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Mule Deer (Odocoileus Hemionus)

Mule Deer - Images by Daryl Hunter

Big buck, Grand Teton National Park
Big buck, Grand Teton National Park

Mule Deer (Odocoileus Hemionus) can be found throughout the entire western United States, including the deserts of the American Southwest, Mule deer have large ears that move constantly and independently, as do mules, hence the name, "Mule Deer." The Greater Yellowstone hosts a prodigious population of Mule Deer and they are a great benefit for the economy, both as photographers fodder and for hunting.

Mule deer can thrive nearly anywhere; their habitats include woodland chaparral, Sonoran desert, semi-desert, shrub woodland, Great Plains grasslands, shrub land forest, sagebrush steppe, and boreal forest. Mule deer are remarkably adaptable.

This stocky deer has sturdy legs and is 4 to 6-1/2 feet in length and 3 to 3-1/2 feet high at the shoulder. Most Mule deer are brown or gray in color with a small white rump patch and a small, black-tipped tail. Mule deer their fawns have white spots at birth. Buck deer have antlers that start growth in spring and are shed around December, these antlers are high and branch forward and reach a spread up to 4 feet in width bucks are larger than does. The life span of a mule deer in the wild is 10 years, but mule deer have lived for up to 25 years in captivity. Common predators of mule deer include mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, golden eagles, and black bears.

Trophy Mule Deer and doe, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Trophy Mule Deer romancing a doe during the rut

Mountain mule deer migrate seasonally from the higher elevations of the sub-alpine forests they inhabit during summer to lower elevations of the mountain valleys and desert lowlands. Deer prefer rocky windswept buttes where it is easier for them to find food during the winter and that provide escape from predators as needed. The mule deer of the arid southwest may migrate in response to rainfall patterns and a mule deer’s large feet have evolved to enable them to dig for water as much as two feet deep. Mule deer tend to confine their daily movements to their home ranges. Most mule deer use the same winter and summer home ranges in consecutive years

A Mule deer’s social systems consist of herds of does related by maternal descent and bucks that mix with the does only in fall and winter. During winter and spring, dominance hierarchies maintain the stability of female herds and small male groups. If deer population densities increase, play among fawns decrease and strife and alarm behavior increases in the adults. In the spring, the wintering group breaks up, the does go off by themselves and give birth and nurse rear their fawns; Bucks wander in friendly small buddy packs throughout the summer months as their antlers grow so they can fight one another in the fall.

Dominance of a buck is largely a function of his size, the larger a buck’s, antlers, the better his chances are of winning the acceptance of does and fighting off his challengers. Genetics, nutrition and age have much to do with antler size. During spring and summer antlers are grow at an awesome rate, large bucks attain growth rates of up to a quarter of an inch per day. Mule deer breed in late fall at which time bucks round up females and fight for their right to keep them. Doe's begin to come into heat in November and bucks are naturally drawn to the does at this time. Many bucks are willing to fight to the death over breeding rights with a doe. After the breeding season from mid-January to about mid-April a buck sheds his antlers.

two big bucks, Jackson Hole Wyoming
A couple of nice Jackson Hole bucks

A mule deer’s diet is quite varied, muleys are browsers and in spring and summer they feeds on grasses, weeds, and herbs and eat a great variety of vegetable matter, including fresh green leaves, twigs, lower branches of trees, and grasses. As are most hoofed animals (ungulates) mule deer are active in mornings, evenings and during the middle of the day mule deer bed down in a secluded and safe place. Mule deer like the cow have a multi-part stomach, the first two chambers of which act as temporary storage bins. Food stored in these storage bins can be digested later when the deer chews its cud.

Mule deer have several strategies for avoiding predators, they specializes in detecting danger at a very long range by means their large ears and excellent vision. Males can quickly detect and visually track another animal as far as 600 yards away. While unable to detect motionless objects mule deer are extraordinarily sensitive to moving objects. When startled, a Mule deer will move in a series of jumps with all four feet hitting the ground together. They do not run as other deer, their distinctive bounding leap that can launch them distances of up to 20 plus feet, they can reach a speed of 45 m.p.h. for short periods doing their leaps. When necessary, they can turn or completely reverse direction in the course of a single leap. Their leap offers two advantages: it enables the deer to out-distance predators in rough terrain, and mid-leap they can see above the thick brush.

big buck, Jackson Hole Wyoming
A trophy buck sneaks a peak at photographer

Wildlife management agencies and hunters recognize the need to maintain mule deer ranges and keep them habitable and productive so most western states have purchased critical game areas, especially winter ranges, to help maintain healthy populations of this valuable resource. Many wind swept slopes are closed to access during the winter to protect mule deer during the trying times of winter. Due to a scarcity of funds and political opposition to government buying privately owned lands, the government has acquired only a small fraction of mule deer range.

Hunting Mule Deer

Many in America don’t appreciate hunting or hunters, they don’t seem to be able to comprehend that hunters are some of the biggest conservationists in the world. Hunters work overtime protecting their resource. Hunting conservation organizations like the Mule Deer Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation pick up some of the government’s lack of ability. Although mule deer were not the targets of all these private conservation /hunting groups they are still beneficiaries of these elk/duck habitat acquisitions.

Mule Deer are one the most exciting and beautiful big game animals in the world. Large mule deer bucks are very crafty and are a challenging hunt. Hunting generates hundreds of millions of dollars and maybe billions in revenue for the economy of the west and is a valuable asset for hunting communities. Mule deer are also an asset to the thousands of people in cities that manufacture hunting and camping products.

two big bucks sparing, Jackson Hole Wyoming
A couple of bucks doing a little sparing before the rut

Southeastern Idaho and western Wyoming are both famous for producing big mule deer bucks. Most early hunting expeditions were by pack train to the fabulous backcountry and today’s hunts remain quite the same. For many this remains part of the attraction, to saddle up the horses and load up the packhorses and mules and setting out for hunting camp high in the mountains. Many outfitters in the Greater Yellowstone region hunt this old time style, with packhorses and tent frame camps because this is still the most efficient way to get to the remote areas where the hunting is best. Many bighorn sheep and elk outfitters provide hunting camps like this as well.

Your best hunting will probably be in the higher elevations where rugged country limits access to all but the most hardcore hunters and outfitters in the know. This area has long been known for its excellent deer habitat and herd genetics. Controlled hunts in the Upper Snake region are coveted for the opportunity to hunt mule deer during the rut in late November.

Deer Hunters, Bridger Teton National Forest

Why do some areas produce giant bucks, while others do not? The answer is genetics. If you were to check the Boone and Crockett record book, you'd find that some areas have produced many giant bucks. You can also find area's that have never produced a record buck. Genetics are clearly better in some areas. Big buck hunters are looking for bucks with 30-inch spreads of better. If you' hunt an area like the Grey’s River Range of Wyoming the Big Hole Mountains in Idaho that are known for wide bucks, you'll have a better chance of getting a shot at one.

Stalking is the most popular tactic for hunting mule deer but tree stands and still-hunting are fruitful as well. Stalking involves spotting deer from a distance using binoculars or spotting scope, then stalking to within shooting range. Upon spotting your deer, scout for other deer and other wildlife between you and your target; they can end a stalk prematurely. If everything looks good plan your route, consider the wind, terrain, and available cover, Sneak quietly like an Indian and you can meet success stalking your prey by judging the speed and direction of travel, circling around and setting up an ambush.

If you aren’t going to hire a guide the key to the success of a mule deer hunt is preseason scouting. It’s best to do your scouting a couple of weeks before your hunt. Glassing with binoculars or spotting scope in the mornings and evenings can pay off well during your hunt. Because mule deer hunters tend to do a lot of walking in rough, steep terrain it is helpful to go into hunting season in good physical condition and be familiar with your weapon because muleys often require shooting from several hundred yards after a long hard grunt up a mountain.

Mountain lion and his kill a buck deer
Mountain Lion coming back to his kill, a young buck mule deer
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