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Profile of Mule Deer, From a Hunter's Viewpoint

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Mule Deer in Velvet

Mule Deer in Velvet

Jeremy Woodhouse / Getty Images

General Info:

The mule deer is a much-hunted member of the deer family. While related to the whitetail, there are a number of distinct differences. These long-eared critters have been hunted by man for as long as hungry men and mule deer have lived near one another.

Affectionately called "mulies" by many, the mule deer is a challenging quarry to hunt, provides a good amount of meat for a hunter's table, and shows itself to be an outstanding and beautiful game animal, very worthy of the chase.

Terminology:

Male: Buck

Female: Doe

Young: Fawn

Bucks grow antlers, not horns. (Antlers are shed and re-grown each year, while horns are permanent.)

Dew claws: two small hoof-like protuberances at the rear of each foot.

Physical Description:

These four-legged critters can grow to more than seven feet long and may weight more than 300 pounds. Shoulder height runs about three to three and a half feet. They have cloven hooves with fairly pointed "toes." Their name comes from their long ears, which are reminiscent of a mule's ears. Unlike the whitetail, a mulie's tail is flat, not bushy, and is tipped with black.

Mule deer color varies from gray to brown. Their antlers grow differently from those of a whitetail, and normally will fork where a whitetail's will not. Their bodies are more stocky than those of the whitetail.

Habitat:

Like many other species of wildlife, mule deer enjoy edge habitat, for instance the edge of a forest where it abuts more open grassy areas. They are more prone to stick with wide-open areas than the whitetail, and can often be found in rocky desert areas. That said, mule deer may be found in just about any type of habitat within its range.

Outstanding Traits:

Mulies have an odd gait when they run, and they run using a method called stotting. This involves stiff-legged leaps in which all four feet come to the ground together.

Their large ears are often on the move, and provide excellent protection against a noisy predator. Together with sharp eyes and a keen sense of smell, this provides the mule deer with excellent defenses against predation.

Mule deer migrate moreso than the whitetail, often living in different areas depending on the season of the year. This makes mulies more vulnerable to changes in their range than less-mobile species such as the whitetail.

Feeding Habits:

Feeding habits of the mule deer vary depending on a number of factors, including hunting pressure, season, availability, and mood. They will eat a great variety of foods, browsing on hundreds of species of plants, including forbs, shrubs, trees, grasses, and crops.

Like the whitetail, they generally feed in the morning and evening hours, though they may be found filling their bellies at almost any time. Mulies often bed down near their food source during the mid-day hours, passing the time by staying alive until their next meal.

Lifespan:

It has been said that a mule deer in captivity may reach the ripe old age of twenty-five, but that is generally unheard of in the wild. The generally accepted maximum life span of a wild mulie is ten years.

Reproduction:

Like other deer, mulies mate during a period of time known as the rut, which varies in timing depending on many factors. It has been known to occur from October to January, but for most mule deer, the rut will happen in November and December.

Yearling mule deer will have reached sexual maturity, and a doe's first fawn (usually only one will result from her first pregnancy) is likely to be born when she is about two and a half years old. Twins are the rule thereafter, though she may drop as many as four.

Gestation takes about seven months, ensuring that most fawns will be born during the milder spring months.

Communication:

Mule deer communicate in a number of ways, from visual cues to scent glands to vocalizations. Like whitetails, they make different kinds of noises, including bleats and bawls. There seems to be a shortage of information on mule deer communication, compared with whitetails. This is a subject that begs for more attention from those who closely study mule deer.

Synopsis:

Mule deer have been hunted for many years, and very likely will be for many years to come. Their numbers don't seem to be as stable as those of whitetail deer, presumably due to their need to migrate. Natural and man-made obstacles that occur in their migration routes, together with things like drought, extended harsh winters, and the like, can have quite an impact on the mulie population.

With today's wildlife-aware mindset, particularly among hunters and wildlife managers, it's entirely possible that we will soon find better ways of stabilizing herds of migratory animals on a continent that continues to be more cluttered by humanity with each passing day.

Mule deer hunting methods differ from what us whitetail hunters are used to, probably due to the different terrain in which mule deer are typically hunted. It's tough to use a tree stand where there are no trees! And some of this difference may be more due to locally-held opinions than cold hard facts. Many's the time I have read or heard of (or experienced) calling of whitetail deer by hunters, but not so much with mule deer. But I have seen proof that mulies can be called.

Not so long ago, the notion of calling a whitetail deer was revolutionary at best, and just plain weird at worst. But it is a hunting method that has caught on, because it often works. Perhaps, in time, we will begin to see more mule deer calls offered to hunters, more discussion of mulie communication among hunters and researchers, and the face of hunting will change once again.

- Russ Chastain

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