“The mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) is a deer indigenous to western North America; it is named for its ears, which are large like those of the mule. There are believed to be several subspecies, including the black-tailed deer.
Unlike the related white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), mule deer are generally more associated with the land west of the Missouri River, and more specifically with the Rocky Mountain region of North America. Mule deer have also been introduced to Argentina.
The most noticeable differences between white-tailed and mule deer are the size of their ears, the color of their tails, and the configuration of their antlers. In many cases, body size is also a key difference”. – From wikipedia
They are hunted widely throughout the western United States and parts of Canada and Mexico.
The Colorado Parks And Wildlife Agency (CPW) will begin enforcing new, sweeping, seasonal restrictions for shed antler and horn collection beginning March 2, 2018.
Thereafter, the closure will be in effect from January 1-April 30, annually, and will apply to all public lands west of I-25, with some additional closures effecting several game management units in the Gunnison Basin. These new restrictions will not apply to shed collection on private lands.
The purpose of this ground breaking regulation is to mitigate the recreational impacts on wintering big game animals, at a time when they are most vulnerable to stress and increased mortality. The restrictions were developed to address the specific needs and issues surrounding Colorado’s unique wildlife resource.
Repeat, or egregious violators are subject to a fine, and a levy of five suspension points applied to the application or purchase of any licenses issued by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The accumulation of 20 or more points within a five year period can result in the suspension of hunting and fishing rights for up to five years.
Additionally, the possession of each individual antler can be considered a separate violation, with additional fines for each, in aggregate. Violators may also be charged with the harassment of wildlife. Other federal, state, and county agencies can coordinate with CPW in enforcement action.
According to CPW, “If you are hiking in an area where there is currently a shed antler and horn collecting closure and you see an antler or horn, you are advised to leave it alone. There is now way for a CPW officer to differentiate between you and someone who entered the area for the purpose of shed collecting”.
The requirement of a priced permit, or license, for shed collection is not required at this time, though it may be required in the future.
Today I hunted Mule Deer on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Climbing hard in the false dawn from the river below, I soon found myself enveloped in a gray, somber day, with light rain, low clouds, and misty vapors all around. It seemed a most appropriate collection of weather conditions for the moment at hand.
This is, however, not so much a story about big game hunting, as it is about, something else. I fully intended to kill a deer, but in the end, did not. Neither did I see a deer, and not one fresh track appeared in the mud within the view held tightly below the bill of my hat and hood.
Perhaps it was because the mulies were still tucked into cover, discouraged by the heavy rains of the last few days. Or perhaps it was because our usual snows had yet to appear in even the highest parts of the high country, and the deer had not yet migrated down to the lower elevations. Maybe, just maybe, it was just not the day to kill a deer.
But I came for other reasons too.
Fourteen fire fighters died on this mountain on July 6, 1994. Officially named the South Canyon Fire, it began with a lightning storm on July 2, and rapidly escalated from there. Fire crews were scrambling to catch up right from the start, and the town of Glenwood Springs was solidly in the crosshairs.
Residents prepared for the worst in terms of property damage and financial ruin, but no one could have predicted such a shocking course of events.
I remember exactly where I was sitting when the announcement of their deaths was relayed over the local radio. The impact of the news hit me like a sledge to the most vulnerable parts of my innards, so close to home, and not just because it had happened right down the road.
I was a fire lookout on a high peak in the Salmon River Wilderness of Idaho in the early 1980’s, and then after that an occasional firefighter as part of my duties with the U.S. Forest Service. I would like to think that I know just a little about wildfire, though I hate to imagine the panic and abject terror they must have felt as the flames overtook them.
Wildfire can put a fear in you like no other natural force on earth, and I have felt that fear firsthand. Fighting fires is an unnatural occupation, but one, nevertheless, that must be done. I would not be exaggerating to say that I have sweated and toiled alongside some of the most dedicated and indomitable people the planet has ever known. I became a far better person as a result.
Once, so many years ago, I called in a small lightning strike from my perch atop the mountain and then watched in utter amazement as a dozen smokejumpers hurled themselves out of a perfectly good airplane, only to land in a field of jumbled boulders and dead and dangerous snags for their troubles. They successfully contained the fire over a 24 hour period, without rest or sleep, and then humped their gear through snarled terrain to an exit point a few miles away. Those observations continue to influence my opinions on what it means to be “tough”.
Who would do that? Who would risk their lives to save oak brush and pinion and homes, often against impossible odds? Why did I do it?
That answer has never fully come to me, and it is far too easy to put myself in their boots. This could have been me. It might have been me, dying down in hot winds and flame, under some not so different circumstances. I feel for them. I grieve for them. They are my brothers, and sisters, who have left us behind far too soon.
Fire will have its way once it makes up its mind, and there is nothing to be done for it but to get out of its way. They did try, we know that they tried, but only nature and god knew their fate in advance. And though I cannot speak for them I would like to think that their soul’s may find some comfort in knowing that the South Canyon Fire and their ultimate sacrifice changed forever the way that wildfires are managed and fought.
Fire, in its infinite wisdom, consumes all that is presented before it. It does so without judgement, malice, or aforethought, no matter what we may believe. But life returns, and wildfire is also the great rejuvenator. It cleanses with impossible heat and complete conviction, and clears the way for new growth and replenished habitat in an endless circle of beginnings and endings.
In this case it created many hundreds of acres of mule deer winter range, and in the end, improved wildlife habitat for a multitude of creatures. It would seem far too small a compensation for so many human lives gone, but then, who am I to say? I am but one man, often so lost, in such a vast and unpredictable universe. Perhaps it is not for me to judge what is right and what is wrong, fair or unfair, nor to fully understand the true meaning of it all.
It took me twenty years to visit this place; to brace myself for the painful journey. I did not know them. I never met them, to my knowledge. But, I do feel them there, watching. I hope that they are not too sad, and that they do not miss this world so much. I pray that they feel some peace in knowing that they were doing some great things in the world, on that mountain of storm. I have no doubt that they never felt more alive, fighting for what they believed, in that wild and untamed country that they loved.
I know that there were hunter’s among the group, and I hope that they approved of my visit. I came to hunt deer, for myself, and for them. I came to honor the offering of kindred spirits, and bow my head in reverence. I hope that they were able to feel some of the joy that I feel when I hunt, a free man with a rifle on his shoulder and miles of unexplored territory ahead.
They remind us that life is precious, and short, and that any time spent hunting where there is still room left to roam is not to be taken for granted.
We will not forget.
May they rest in peace, with eagles overhead, and mule deer, and wild beings, and life, all around, forever.
“In storm and cloud and wind and sky, In heart and mind and hand and eyes, A bond still binds too strong to tell, All those who flew with those who fell”. – Anonymous. Found on the Plaque at The Storm King Memorial
“Time is the hunter of all men, and no one knows this better than we do. That knowledge gives us perspective, and direction. A hunter is never lost in this great big world, not in life, nor even in death… “- Michael Patrick McCarty
You can read more about the Storm King Fire and Other Fires Here
Below, are a few excerpts:
“For many of the specially trained crews that battle mountain wildfires in the American West, it was a blaze that made it more acceptable for firefighters to speak up or even decline assignments they consider too dangerous—once a rare occurrence that could result in a firing or ostracism in a profession that requires aggressive, type A personalities. No official report articulated that change, but among many firefighters it was an understood lesson of South Canyon.
The South Canyon blaze, which scorched 2,115 acres, accelerated technical advances in battling wildfires, from a new generation of fire shelters—small, protective “mummy” bags carried by firefighters that can be their defense of last resort from flames—to improved communications. “Immediately, we all had radios,” said one South Canyon survivor, Eric Hipke.
South Canyon also sparked more scrutiny of fire officials’ decision-making and strategies in battling deadly fires, and led to changes in the National Weather Service’s fire weather forecasting division, which doubled its number of fire weather forecasters and found ways to deliver up-to-the-minute weather information—including crucial details about wind, which can fuel a fire and its direction—to forecasters in the field. (Related: “Overwhelming Cause of California Wildfires: Humans.”)
After South Canyon, “incident meteorologists became rock stars,” said Chris Cuoco, the meteorologist whose accurate prediction of a dangerous weather shift during the South Canyon Fire never reached the firefighters on the mountain.
It’s widely accepted within the firefighting community that these and other lessons of the South Canyon Fire have saved lives during the past two decades. Even so, the dangers of fighting wildfires in the hot, dry summer remain real”.
I harvested a sleek young mule deer doe today, dropped cleanly with a fast-moving .270 caliber bullet well before the crack of the rifle had begun to die away in the thin mountain air. It was a fitting end to a hunt that had barely begun, yet at the same time a fine beginning to something so much more. Why then, did it cause a small pang of concern, like I had done something somehow wrong and irreversible?
It had not been a difficult hunt in the rugged landscape around me, where so often in the past it had been exactly the opposite. She had been standing with another doe just above a dirt access track stretching through a small parcel of public ground, and when the bullet hit her she had made one jump and came to rest in the middle of the road. A quick field dressing and a short flip to the waiting tailgate and she was off to the garage to hang and cool, and it won’t be long before some savory steaks and roasts hit the plate. It’s what dreams of wild game dinners are made of.
It was a planned meat hunt first and foremost, and in that respect it was a mission accomplished for which I do not apologize. I am a fan of mule deer for the table, though I do acknowledge that many people would disagree. To be honest, I would also admit that although I do like it, for the most part this western venison is not my favorite big game offering.
Given a choice, I would rather walk a substantial distance for some expertly grilled chops from a properly fed mid-west Whitetail. I would, and have, walked heroic distances for the well-earned privilege of packing back a heavy load of elk meat. I’ve also worn out a considerable swath of boot leather in pursuit of mule deer in all kinds of terrain, mostly in search of the all too few with some heavy horn on top of their head. I have not always been willing to walk so far just for a meal of mule deer.
This past Spring it occurred to me to try something different this year, and I don’t begrudge myself an easy hunt for a change. Lord knows that I and many of my friends deserve something short of an expedition occasionally, and one’s goals do tend to develop over time. I also wanted to give a mule deer a fresh chance in the culinary department, thinking that perhaps it might be best not to judge things on the taste of tough old buckskin taken well past their prime. A freezer full of protein also does wonders to combat the ever rising grocery bill.
The state of Colorado does issue a limited number of anterless deer permits for the regular rifle seasons, with an emphasis on “not too many”. To my surprise I was lucky enough to draw a license for an area close to my home, which made it all the more enjoyable. The rest, shall we say, is in the books.
What I failed to mention is that they were the only two deer that we saw that morning, in spite of a three-mile hike through some once great deer country and then, later, a short drive to another area. Nor did I say that I could easily see two houses from where my doe had come to lay, and I knew that there were several more not far over the hill.
Such is the reality of things in the ever more settled west. The deer are not always located in some far often mountain valley, and sometimes you must hunt them where they are. And sometimes you hunt them in places that you used to hunt, years before, in a place where not long ago there were no houses to see.
Things are changing rapidly in the Rocky Mountains, and the once vast Mule Deer herds have been dramatically impacted by that change. Populations have been in serious decline in Colorado and other states, for reasons that are not so clear and steeped in worried speculation. To be blunt, Mule Deer are in serious trouble, and their ultimate fate as a species is in real jeopardy.
I, for one, did not have to read a detailed report to come to that sad conclusion. The evidence is everywhere; the end result devastating. Herd sizes have dropped by 50% since I moved to Colorado in the mid 1970’s, and the absence of deer is remarkably obvious. As a result, the number of hunting permits have been severely reduced and tightly controlled, with less than encouraging results.
For some time it is has not been easy for a resident of Colorado to obtain a deer tag of any kind, and when you do it can be difficult to locate a legal buck. Finding a trophy animal can prove nearly impossible for even the best of hunter’s. It’s just not easy being a deer hunter these days.
Unfortunately, the worst may be yet to come. It is debatable whether the herds have stopped their terrifying free fall and reached a period of relative stability. Why then, one might ask, are there any doe tags at all?
What is difficult to pin down are the exact reasons for the decline, and public opinion is wide-ranging and increasingly heated. There is great debate over the effectiveness of the overall state big game management plan, and one wonders if there is really any plan at all. One hand does not always appear to be aware of what the other is doing across state agencies, and I can only hope that in this case the harvesting of a doe somehow contributes to the overall health of the deer herd in this particular game management unit.
I have heard most of the standard theories of cause and reaction. Of course I have a few of my own, or simply evaluate all of the factors in my own way. Some people are quick to put the blame on an overabundance of coyotes and other predators, and no doubt there is some truth to that. Others blame highway mortality, road building and natural gas drilling, and all forms of habitat loss. More than a few people say that what deer habitat that is left is of poor nutritional quality, and there is an increasing effort underway to remove sections of old growth forest and range and replace them with rejuvenated browse and plant communities. The long-term drought certainly has not helped, and maybe, just maybe, there are now just too many elk.
More than likely it is caused by a combination of all of the above, and I don’t know how it will turn out for the deer in the final outcome. Nor does anyone else out there really know for sure. It may be that Mule Deer are simply incapable of tolerating or forgiving the daily trespasses of man, and that their loss to history is essentially assured. That would be unspeakably sad.
I do know that the mule deer is a western icon of immeasurable proportions, and the Rocky Mountains would simply be a hollow and soulless shell of itself without them.
Call me selfish, but the possibility of their disappearance is not acceptable. I intend to smile over their big ears and bouncing, improbable gait for however many years that I have left, and I hope that you can too. To watch them brings pure and simple joy. To hunt them is an honor and a gift that should never be taken for granted.
I hope that the current trend of decline can be permanently reversed, for their sake and for our’s. I wish that there will always be Mule Deer to hunt, along with a place to hunt them that remains wild and free. Most of all I would like to shake the sinking feeling that I am hunting one of the last female’s of her glorious and irreplaceable kind.
Thankfully, that is still quite far from the truth, at least for now. It is not too late to help ensure that such an unthinkable day never comes.
In the meantime, I will do my best to use all parts of my animal as gratefully as possible. I look forward to many fine meals ahead, provided by an animal I both respect and cherish. It makes each small bite a most precious encounter.
Coyote Predation is without doubt a significant factor in the overall health of mule deer populations. Common sense would lead one to believe that they must certainly be extremely effective at locating newborn and younger fawns. The literature is also replete with the idea that they are quick to make a meal out of the weak and the sick in any group. But are they capable, or willing, to go against a full-grown adult?
That question was answered, to my satisfaction anyway, one spring morning while turkey hunting in a remote mountain meadow…
“One hot afternoon in August I sat under the elm, idling, when I saw a deer pass across a small opening a quarter-mile east. A deer trail crosses our farm, and at this point any deer traveling is briefly visible from the shack.
I then realized that half an hour before I had moved my chair to the best spot for watching the deer trail; that I had done this habitually for years, without being clearly conscious of it. This led to the thought that by cutting some brush I could widen the zone of visibility. Before night the swath was cleared, and within the month I detected several deer which otherwise could likely have passed unseen.
The new deer swath was pointed out to a series of weekend guests for the purpose of watching their later reactions to it. It was soon clear that most of them forgot it quickly, while others watched it, as I did, whenever chance allowed. The upshot was the realization that there are four categories of outdoorsmen: deer hunters, duck hunters, bird hunters, and non-hunters. These categories have nothing to do with sex or age, or accoutrements; they represent four diverse habits of the human eye. The deer hunter habitually watches the next bend; the duck hunter watches the skyline; the bird hunter watches the dog; the non-hunter does not watch.
When the deer hunter sits down he sits where he can see ahead, and with his back to something. The duck hunter sits where he can see overhead, and behind something. The non-hunter sits where he is comfortable. None of these watches the dog. The bird hunter watches only the dog…”
From the chapter entitled “The Deer Swath” in A Sand County Almanac”, by Aldo Leopold.
I read this for the first time many years ago, and the basic premise of it has stuck in my mind ever since. It is classic Leopold, whose writings always seems to leave behind more thought-provoking questions than he answers. He was, and still is, one of the preeminent teachers of the natural world.
Looking back, I realize now that I have always sat with shoulders squared up to something at my back, watching.
Perhaps I am just a deer hunter at heart. It is the promise of deer, for which I wait.
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Here’s a buck that I have watched grow up over the last few years. I can only imagine what he may look like next year – should he survive another Colorado winter and a long hunting season. The light may not be very good, but as you can see, he is a good buck by any measure.
Unfortunately, this buck roams from private land to private land and my guess is that he never steps foot in a place where you could hunt him. But then again, perhaps he does.
There is a small piece of almost inaccessible public land that borders his normal range. I think I shall hunt him there, next year. Or should I say, I will try.
A man has to look forward to something, particularly through the long interval between seasons.
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Summer Is A Deer’s Best Friend
The living is slow and easy in the lazy days of summer, and it’s time for rest and recovery from a long, cold winter and spring as the blood flows to a head full of antler.
They grow wide, or tall, and sometimes both. Take your pick, if you are good, and lucky, come the fall.
Meanwhile, the mule deer bucks grow ever bigger in Colorado…