WALHALLA, N.D. - Jim Brown had seen the two bucks on his trail camera near Walhalla, N.D., earlier in the fall, but then they stopped showing up.
That all changed one day in December when Brown, a Walhalla contractor, checked the card on his Cuddyback trail camera.
What he saw only can be described as a spectacle of nature: One buck entangled with the rack of another buck whose body is severed from its head.
The antlers and severed head hang from the rack of the living buck.
"I believe I had both of those bucks alive in one (earlier) picture," Brown said. "Then all of a sudden that one, that's how he showed up. I didn't see him as he was dragging the body around. I only ever saw him with what was left of the other one."
The buck stayed in the area, dragging the severed head of its sparring foe, for a couple of weeks.
Brown said he even tried to get the deer with a bow, but most of the time the buck would show up at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., based on the timestamp on the trail camera. The one afternoon Brown didn't hunt - of course - the buck showed up about 4:45 p.m.
The buck disappeared after the late December cold snap.
"I don't know where he went," Brown said. "He didn't look very good. On the pictures, he looked skinny, and I'm sure he wasn't eating very well. And then we got the cold temperatures, and nobody saw him again after that. I'm sure he probably died."
Trail cam contest
Brown sent two of the daylight trail cam photos, time-stamped Dec. 21, to Cuddyback earlier this week as part of a contest the company is sponsoring, and the photos have garnered widespread interest on social media.
Some people have speculated the photos were altered with Photoshop or a similar editing program, but Brown says that's definitely not the case.
"I'm not on Facebook and all of that - I don't get into that very much," he said. "There's always speculation on everything, but I have several other pictures to prove otherwise. It's not Photoshopped. I don't even know how to do that."
Bucks commonly fight during the fall rut, or breeding season, as they spar over mates and occasionally become entangled by the antlers, but how the head of the one buck could be cleanly severed from its body is open to speculation.
"My guess is that if you're dragging around like that, you fight with it, fight with it and it twists and turns," Brown said. "My guess is he ripped it off. I can't imagine the coyotes got him and not the one that was alive because they'll take down a full deer no problem. Especially if he was stressed out like that.
"I personally think he just broke (the head) off himself, but who knows?"
Ideas and questions
Bill Jensen, a big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, agrees with Brown's assessment that coyotes would have killed both deer.
"I honestly don't know what to say," Jensen said after seeing the photos.
It's possible the living buck attacked a scavenged deer carcass and became entangled with the antlers that way, Jensen said. If the buck survived, it will drop its antlers, an annual process that happens even sooner for deer under stress.
"Once his physical condition deteriorates he will drop his antlers and be rid of the other head," Jensen said.
Randy Dufault of East Grand Forks, a longtime hunter and certified measurer for Minnesota Official Measurers, says he's seen bucks become entangled, but normally one of the bucks dies in battle. The other buck paws and drags the head until it eventually separates from the carcass.
Normally, though, there's not a clean cut separating the head from the rest of the body as there is in this case, Dufault says.
That makes him wonder, he said.
"I'm not sure because normally, it's all torn, and the spine is dangling," Dufault said.
Jay Boulanger, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology and human dimensions at UND and an experienced deer hunter, also questioned the clean cut that severed the buck's head from its body.
"This was not likely done by predators," Boulanger said in an email. "Coyotes, for example, may have torn at the flesh more, and would have likely gone for the other buck too."
Instead, Boulanger theorizes "human sources" as a more likely possibility, given the uniformity of the cut.
Perhaps, he said, a single strand fence or some other type of sharp wire severed the buck's head. The surviving buck may have worked the head loose if the other buck's head was wrapped or caught in some kind of wire.
Human intervention also is a possibility, Boulanger said.
"It could be someone happened upon the two bucks and saw that the surviving one was exhausted and relatively harmless," Boulanger said. "That person could have used a knife to cut the head off of the dead buck. YouTube has lots of videos of humans cutting the antlers off of tangled bucks."
Like Jensen of Game and Fish, Boulanger said it's conceivable a rutting buck could attack a dead buck.
"I have not heard of this happening as much, but I did see a YouTube video of a hunter killing a buck during the rut and watching another rutting buck come in and attack the dead deer," Boulanger said.
We'll probably never know how the bucks became entangled and how the one literally lost its head, but as with many mysteries in the Great Outdoors, it certainly makes for some lively discussion.
Brown says he plans to look for the entangled bucks - or shed antlers, in the off-chance the living buck survived long enough to shed them.
"I haven't seen him, so I'm sure he's dead," Brown said. "I'll just have to get out and go look; I haven't had a chance to go look for him. I'm hoping I can find him or one of us will find him. Somebody, I'm sure, will find him."