“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.
‘Tis the season when big Mule Deer bucks began to pour from muted landscapes in search of females, where just days before there were no deer.
‘Tis the time of frost and biting wind, then snow. The moment is filled with purpose and perpetual motion, and the promise of primordial ritual. It is the time of gathering, of courtship, and the battle for the right to breed. It is the annual Mule Deer rut, and it is happening now, all around us.
At no other time of the year are the bucks so visible, so distracted, proud, but yet so vulnerable. You cannot witness the spectacle without being drawn to the precipice, suspended there on the periphery of their stirrings.
I am lucky to live in an area of the West that has more than it’s share of mature and trophy animals. To watch them is to know them, at least as much as a human can.
To be there, in and around them, reaches towards the place in the soul where the wild things are. The scene reminds us that there are bigger things going on in the world just outside the limited vision of our everyday lives. It’s raw and it’s real, and it simply must happen. The survival of the species, of their’s, and perhaps of ours, is at stake.
To this I say, thank the heavens for the mule deer. May you rule the Rockies forever!
When a really big buck lopes along through the forest, sagebrush, or whatever, he is a sight to behold. The big body seems to churn along smoothly and fluidly. Powerful muscles carry him across rocky hillsides, through heavy brush, and thick forests. As he runs, he carries his head forward and slightly lowered, swaying his glistening rack back and forth to avoid obstructions in his path…A trophy buck sails along like a racehorse, especially if he wants to put some space between himself and something he doesn’t like…It’s interesting that many hunters, perhaps the majority, come completely unglued when they’re treated to the sight of a grand buck… – Jim Zumbo
Hunting America’s Mule Deer by Jim Zumbo. Winchester Press, 1981. Hardcover, in Very Good+ condition, with a short tear to dustjacket. With gift inscription by and signed by Jim Zumbo.
“Biology plus politics equals biopolitics and this is what conservation departments are forced to play, often to the detriment of good game management.” – William Towell, Director Missouri Conservation Commission, 1957-1967
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 antlerless 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 viable 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, or perhaps something else entirely. 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 a couple of years later while turkey hunting in a remote mountain meadow of northwestern Colorado.
A friend and I had been hen calling for several minutes, when two coyotes suddenly appeared on a ridge above about a half mile away. It was obvious that they were highly interested, and no doubt, the thought of a turkey dinner was forefront in their mind.
We continued calling as they cautiously made their way down a steep hill, calculating their approach with each silent step. I remember thinking that things were about to get interesting, and that we had somehow purchased some front row seats to a classic showing of predators at work.
All at once three doe and two yearling mule deer slunk out of the Aspens below, and began to cross in front of us about 80 yards away. No doubt they had caught the faint scent of human on a swirling breeze, and thought it best to be somewhere else.
The deer had no idea that the two coyotes were directly above them, a fact not lost on the hungry pair. It was immediately apparent that they had forgotten all about drumsticks and dark meat, for they immediately went into deer stalking mode.
I watched, fascinated, as the canines dropped low to the ground, and I swear I could their wild eyes meet as they turned their heads to look at each other. It was obvious that some form of communication passed between them; a message as old, as time.
As quick as could be, one coyote began to circle down and to the right and behind the unsuspecting deer, while the other belly crawled to the left in an effort to position himself above and ahead of the lead doe.
It was also obvious that these two had done this before, probably more times than they could ever remember. The scene unfolded like a slow motion movie, and I remember thinking that this was really going to happen.
Suddenly, the coyote on the left made a full speed dash towards the small herd of deer, trying to overcome one of the smaller ones before they had realized what had happened.
He almost succeeded too, as he furiously tried to sink a tooth in hide or muscle so close at hand. I could actually see his mouth open and close as he snapped them shut, just inches from blood.
But no matter, for he knew what was waiting just ahead, as that was the plan all along.
The waiting coyote adjusted his position as the herd bounced blindly on, still crouched close to the earth. The first deer was upon him, suddenly changing direction as she picked up a slight movement in her path.
The coyote leapt upwards on legs of spring steel, and from my angle it looked like he was on a perfect trajectory. His teeth flashed past the deer’s neck so closely I thought I could see her fur ripple in response, as his momentum carried him harmlessly by.
The deer seemed to hit another gear as they became fully aware of their peril, as the coyotes continued in high pursuit for a hundred yards or more. Even then, I thought that they just might catch them, though my guess is that the coyotes knew that their chance for a venison supper had already passed.
The deer had escaped, this time.
Such are the ways of the coyote, and the mule deer, and who knows just how many times it goes the other way, when we are no longer there to watch.
So, in the end, is it coyotes, or some other form of predation that is the true cause of our Mule Deer decline?
I truly don’t know. But I can only hope that this marvelous, western icon survives the encounter, more often than not…
You Can Find Out More About Coyote Hunting In Colorado Here
“It is likely, and appropriate, that a coyote will use the bones of the last man as a scent post. Beyond that, its just as likely that the bones of the last coyote will be picked clean by a Crow…And at the end, when Crow follows the long procession of species out of a world grown cold under it’s dying sun, he’ll exit laughing.” – John Madson
Interested in Coyote Hunting? We can highly recommend:
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech”. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
There are many great books about improving your property or backyard for nature and wildlife, and you might wish to pick up a copy of:
Big Mule Deer bucks are experts at stealth, evasion, and concealment, and they always seem to completely vanish during the annual rifle seasons.
I have watched this guy come along for several years now, and he has returned once again to his favorite doe-chasing country on unhunted, private lands. A battered old warrior, for sure, and a survivor of bears, mountain lions, and the relentless coyote hoards.
He may be even bigger than ever, certainly taller, but not wider, and perhaps just a bit on the downside of his prime. Still, he seems unchallenged among his competitors, though no doubt, some will run the gauntlet of horns before the end of the current breeding season.
My guess is he will die of old age before some lucky hunter can surprise him in his transitional haunts, if, in fact, they be anywhere where he could be legally hunted. I should know, for I have tried.
But there is hope, there is always hope…and there is always, God Willing, next year!
Bowhunting has always been my passion and the bow and arrow my weapon of choice. I might add that this has remained unchanged for nearly fifty years too!
Occasionally though, I have toted around the powder and ball. Not that much, mind you, but enough to know that black powder hunting has its own special romance and charm. And, I have often said that muzzleloading may be the most effective way to take a trophy class big game animal in the west. It may be even more true today.
Here’s a long-lost photo from the early 1980’s, taken in the middle of an epic rain storm on an elk and mule deer hunt on Red Table Mountain near Basalt, Colorado.
The bucks were huge and the elk were plentiful, but I’m afraid that the weather won the week on this trip. I also learned, forever, what it means to “keep your powder dry”.
I can’t tell you how much I now wish that I had taken many more pictures on this hunt, but I do remember being far more concerned about wind, and mud, than taking pretty photos. It rapidly turned into a battle for comfort, and survival, while waiting impatiently for conditions to change. Some hunts are like that, and it’s always best to be prepared, particularly when carrying around the old smokepole.
I did bring back a bucketful of memories, however wet they may be. I can still see those giant mulies staring through the mist and downpour, on a mountain where you can barely find a buck today,
And I can truly say, that those were indeed, the days…