It was pitch black as I slipped through the sagebrush and down a steep incline, my flashlight slicing through the darkness. The moon and stars were drowned out by low, receding clouds. Snow was in the air. I had arrived at the tented camp in Utah after dark the night before and had no idea what the country looked like in daylight. It was 1961, and it was my first mule deer hunt.

At daybreak, I was amazed to find myself in a sea of ​​sagebrush. There was not a tree in sight. I was born and raised in the East, and the white tailed deer I had hunted there were always in the woods. Doubt crept in. My stepdad, who was a local, had told me to take it slow down the slope after daylight and set up where I could hit a deer walking at the bottom of the canyon. Was he serious?

After two hours of listening to coyotes and pinyon jays in the distance—and seeing nothing—I was sure no deer would ever show up. At this point I looked far into the canyon and saw movement along the trail. A male walked slowly, feeding as he passed. I had no idea if he was a representative male or a really big male, but I didn’t care. To my untrained eyes, he looked very good. As he moved within range, a severe case of buck fever struck. I rested my rifle—an old British .303 Enfield I had borrowed from my roommate at forestry college—on my wobbly knee and tried to calm my confused mind.

It took three hits to knock this deer down. His antlers were heavy and misshapen and he had a huge body, weighing 232 pounds, dressed on my stepfather’s farm scale.

Now I could call myself a mule deer hunter, sort of. I still had a lot to learn about the mule deer, which would decline so dramatically during my hunting and writing career that many predicted its extinction. Mule deer are iconic deer of the West, but they are also mysterious. And 60 years later, I’m still getting to know them.

DAYS OF GLORY, COME AND GONE

Early in this period, I worked for an outfitter and guided mule deer hunters in the Book Cliffs of Utah. One of our clients was the late G. Howard Gillelan, Outdoor livingthe bowhunting editor. Our strategy was to spot and stalk the scattered groups of single males in the aspen forests, which were quite open and didn’t offer much cover. Deer were everywhere and few bucks roamed solo. Every time Howard tried to stalk a male, he got stopped by other males.

He was using a semi-recurve bow, and the sights hadn’t done the hunting scene yet. Its self-imposed maximum range was 30 meters. Howard finally shot a doe on the last day of his hunt. His Outdoor living the article was eventually titled “Too Many Bucks”.

The 1950s and 1960s were known as the peak years for large mule deer. Sadly, those days were destined to end.

Mule deer populations were also high in other western states. If you wanted to see a parade of handsome bucks go by, you could just hang out at a game checkpoint during deer season. I started hunting other neighboring states, especially Colorado, Idaho, and Montana, and saw lots of silver everywhere. Most of my hunts were on public land, but many breeders allowed free access (renting hadn’t become popular yet). Big money was plentiful on private and public lands. The 1950s and 1960s were known as the peak years for large mule deer. Sadly, those days were destined to end.

One opening morning in the 70s, I drove to my favorite spot in the Book Cliffs, and as I got closer, I thought I saw lights through the junipers. Intrigued, I investigated and was stunned when I entered a clearing and saw a dozen pickup trucks and heavy drilling rigs. My hunting spot was a short distance away and was now decidedly burned. I hunted elsewhere that year, and every year after.

The energy boom had arrived. New routes have been carved out along ridges and at the bottom of canyons. Access was opened, and the heavy scrub oak, serviceberry, mountain mahogany, and other buckbrush that had once offered deer an opportunity to grow old and tall, were now more easily hunted. Mule deer have succumbed to this loss of habitat, not only in the cliffs of the book, but also in other areas. When a critter species dives, habitat degradation is generally considered a primary factor. This was the case when mule deer began to decline, but there were other, less obvious factors as well.

COVER DECLINE

In the early 70’s I went to a college symposium called “The Decline of the Mule Deer”. It was very busy and the speakers included biologists, professors, game wardens and wildlife students. All possible aspects of mule deer mortality have been covered: habitat loss, disease, parasites, winter starvation, drought and predators. When the symposium was over, I left the building with a few older game wardens. One said wryly: “They talked about everything except 6/30.”

His argument was that in many states deer harvests had increased dramatically. I remember the years when in some units a hunter could take six does and a buck. Little effort has been made to restrict the number of hunters or distribute hunting pressure. The limited entry system, in which hunters had to apply for a tag by lottery, evolved later. Wildlife managers have set quotas in many units, striving to achieve quality hunting in some units where the number of hunters is lower.

The author with a pretty dollar. Courtesy of Jim Zumbo

Outdoor journalists wrote alarming stories about the alleged mule deer disaster, and many predicted the species’ extinction, citing rapidly declining populations across western states. It was a hot topic, arousing the interest of publishers. Soon much of the world believed the catastrophic saying.

It is true that mule deer numbers are down from historic highs, but in many places they are rebounding or holding steady. They are wild animals, and many of the large herds are migratory. There is nothing static in their number. In nature, everything is dynamic, especially when wildlife species face unprecedented challenges. So why have mule deer populations plummeted? Are those pesky white tails taking over? Is it the loss of habitat and the destruction of migration corridors? Truth be told, there is no single reason, no easy answer.

Tony Mong, senior wildlife biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, says it’s death by a thousand cuts.

” A few dozen [new homes being built] in the critical wintering range may not make much of a difference,” Mong said, “but when you get hundreds or thousands of houses there is a big impact on wildlife. Old feeding grounds are gone and there are issues with dogs, fencing, more collisions with vehicles and other factors.

Mong also cites the weather as an important factor. “[Fawn survival is] related to humidity levels,” he said. “Droughts can have serious repercussions on herds. Likewise, harsh winters can profoundly affect mule deer.

In the 70s, I was on a mission with Outdoor living report on the effects of an extremely harsh winter in the West. I’ve visited three states and seen literally thousands of dead deer as well as hundreds of dead antelope, most of them piled up next to drifting fences they couldn’t get over. During the harsh winter of 2016-2017, which was called the worst winter ever in many parts of the West, mule deer were also hard hit. They are recovering in the midst of a drought.

So what does the future hold for us? Certainly, habitat loss is one of the main reasons for the decline. Construction of wind farms, solar farms and other energy-related activities will continue to eat away at important habitats. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a huge exodus from cities to rural areas. More and more people are looking for their piece of paradise in the West, which means more development in mule deer country. In some regions, chronic wasting disease is devastating. Where I live in northwest Wyoming, 40% of deer carry the disease in some herds. Predators, parasites, and extreme weather conditions will always put pressure on mule deer.

But all is not lost. We’ll never see the glory days of mule deer hunting again, like when I shot my first buck six decades ago, but there are still exceptional opportunities to take a trophy mule deer – or any mule deer. It’s harder to pull a non-resident tag, but limited entry units ensure quality hunting, and the money from those tags should be used to further secure mule deer habitat. A good mule deer hunt is always worth the wait.

ADAPT AND SURVIVE

I’m hopeful for the future of mule deer because I’ve seen them in all western habitats, some of them extremely harsh. In 1981, I wrote a 350-page book called American mule deer hunting (it is now out of print) which identified eight different habitats occupied by muleys. The book is the result of my personal observations after I made it a point to hunt in all types of habitats, as well as my observations as a big game biologist.

Habitats ranged from hot lowland deserts to the highest alpine peaks above treeline. Once, while hunting ptarmigan in Colorado above 13,000 feet, I was amazed to see mule deer. I have seen them survive temperatures as low as 50 below zero. I knew a wildlife biologist in southern Colorado who studied the water needs of mule deer and concluded that in the summer mule deer did not drink free water but met their needs with the forage they were consuming.

A herd of female mule deer checks for danger on a ridge.
A herd of mule deer is on high alert. Donald M. Jones

My local mule herd is 1,500 head and practically disappears in the spring. These animals migrate up country and, according to Mong, travel more than 100 miles to where they stay until fall. Countless herds across the West follow similar patterns.

Muleys are also appearing in new areas, such as Alaska, where some have ventured in from the Yukon. In some Midwestern states, mule deer are showing up farther east than ever. And in West Texas, seasoned hunters tell me there are more muleys now than 50 years ago.

Much like the dedicated hunters who hunt them, muleys are hardy and adaptable. My belief is that as long as the corners of the West remain wild, massive old bucks will roam the highest mountains and the deepest deserts. And mule deer hunters, young and old, will have the chance to hunt them.

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