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Tips for hunting the Montana mule deer

Mule Deer Past & Future

Mule deer populations rise and fall, often drastically. Today’s peaks never match those of the 1950’s and 1960’s, when mule deer covered the West like wildebeest cover the Serengeti.

The question is why. Many mule deer hunters claim to have The Answer. Many firmly point their fingers at two culprits: coyotes and doe tags. The evidence is obvious: In the 1950s and 1960s, various government agencies intensively shot, poisoned and trapped coyotes. Almost no game departments issued any of those dang doe tags until the late 1960s – and then they sold so many, our herds never did recover!

Some other hunters cite more re cent factors as possible causes of mule deer decline, including erupting elk herds, subdivisions cropping up on winter range and drought.

All these factors obviously have some influence on mule deer, but instead of looking at a mere half-century, let’s go back about four million years. We may not find any definitive answers, but we might gain some historical and pre-historical perspective.

The first deer of genus Odocoileus appeared nearly four million years ago. Odocoileus is alive and well today and includes all modern North American deer: whitetails, blacktails and mule deer. The line apparently started with a deer called Odocoileus brachycentrus, similar to modern deer but with teeth designed to chew tougher stuff. This evolved into the whitetail, and the whitetail evolved into blacktails and mule deer.

These are the only deer that evolved on this continent. The other deer inhabiting North America today – elk, moose and caribou – evolved in Eurasia, arriving here over the Bering Land Bridge. The difference between evolving in North America rather than Eurasia is significant.

Due to geography, North America’s climate is more severe. Our mountain ranges mostly run north and south, while Eurasia’s run east and west. East-west mountains tend to keep the extreme cold of the Arctic and extreme heat of the tropics from entering the temperate zone between. Our vast central plains pose little barrier to cold, dry arctic air or warm, moist ocean air from the Gulf Coast. Cold and warmth can cover almost the entire midsection of North America (or collide, producing more tornadoes than the rest of the world’s continents combined). Temperatures can rise to over 100 degrees on the Canadian prairies or drop below zero in the Deep South. Our coastal mountain ranges can keep rain and snow from the plains for years at a time.

Odocoileus evolved here, alongside much larger herbivores such as giant sloths, horses, mastodons and mammoths. Before the end of the last Ice Age (the end of the Pleistocene epoch), there were about 10 times as many species of large prey animals as there are today, and lots of large predators to eat them: cave bears, giant wolves, saber-tooth cats.

Amid these “Pleistocene megafauna,” deer were scarce. You may have read that deer are highly adaptable – and they are. But in evolutionary terms, “adaptable” doesn’t necessarily mean “successful.” Sharks are a classic example of evolutionary success, because they haven’t changed at all in millions of years. They fit their environment so well they haven’t had to evolve. In contrast, deer have evolved often, adapting themselves to the dozens of slightly different environments in North America.

Unlike the larger prehistoric plant-eaters, deer specialized in eating richer, easier-to-digest food. A giant bison could chew up and process any rough grass, and mammoths (like today’s elephants) could eat trees. In contrast, deer primarily nibbled on tender forbs and the tips of brush, occasionally grazing on new grass. They mostly avoided the huge savanna grasslands populated by the larger herbivores, hiding in woods to avoid the giant meat-eaters. In today’s politically-correct jargon, deer were “marginalized.” We know this because fossils of deer bones are quite scarce when compared to fossils of larger Pleistocene mammals.

All these factors created the deer we know today. Because the climate swung to extremes, deer needed to reproduce rapidly in good times. North American deer typically produce two fawns, uncommon among the rest of the world’s deer, especially deer of the same approximate size as Odocoileus. In good times, triplets aren’t uncommon. A few years ago, when Montana was coming out of one of its periodic droughts and mule deer herds started to increase again, I saw muley does with three young all across the state.

Partly because they reproduce so quickly, deer can also evolve relatively quickly. Whitetails exist from the tropics to within a few hundred miles of the Arctic Circle. Some biological texts list dozens of subspecies, but modern DNA testing reveals they’re all pretty much the same deer, whether a 70-pound Key deer from Florida or a 350-pound buck from Saskatchewan. Their outward form changes, but they’re genetically the same deer.

Paleontology points to the Gulf Coast as the evolutionary birthplace of whitetails. Evidently they spread to the West Coast about two million years ago. This western population was then separated from the eastern by periodic glaciation, and the western deer evolved into the various species we call blacktail today. The Sitka blacktail of the Canadian and Alaskan coasts even retains the basic antler shape of the whitetail, rather than the forked-tine antlers of blacktails farther south.

By the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, the Pleistocene megafauna were in trouble. There’s still debate over exactly what killed them off. Some theories claim humans arriving from Asia did the job, while others say the new, warmer climate resulted in vegetation changes the plant-eating megafauna couldn’t handle – and when the giant prey died out, so did the giant predators.

A combination of humans and climate is probably closer to the truth. The sudden extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna allowed several Eurasian mammals that crossed over the Bering Land Bridge to fill the vacuum. These mammals included elk, caribou, moose, gray wolves, grizzly bears – and humans.

All these factors – climate, extinctions, invasions – drastically changed North America, and probably even changed Odocoileus. One of the latest theories about mule deer, inspired by DNA testing, is that they’re a recent evolutionary “accident,” created in the vacuum after the disappearance of the Pleistocene megafauna. When competition from huge open-country herbivores and predation from giant carnivores suddenly ended, whitetails in the East and blacktails in the West suddenly found themselves free to be fruitful and multiply, as only deer can do, eventually meeting along the western mountains. There they interbred and produced the mule deer.

This is a very different notion from traditional North American deer biology. Even when I was attending the University of Montana as a wildlife biology student in the 1970s, the learned professors taught that whitetails and mule deer were the two main species of Odocoileus, and blacktails were a subspecies of mule deer. But aside from DNA, one piece of evidence supporting the new theory is that inland mule deer vary little from Mexico to Canada, while coastal blacktail/mule deer vary considerably over the same range. This lack of mule deer variation indicates a recent species that hasn’t had time to evolve to fit differing local conditions.

No matter where mule deer came from, they’re even more specialized than whitetails. They adapted to the drier, warmer West created after the end of the Pleistocene. Their bounding “stot” allows them to escape predators in steep, relatively open country, so mule deer do best in mountains, badlands and river breaks. They “hide” from danger by bouncing uphill, while whitetails hide by running through thick cover.

These traits are so distinct that even deer who live side by side follow them like a deer bible. For several years I lived in an old ranch house in a small Montana valley about a half-mile wide. A trout stream flowed down the middle of the valley, bordered by willows, alders and cottonwoods. Flanking the creek-side brush were cattle pastures and hayfields, sloping upward to steep juniper-sage hillsides.

I normally get up about daybreak, and as I walked the 150 yards from the house to the highway to collect my morning newspaper, deer would be out feeding in the hayfields, sometimes in mixed whitetail/ muley herds. If the herds fed within 200 yards of me, the mule deer would casually bounce uphill into the juniper, but beyond that distance they normally went back to feeding. The whitetails would watch me from any distance out to a half-mile, and when I turned to walk back to the house, they’d run into the brush like a bunch of rabbits.

These are the habitats and habits of mule deer and whitetails throughout their range. When Lewis and Clark traveled through the West 200 years ago, they found both deer along the Missouri River, but “common” or “Virginia” deer stuck to thicker cover right along the riverbanks, and “mule” deer (the name seemed appropriate even then) mostly lived on steeper slopes above the rivers.

Both deer rarely fed far out onto the prairies with elk and bison. Deer had spread across the continent, but as larger elk and bison came to dominate the plains, deer once again ended up in the edges of timber and brush, where they found their specialized diet.

Archaeology indicates that humans also rapidly spread after the last Ice Age, all the way down to the southern tip of South America. Whether called Indians or Native Americans, these humans evidently kept North America’s forests at bay, mostly by burning. They also hunted the heck out of the far fewer prey animals left after the megafaunal extinction. Record-book hunting clubs like to subdivide our game almost as much as do old-time biologists, but in reality North America only has 11 species of horned and antlered big game: whitetail, blacktail and mule deer; moose, caribou and elk; pronghorns, musk oxen, mountain goats and thin-horn and bighorn sheep.

These human hunters also didn’t get much competition from the continent’s fewer predators. The strictly meat-eating cave bear was gone, replaced south of the Arctic by the Eurasian grizzly and North American black bear. Both can get along just fine on a mostly vegetarian diet.

Evidently deer were a major part of the Indian diet only in the Southeast, where big-bodied Eurasian herbivores such as elk, moose and bison couldn’t adapt to the heat (while elk and bison remains have been found down south, they’re much rarer than deer bones). Southern Indians faced some hunting competition from wolves and cougars, the only truly serious predators of adult deer aside from man.

The most common guess is that at least 10 million Indians lived in North America. They practiced some agriculture, especially along the Mississippi Valley, but their only domestic animal was the dog. Dogs could be eaten but primarily served as sentinels and pack animals. Instead of raising domestic herbivores for meat, Indians hunted, keeping the sparse post-Pleistocene herbivores trimmed back.

Then another human invasion occurred from across the Atlantic. Western Europeans showed up from 1492 onward, all the way from Mexico to Canada. By the end of the seventeenth century, they’d spread smallpox and other diseases to most of the continent’s “native” Americans. (City-dwelling Europeans had become relatively immune to these diseases, because those who initially contracted them died and those with any resistance lived.) Fatal epidemics spread rapidly among the Indians of North America, and by 1750 their population had been severely reduced, perhaps as much as 90 percent.

We don’t know how many Indians died, but we have found that in the interval between the first European boats landing on American shores and the journey of Lewis and Clark, nature made a big rebound, thanks to this relative absence of Indians. Forests grew up wherever there was enough rainfall, and millions of bison and pronghorn covered the plains. Through this superabundance, the early white explorers crossed the prairies and western mountains – and this brief Edenic version of early America still dominates most “environmental” debate today, even though most archaeologists don’t believe it lasted much more than 200 years.

By the time Europeans settled across the continent (killing off most of the few remaining Indians), they’d made a serious dent in the big game as well. Many animals were killed primarily for their hides, and not just bison. Deer and elk were killed for leather as far back as the eighteenth century, and thousands of elk were shot for their “ivory” canine teeth. If you’d like to learn more about hunting Montana, or Arizona mule deer, also see our Arizona Mule Deer Hunting page. Some animals became extinct, notably the passenger pigeon, not only through over-hunting but because the huge post-Indian forests were being cleared for “civilization.” Even in the early twentieth century, wild game was served in restaurants and sold in butcher shops across the continent. It wasn’t until about 1910 that game laws finally developed some bite, thanks to a basic shift in public opinion.

Even with tougher game laws, big game was still struggling to reestablish a foothold when another disaster hit: the extensive drought of the 1930s called the Dustbowl. This meant less food for wild game and deepened the Great Depression. Popular opinion was still behind game conservation, but a hungry, jobless father with kids to feed often had a different opinion. Wildlife took a severe beating during the 1930s from both climate and subsistence poaching.

Things started looking up again in the 1940s. The drought broke and people started getting work, mostly in war-related jobs. A huge percentage of hunting-age men were shipped overseas to fight World War II. Game started making some gains again, especially deer with their twins and triplets.

Part of what really helped deer, especially in the West, was that most returning vegetation was new and short. The long drought of the Dustbowl had literally beaten much of the West into bare dirt. Among the first plants that show up in such a vacuum are ones deer like to eat, forbs and shrubs with tender tips.

Once the war ended, Americans returned to their normal lives. Part of this involved whacking away at predators, because that’s what humans do when they want to protect both domestic and wild animals. Government predator control kept even coyote numbers low.

If that were the case – coyotes hunting deer to extinction – mule deer wouldn’t exist. They never would have had a chance to evolve in the first place. Most hybrids aren’t particularly good at evading predators. Whitetail and mule deer frequently interbreed in many areas today, but their young aren’t particularly good at either stotting or running, so get eaten quickly.

I’ve talked to many deer biologists, all hunters themselves, and made my own observations of coyotes and mule deer over the past few decades. The consensus these days is that predators don’t “control” prey as much as predators and prey affect each other’s numbers in a constant see-saw.

Since World War II, many wildlife people, professional and amateur, have noticed that mule deer numbers rise and fall all across the West on a fairly regular basis. In general they follow the drought cycle, itself generally controlled by sunspot activity. This connection was discovered in the early part of the twentieth century by the astronomer Andrew Douglas, who tied tree-ring width (a proven indication of wet and dry years) to periodic sunspot activity, documented by astronomers over centuries.

Instead of studying trees from only one area, Douglas collected sections of conifers from all over the world. He even looked at rings from a petrified tree. His conclusion was that the 11-year sunspot cycle largely coincides, in varying degrees, with the rain-drought cycle all over the world and has been affecting rainfall for at least 50 million years. Lately some scientists have come to believe that sunspot activity is tied to the periodic El Niño warming of the Pacific Ocean.

Most mule deer country regularly dries up, since it lies to the east of the north-south mountain ranges along the western edge of North America. These catch most of the rain and snow from Pacific storms and in drier years almost completely keep precipitation from the inland West, particularly the high plains.

Since World War II, mule deer numbers have gone up and down on a cycle roughly corresponding to the drought/sunspot cycle, judging from harvest data from mule deer states. Mule deer numbers first peaked in the late 1950s, as the low deer numbers of the Depression kept rising, and stayed fairly high through the mid-1960s. This is the famous era when many (if not most) Boone & Crockett bucks were taken.

These huge-antlered deer are an excellent biological indicator of a species finding perfect habitat for rapid expansion. When animals have superabundant food, they tend to use the increased nutrition to grow “extravagantly,” as biologists put it. This is why deer moving into new areas often grow very large antlers.

The western deer range of the 1950s was just recovering from the drought of the 1930s. When combined with low deer numbers, this amounted to new country. Both competitors (elk) and predators (mountain lions and coyotes) were few. Mule deer bucks responded by growing huge antlers, and mule deer does responded with lots of fawns. Mule deer numbers stayed very high through the early 1960s but dropped somewhat in the middle of that decade. Most hunters didn’t notice, because deer numbers didn’t drop very far – and rose again in the early 1970s.

Then mule deer numbers dropped all over the West, as if somebody had pulled the population plug. Some folks predicted their near-extinction. I still have copies of hunting magazines from that era that firmly proclaimed mule deer were doomed.

Then mule deer started coming back again. By the early 1980s, herds were, in general, as high as they were in the early 1970s, or even the mid-1950s. Hunters didn’t notice this as much, however, because there were a lot more hunters. In my native Montana, for instance, hunter numbers almost doubled from 1950 to 1985.

This feast-and-famine pattern continues today. About every 11 years we see a drop in mule deer numbers, and then they rise again. Right now much of the West is suffering from several years of drought, and mule deer herds are suffering along with it. Along with the drop in deer numbers, we’re seeing the same number of hand-wringing articles in hunting magazines, examining “the mule deer problem.” (I’ve written a few of these myself over the decades, usually at the request of some editor who sees every other magazine running doom-of-mule-deer pieces.)

These are general trends. Some pockets of the West have drier and wetter weather than the average. I know one such pocket in Montana, where mule deer have done quite well over the past few years – and no, I’m not telling where it is. But in general, mule deer populations rise and fall over the West on a loose 11-year cycle, or at least they have since World War II. If coyotes are the main culprit in low mule deer numbers, they must be rising up all across the West in 11-year cycles, like a bunch of well-equipped Wile E.s bent on the destruction of bouncing deer.

There’s no question that coyotes eat a lot of mule deer fawns, but how many they eat depends on a lot of factors. In average times, mule deer tend to simply move elsewhere when lots of coyotes (or mountain lions) show up. I’ve seen this myself a number of times. One of my favorite local ridges normally holds lots of mule deer, but one November they suddenly disappeared. I covered the ridge with my footprints, in the process only finding the tracks of maybe 8 to 10 deer where dozens used to live – along with more coyote and mountain lion sign than I’d ever seen. The next year the coyotes and lions had moved on, and the deer returned from wherever they’d gone to hide.

When mule deer numbers rise in good times, however, the deer can’t simply move elsewhere, because other deer already live in all the “elsewheres.” The “excess” deer end up on more level, brush-free ground where coyotes and other predators can catch them more easily.

The early years of drought cycles tend to be easy on mule deer. Not as much snow falls and January temperatures tend to be milder, so they make it through to spring in good shape. The does have more fawns, and these healthy fawns grow up into big, strong deer. These early drought years tend to produce big fawn crops, which translate three to five years later into “big buck” years, when lots of mature bucks end up in pickup trucks.

As the drought continues, food dries up, as well as hiding cover. The deer aren’t as healthy and don’t have as many places to hide. Newborn fawns are smaller and weaker.

Meanwhile, coyote numbers have soared, because of high numbers of deer and smaller game. Good times for deer are generally good times for rabbits and grouse as well. Well-fed coyote mothers, like well-fed mule deer does, have lots of healthy young that survive well.

Now we have weakening deer with fewer places to hide, among lots of healthy coyotes. The coyotes keep eating fawns and even adult deer, and have more pups. The drought may break, but it often breaks during winter with deep snow, and the coyotes feast on snow-weakened deer. Deer numbers plummet, and everybody blames the coyotes, because they find lots of coyote-killed deer. The deer almost disappear, and soon coyote numbers drop too, because they can’t find enough to eat.

Then the drought ends, and deer start reproducing again, two and three fawns at a time. The few coyotes left can’t catch as many, because the deer can all find ideal hiding places. The coyotes don’t reproduce very rapidly, so their numbers stay relatively low for a few years. In a few years, large herds of mule deer can be seen again in hay meadows, and the cycle begins all over again.

I have seen this cycle several times since I started hunting mule deer in the mid-1960s, when populations were still high. I saw the “extinction” in the mid-1970s and the boom of the early 1980s, when deer harvests matched those of the 1960s in many states. (If all those doe tags in the 1960s killed off our herds, how did so many deer get “harvested” in the 1980s?)

In the late 1980s, I was guiding on several ranches in east-central Montana when another drought hit. At first we had plenty of deer and lots of big bucks. It was no problem to find even the most hunting-challenged clients long-tined bucks in the 24- to 28-inch class. While being guided by my boss, one client, who preferred to road-hunt while sipping beer (this outfitter really liked to keep the customers happy), managed to whack down a 30-inch 8x9 with beams almost as big as my wrist.

In 1988 the drought got so bad that much of Yellowstone Park burned up, along with other chunks of the northern Rockies. The following winter was a bad one, with lots of snow covering up what little food remained. In the fall of 1989, big bucks were hard to find, except for their skulls. I found the remains of so many winter-killed bucks that eventually I wouldn’t even walk across a small draw to pick up another bleached rack. Some of these bucks we’d never seen alive, including a heavy 2x2 that spread 32 inches.

Then, in the early 1990s, the deer came back. I killed my two biggest bucks ever in Montana and Alberta, and times were good again, until the recent drought that’s now lasted four years in some areas. But last winter more snow fell on much of the West than in the previous several years, and things are probably looking up again.

In the meantime, elk have covered the West. They took longer to come back than mule deer because they don’t reproduce as rapidly, one calf being normal, but like the Pleistocene herbivores, they can eat almost any sort of coarse feed. More than one study has shown that mule deer do tend to get “marginalized” when elk move in. The deer stay away from more open meadows, and because elk shun roads, more mule deer end up near roads, where they can be killed by 4x4 hunters.

Along with elk, subdivisions of “ranchettes” cover the foothills, where mule deer used to live during winter. Instead of resting and eating, the deer get chased by rottweilers, and their landscape gets pounded by the horses every suburbanite must own.

We probably never will see mule deer numbers like those of the 1950s and early 1960s, when deer food sprung like Iowa corn from the drought-dead countryside and elk were relatively rare. Back then, unless western citizens ranched or farmed, they lived in town, because full-time, 4-wheel drive hadn’t yet made the commute from Buena Vista Circle easy, even in January.

Coyotes had been shot, trapped and poisoned to as close to extermination as we’re ever likely to see. It’s politically impossible to make war on predators anymore, and in general game departments have found it doesn’t do that much good. You have to reduce coyotes by at least 30 percent to make any difference at all, and over extremely wide areas. Otherwise coyotes from surrounding country move into the vacuum. Many biologists also suspect that coyotes tend to help keep deer ranges relatively healthy when deer become superabundant. Wile E. does the job many hunters won’t, killing enough does and fawns to keep some bitterbrush and serviceberry alive.

But despite the New West, we’ll still see herds of mule deer. As one western deer biologist put it at a meeting of mule deer folks a few years ago: “Deer will go up, deer will go down, and hunters will bitch and moan.” Despite all the moaning, we’ll see mule deer in the same places Lewis and Clark saw them 200 years ago, the semi-barren hillsides where coyotes and mountain lions can’t catch them very easily. For more information about hunting the mule deer, see our Mule Deer Hunting page. When sunspots cooperate, we’ll even see them in alfalfa fields and suburban backyards. But because of those backyards, and elk, and all the other factors that push mule deer back into the niche they occupied when bison still wandered the plains, we’ll probably never see mule deer like we did in 1960 again. But we’ll always be able to hunt them and perhaps appreciate mule deer more than in that decade when they covered the West.

By John Barsness

This article and many more like it can be found by Successful Hunter Magazine. Visit them at www.successfulhunter.com

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