an overproduction of the pigment melanin — that’s even rarer than an albino or piebald mule deer. Wallerstein said he had never even heard of a melanistic mule deer until Coal came around.
Coal quickly turned into a local wildlife celebrity.
“He became kind of a pillar of the community. A lot of people enjoyed watching him,” Wallerstein said. “People tolerated him eating their vegetables and getting into their gardens. It was a neat thing. There was never anything negative about him.”
However, on Dec. 17, a resident reported to the DWR that they had found Coal dead in their backyard. There was no sign of trauma. Wallerstein said the deer appeared frail and wasn’t very heavy for a 3 1/2-year-old buck. The cause of his death remains unknown; test results for chronic wasting disease are expected to be given to the DWR in the coming weeks.
Work is now being done to preserve the rare deer so that Coal will be a permanent fixture in the community. Moab residents banded together to raise $650 to have Coal sent to a taxidermy specialist, Costanza said. She and her husband, Clint, gathered residents together to fund the project.
He became kind of a pillar of the community. A lot of people enjoyed watching him.
–Utah Division of Wildlife Resources conservation officer Adam Wallerstein, talking about Coal the deer
The goal to preserve the rare deer’s legacy began shortly after Coal was found dead. The Costanzas had good connections with a taxidermy specialist named Darryl Powell in Grand Junction, Colorado. Wallerstein contacted the Costanzas after the deer was caped to see if there was a way to get the deer mounted and preserved, Sherrie Costanza said. They set up a Facebook page to seek donations and within three days had received enough funding from a little more than a dozen residents or businesses in the area.
Powell, who owns and operates Darryl’s Taxidermy, received Coal a few weeks ago. He told KSL.com he had never heard of the deer before talking with the Costanzas but the deer’s hide was kept in good enough condition that he believed it would be suitable for the taxidermy process.
Given his caseload, Powell said an animal may go more than a year before that process is complete. But he decided to expedite the process because of what it meant for people in Moab.
Powell opened his business 33 years ago and has worked in the taxidermy industry for 40 years, where he has dealt with animals in all shapes, sizes and even in rarity. During that time, he had never seen an animal as unique as Coal.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen anything like that. No one else (I've talked to) has seen anything like that in the wild. So, at this point, it’s quite a privilege and honor to be able to do this. It will be a feather in my hat,” Powell said.
He’s begun the process of taxidermy and will soon send Coal to a tannery. Powell expects to receive the deer hide back in a few months. He believes it might be ready to be mounted as early as this spring.
Powell added that his Facebook post about Coal on Sunday has already gained the biggest response he’s ever received on a project since the page was set up a few years ago. He’s also planning to provide Moab residents updates on Coal's taxidermy status through his company's Facebook page.
“(The) pressure’s on me, though,” he said with a laugh when bringing up how popular he's found Coal to be. “It’s gotta be good — can’t be cross-sighted.”
Once the taxidermy process is complete, Sherrie Costanza said there has been discussion to place Coal either in the city’s library or museum. If not there, Wallerstein said the deer could be sent to be displayed at the city’s visitors center.
While there isn’t a definite display location set, Sherrie Costanza called the ability to preserve the town’s popular critter “an amazing opportunity.” Wallerstein added he is also happy that Coal will be preserved for the community.
“It will be somewhere where the members of the community can go in and see him anytime they want,” he said.