Mule deer are brownish-gray in color, have a large white rump patch and a small white rope-like tail with a black tip. Mule deer can be distinguished from white-tailed deer because of their large mule like ears. Males have antlers that sweep outward and upward, forking once and then forking again. Mule deer, particularly the young fawns are preyed upon by gray wolf, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, black bear and grizzly bears in the Western US. Other threats to mule deer are automobiles, disease, and severe weather.
Mule deer populations are found in the western half of North America, from southeastern Alaska to Mexico. They inhabit terrain ranging from open deserts and brush land to high mountains. Each year mule deer use migratory pathways to move from high elevated areas in the summer to lower elevations to avoid harsh winter weather.
Mule deer are herbivores, which means they feed on plants. In particular, deer are browsers that primarily eat the leaves, shoots and stems of shrubs and trees, although mule deer primarily eat shrubs. During years of little precipitation mule deer will eat mostly evergreen and drought-resistant plants and on normal years of precipitation they will primarily feed on nutrient-rich deciduous (drop their leaves in the fall) shrubs. The search for nutritious plants is one reason mule deer migrate from high elevations in the summer to low elevations in the winter.
Mating occurs in late fall, and the males (bucks) will compete for females (does) during the mating season called the “rut”. Does may produce one or two fawns in late spring or early summer. The fawns are born with spotted coats that camouflage them from predators.
Mule Deer Through The Seasons
Mule deer migrate from high elevated areas to lower elevations to avoid harsh winter conditions. They are focused on finding food and shelter from significant snow fall and cold temperatures. Bucks begin to drop their antlers in late winter.
Bucks are commonly found in bachelor groups (a group of male deer of mixed ages that eat and bed together) and will begin to migrate back into the high mountain country. Does give birth to fawns towards the end of spring. Both bucks and does will take advantage of receding snowlines and the spring thaw to eat new plant growth.
Mule deer spend their summers in the high country. Bucks begin to grow their antlers which are in “velvet,” a sensitive, nutrient-carrying skin on their growing antlers and most will be fully developed by midsummer. Does nurse and protect their fawns. They spend a lot of time in the lush high mountain meadows.
Fall: The Rut
The rut occurs in November and December. Bucks search for females in estrus (ready to mate) and defend a general area and does against other males. Bucks become so preoccupied with mating that they eat little and lose weight. Does and fawns focus on preparing for winter by eating high-fat, high-quality food. Mule deer migrations start once snow piles up and restricts the amount of food they can browse in the high elevated country.
Tracks: Two-toed track ranging from 1½ – 3 inches in length.
Scat: Depending on the time of the year and the available foliage mule deer scat ranges between ½ to 1 inch in length and are elongated “pellets”.
Bed: Mule deer bed where they find protection from both predators and the natural elements such as wind, rain and sun. They will bed in mountain meadow edges, thick shrub, aspen groves and other heavily forested areas safe from danger.
Browse: Plants that have been eaten by mule deer look torn or ripped. There will be more tracks in areas where deer are feeding.
Buck rub and scrape: Bucks utilize small saplings and brush to aggressively remove the velvet covering their antlers. You will see the small rubbed areas with bark removed and heavy tracking around the area. The bucks will also form scrapes on the ground to communicate to does during the rut. Mule deer rubs and scrapes are not as noticeable as those of white-tailed deer.
Trails: While traveling through the high country of the west and into many of the lower valleys you will notice areas of higher traffic by mule deer and other wildlife. These areas are easily noticeable through thick vegetation and often will become harder to spot through meadows, forest openings and valleys.
- Spot-and-stalk hunting is a great way to hunt mule deer. Use a good pair of binoculars or spotting scope to help spot mule deer.
- A high vantage point is critical to finding mule deer. Acquiring a high point in the landscape will help to spot mule deer as they move.
- Preseason scouting is important to locate migration routes, bedding areas, feeding areas, and water sources.
The most effective and safest place to aim is for the lungs while the deer is quartering away or broadside. The heart and lungs are low behind the shoulder. If you aim too far forward you will hit the shoulder blade and the arrow may only wound the animal. Aiming too far back may result in a gut shot.
Field Dressing & Meat Care
Due to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a fatal disease that attacks deer, elk and moose, it is very important that you wear rubber gloves when handling meat. CWD is a communicable disease among deer, elk and moose that affects the brain and nervous system. Scientists are not sure what causes CWD. However, prions found in the brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils, and spleen may be responsible. You CANNOT destroy prions with cooking the meat. Do not cut through the spinal cord except to remove the head. Use a knife designated for this purpose or you could contaminate other meat. At this point, CWD has not been proven to affect humans.
For more information on CWD please visit www.cwd-info.org.
Many hunters in the western United States will quarter their game after field dressing to store for several days in a cool dry location before packing their meat out of their hunting location.
If you shoot an animal that looks or behaves abnormally, contact your local Wildlife Agency, DNR or Conservation Officer for CWD status and precautions you should take before field dressing it.
- Lee Rue III, Leonard. The Deer of North America. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1978.
- Mule Deer Working Group. 2003. Mule Deer: Changing landscapes, changing perspectives. Mule Deer Working Group, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
- National Museum of Natural History. North American Mammals. Smithsonian.
- Stewart, Ron. Wildlife Notebook Series No. 13. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 1999.
- Nebraska Game and Parks. Field Care of Big Game, Web 2011.
- Utah Conservation Data Center. 2011 Division of Wildlife Resources.