Oh, deer

Ravalli County bucks found with startling malformations


At first, the deer was just another carcass in her husband’s truck, one of many road-killed animals brought home to nourish the turkey vultures at Judy Hoy’s wildlife rehabilitation facility south of Stevensville.

Knife in hand, Hoy flipped the buck over to slice off his testes. Hoy’s carnivorous birds prefer this particular part of the deer, and hundreds of road-killed males arriving at her facility had faced similar treatment. But as soon as she rolled the dead buck out of the truck, Hoy noticed he had no scrotum. Testes, yes; scrotum, no.

Moving in closer, Hoy saw the deer’s teeth also stuck out oddly and failed to align correctly. The other two road-killed deer in the truck had similar malformations.

“They looked like female deer, but with a penis,” says Hoy of her discovery 12 years ago.

Hoy, 68, has continued documenting a pattern of malformed grazing animals—including elk, goats and horses—ever since. While not a trained scientist, she’s compiled statistics of road-killed deer and other herbivores, and found that Ravalli County’s population is deformed far beyond the expected variance. Specifically, one in four of the 600 white tail bucks she’s examined suffered from genital abnormalities. 

After years of having her work largely marginalized by local officials or professionals in the science community—Hoy admits she’s been labeled “crazy” by some—her work recently caught the attention of Diane Henshel, a researcher at the University of Indiana. Henshel is particularly interested in pinpointing the cause of the abnormalities, which are believed to be the result of airborne chemicals sprayed on crops in other states. 

“It’s quite clear the abnormalities are real,” says Henshel, “and the abnormal genitalia are not within the normal range of things that might happen just from background

Henshel studies pollutants and how they affect the development of organisms, primarily in utero, and was interested in scrutinizing Hoy’s research. After an initial visit in 2007, she recruited two graduate students to further the study, and that research continues today.

That’s a long way from where Hoy started in 1996. Her husband, Bob, worked as a game warden for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) at the time and would lug Ravalli County road kill home to feed injured or orphaned carnivores in Hoy’s care. This left Hoy with a large cross section to find and document abnormalities.

“Bob used to pick up a whole pickup load between here and Stevensville,” she says.

Hoy discovered a startling pattern of variances, first in male genitalia, and later in both sexes’ jaw and skull bones. This “prognathism,” or underbite, indicates a disruption in embryonic development, she says.

The culprit, according to Hoy, is likely the fungicide chlorothalonil, which is sprayed on potato farms in Idaho, Oregon and California, and wafts into Montana. Hoy points to a massive increase in the chemical’s use from 1994–1996. Twelve million pounds were sprayed in the United States in 1997, the latest figures available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hoy believes that chlorothalonil and its byproducts piggyback on air currents into Montana before being ingested by herbivores.

In 1998 she performed a test to prove it. After placing pans outside before a snowfall, Hoy sent the melt water to a lab in Billings. Hoy says the lab found both chlorothalonil and hexachlorobenzene (a known carcinogen) in the water. According to the EPA, these chemicals have displayed profound effects on regulatory hormones and thyroid function. Hoy is concerned that when combined with other airborne chemicals, the effects on animal health are compounded.

Henshel and Hoy agree that humans are also likely affected. Hoy has assembled numerous charts linking the chemicals to premature births and diabetes in humans, although Henshel was unsuccessful at securing human malformation data from local or state officials.

“I had a hard time finding anyone who would be cooperative by providing human data,” Henshel says. “It’s just hard in Montana.” The Ravalli County Health Department did not return calls seeking comment for this report.

Keeping game animals healthy is serious business in Montana, and FWP says it’s aware of Hoy’s research. In fact, Neil Anderson, the head of the agency’s wildlife laboratory in Bozeman, investigated the malformations two years ago. He determined that no pattern existed, publishing a report recommending against further study by the state.

“We get lots of calls about abnormalities in deer and elk, and they’re pretty well explained in the literature,” says Mike Thompson, an FWP wildlife manager covering western Montana. “I don’t dismiss out of hand what [Hoy] says, it just doesn’t play out at the population level.”

Anderson adds that he respects Hoy’s dedication to the issue, but simply can’t confirm her findings.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions, and I don’t necessarily think she’s nuts,” says Anderson. “I actually kind of admire her passion and her persistence, but I just can’t necessarily agree with her assessment.”

That assessment doesn’t surprise Henshel.

“They don’t like to listen to Judy, and Judy’s right,” she says. “She’s not at all crazy, she’s not a crank, and she should have received her Ph.D. a long time ago.”

While Thompson says he agrees with Anderson’s 2006 report, he also says FWP will look further into white tail deer abnormalities this coming hunting season at the Bonner Check Station.

“We’ve already got their mouths open,” he says. “We can take a look.”

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