Mule Deer

Mule Deer Facts and Deterrents

Compiled by the makers of Deer Scram™ -- America’s Finest Deer Repellent™

Generally found from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast, mule deer – Odocoileus hemionus – range across the western United States, including the four deserts of the American Southwest.

As their name implies, “mulies” are large animals – the largest deer of North America – and feature very large ears that move constantly and independently. Their body weights easily eclipse that of their cousins, the whitetails and blacktails. However, mule deer closely resemble blacktails except for the tail, which is marked by a small black patch at its tip with a white basal portion, and its under parts are white.

Get rid of mule deerMule deer are stocky animals with sturdy legs, measuring up to 4 feet high at the shoulder. Their distinctive gait is highlighted by a series of peculiar, stiff-legged jumps with all four feet hitting the ground together, creating bounding leaps that can cover distances up to 8 yards and heights up to 8 feet. They can reach a speed of 45 miles per hour but for only short periods. Their coats are usually a dark gray that, in its desert and mountain environments, disguises mule deer from predators like the cougar, the coyote and the eagle, which is known to swoop down on fawns. The throat patch, rump patch, inside ears and inside legs is white. A dark V-shaped mark extends from a point between the eyes upward and laterally, a characteristic that is more conspicuous in males than females.

Like its cousins, white-tailed and black-tailed deer, male mule deer are larger than the females. Individual does can weigh upward of 150 pounds, while bucks can reach 300 pounds in weight. The largest animals are found in the harshest environments, where heavy body weights help them endure severe winters. The bucks' antlers, which start growth in spring and are shed around December each year, are high and branch forward, typically forking to form two equal tines that can grow quite wide, with a “spread” that can measure up to 4 feet. Bucks don't use the antlers as protection from predators, only to establish dominance over other bucks. Antlers are shed after the breeding season, from mid-January to about mid-April.

Mule deer move between various zones, from the forest edges at higher elevations to the desert floor, depending upon the season. In the arid southwestern US, mule deer migrate in response to rainfall patterns. And where winter’s deep snows reduce the deer’s mobility and food supply, its useable range is reduced to a fraction of the total. It occupies almost all types of habitat within its range, but it seems to prefer arid, open areas and rocky hillsides. They are usually inactive during the hot days and come out in the mornings, evenings and at night. During the middle of the day, mule deer bed down in cool secluded places. The mature buck seems to prefer rocky ridges for bedding grounds, while the doe and fawn is more likely to bed down in the open.

Mule deer breed in late November and early December. Bucks find suitable does and often play chase games at breakneck speeds before mating and will remain together for several days. Fawns (as many as four, but usually two) are born in late May or June, after about a 200-day gestation period. The fawn weighs about 6 pounds at birth and is colored reddish with white spots for camouflage. It is further protected from predators by having little or no scent. It must nurse within the first hour and stand within the first 12 hours. During its early weeks of life, the fawn sees its mother only at mealtimes for feeding, remaining hidden most of the day among deadfalls and thickets. They have white camouflage spots and are further protected by having little or no scent. Spots begin to fade by the end of the first month. Fawns usually stay with the doe for the first full year. The mule deer’s lifespan is usually about 10 years.

Mule deer feeding periods depend upon the weather, the phase of the moon, the time of the year and type of country. During cold, snowy, winter months when food is difficult to obtain and a considerable amount is required to maintain body heat and energy, deer feed at all times of day and night. During the rutting – or breeding – season, feeding is often erratic, especially with bucks. During the hunting season, when many hunters are on the range, bucks do the major part of their feeding at night. Deer are more prone to feed on dark nights and are relatively quiet and bedded down when the moonlight is intense.

In spring and summer mule deer feed on green leaves, herbs, weeds and grasses. They are particularly fond of blackberry and raspberry vines, grapes, mistletoe, mushrooms, lichens and ferns. They eat so carefully when forage is abundant they can even consume the fruit of cactus. The reverse is true in fall and winter when they typically browse on a wide variety of vegetable matter, including fresh green leaves, twigs, lower branches of trees and various grasses. Tree foods include the tender leaves, semi-woody stems and fruits or berries of apple, chokecherry, crabapple, aspen, cherry, dogwood, elderberry, mountain ash, mountain mahogany, sagebrush, serviceberry, willow, cottonwood, currant, Douglas fir, huckleberry, juniper, maple, mock orange, ninebark, Oregon grape, plum, rabbit brush, raspberry, rose, snowberry, smooth sumac, skunkbush sumac and thimbleberry.

It’s reported that mule deer are much less afraid of humans than other deer species and should be approached with caution, if approached at all. Like all deer, mulies are unable to detect motionless objects, but their eyesight is extraordinarily sensitive to moving objects. The mule deer’s sense of hearing and smell are also extremely acute, making hunting these animals a formidable challenge. Still, sport hunters annually kill about 1 million mule deer across its range.

Beyond hunting, human contact with mule deer is frequently the result of environmental conditions. Road kills are frequent especially where natural range meets developed lands. And where food and water resources are created by manmade landscapes, the abundance of ornamental shrubs, trees and flowerbeds are “natural” attractors. Across many yards it often seems there’s no end to what they will eat. The damage done to yard plants by a lone deer can be substantial. Several deer can lay a 2-acre landscape to waste.

As a result, deer deterrents range wide across the horizon of the imagination. Deer are mostly color blind so any bright colors will also not act as a deterrent. Thus, numerous offensive products – both professionally and personally cooked up to protect ornamental shrubs, trees, flowerbeds and vegetable gardens – are made to attack their taste buds and their noses. Many temporarily turn deer away, but their cleverness eventually results in failed remedies.

Instead, deer must be instilled with the fear of physical harm, which almost always naturally occurs with predators. Indeed, it is only the fear of death that effectively breaks their behavior, whether it’s in a yard or in the woods. To turn deer away from the foods they want, they must sense an assault upon their security. This is best done by taking advantage of their remarkable sense of smell for locating food and survival. Their nose will lead them to return over and over again to areas where food is tasty, abundant and safe to forage. Their nose will also alert deer to nearby danger. Disrupt their sense of security and you’ve achieved the primary factor for turning deer away from your valuable plants, gardens, shrubs and trees. Deer have good memories and learn from each other. When one deer is afraid to return to an area, other deer – including fawns – also will be reluctant to enter the area.

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