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Mule Deer: Utah's most popular big game animal

Updated on August 15, 2013

Unless otherwise noted, photos are by the author.

Mule deer are part of the deer family. The name “mule deer” comes from their large ears, which resemble those of mules. Mule deer are adaptable to a wide variety of habitats throughout their range. In Utah, mule deer are found in nearly all parts of the state.

The ears of the young mule deer on the right look a lot like those of the young burro on the left. The scientific name for mule deer is Odocoileus hemionus. The species name hemionus means half mule.
The ears of the young mule deer on the right look a lot like those of the young burro on the left. The scientific name for mule deer is Odocoileus hemionus. The species name hemionus means half mule.

Mule deer are part of the deer family. The name “mule deer” comes from their large ears, which resemble those of mules. Mule deer are adaptable to a wide variety of habitats throughout their range. In Utah, mule deer are found in nearly all parts of the state.

Mule deer are the most numerous big game animal in Utah. They were common in Utah when the pioneers arrived, but not as abundant as today. They can be found in many types of habitat, ranging from open deserts to high mountains. They often migrate from high mountainous areas in the summer to lower elevations in the winter to avoid deep snow. It’s not unusual to see mulies in urban areas, especially near the foothills that surround most of the cities in the state.

The major threat to mule deer in Utah is habitat loss. The loss of lower elevation winter range due to construction can be especially devastating.

Mule deer are browsers and eat mostly the leaves and young twigs of shrubs and other woody plants. They will also eat grasses, especially in the early spring. This can cause problems when they are attracted to the new grass growing along highways. Mulies are active throughout the year, mainly at dawn and dusk.

They prefer habitat that has a variety of plant types, using the thickest cover to bed down and then moving into the more open areas to feed. Habitat that is dominated by large trees, like mature pine forests, don’t usually have enough young plants that the deer like to eat.

Boys and Girls

What do you call a male deer? With most members of the deer family, males are called bulls, females are called cows and babies are called fawns.

Mule deer are different. The males are called bucks, females are does and babies are fawns.

Mating occurs in late fall, usually in early to mid November. This breeding time is called the rut. During the rut, bucks become very aggressive and will fight other bucks to establish dominance. The normally secretive bucks seem to throw caution to the wind as they chase after does, looking for those that are ready to breed.

During the peak of the rut, does are receptive for less than a day and sometimes for only a few hours. If not bred during the first estrous cycle, they will go through another cycle about 4 weeks later. It’s important to have enough bucks available for breeding, because the fawns that are born late in the spring will not be as old going into the winter and have a harder time surviving the cold and snowy weather common in Utah.

Caution: This video shows wild animals breeding, view at your own discretion.

In late spring, the does seek solitude for fawning. Fawns are born in mid to late June. Most does will give birth to twin fawns, but single births are not uncommon. Fawns must grow rapidly to be large enough to survive Utah’s winters.

Fawns are born scentless so predators can't smell them. This, along with their spotted coats, makes them very well camouflaged. Fawns will usually hide for the first few weeks of life.

Does will walk away to feed or rest, but always remain close to their fawns. If they sense danger, such as a predator, they often leave in hope of leading the threat away from the fawn.

This big mule deer buck still has his antlers covered with velvet.
This big mule deer buck still has his antlers covered with velvet.

Like all members of the deer family, buck mule deer grow boney antlers that are shed each year. The antlers begin to grow as soon as the old antlers are shed in late winter. The growing antlers are covered with a fuzzy skin called velvet (shown in picture on right.) This coating covers and provides nourishment to the growing antlers. In early September the velvet starts to dry and is rubbed off by the bucks, leaving a hard antler that they use to fight and intimidate rivals during the rut.

In early spring the antlers will fall off and the process starts again.

Description

Mule deer stand three to three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, with bucks usually weighing 125 to 250 pounds. Does are smaller, weighing between 100 and 150 pounds. During the winter, mule deer have a heavy, dark grey coat of long guard hairs covering a dense underfur. This winter coat is shed in the spring for a lighter reddish-tan coat.

Mule deer have a whitish throat patch and rump with a dark patch of hair on the forehead that is usually darker on the males.

Summer coat

Winter coat

White tailed deer

Although very common in the United States, the white-tailed deer is seldom seen in Utah. The white-tailed deer is found in a wide array of habitats, ranging from agricultural fields to the thickest forests. The white-tailed deer eats mainly grasses, browse, and crops. The rut is usually in November, and one or two fawns are born in the spring. Most white-tails in Utah are along the Wyoming and Idaho border in the northeast corned of the state.

White-tailed deer ( left) are named for their large tail that is brown on top and white on the bottom. Their antlers are made of single tines growing from a main beam that sweeps forward.

Mule deer (right) are named for their mule-like ears. Their tails are thin with a small black tip. Mule deer antlers are bifurcated. This means that they have two forks coming off a main beam.

Source

In Utah a four point buck is considered a nice trophy. Back east a four point is considered a smaller buck. Is this because the deer in the east are bigger? Not really, it’s just that they count antler points differently than we do in the west.

In the east they count all the points an inch or longer on both antlers. In the west we count only the points an inch or longer on one antler and we usually don’t count the small points at the base of antlers. These points are called eye guards or brow tines.

The mule deer (above right)would be considered a four by five. The small horizontal tine on his left antler is called a “cheater.” Using the eastern method of counting points this buck would be an 11 pointer.

The white tail (below right) would be considered a eight point buck.

Utah Mule Deer Hotspots

My favorite places to view Utah mule deer are the Book Cliffs, The Henry Mountains and the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Some of the biggest mule deer bucks in the world can be found in these locations and limited hunting ensures a good population for wildlife viewers as well as hunters.

The Book Cliffs

This is a huge area ranging from the Colorado border on the East to Highway 191 on the West and from Highway 40 on the North to I-70 on the South. Deer can be found across the whole area, but are usually in the higher elevations during the warmer months, moving to the lower sage covered flats in the winter.

One of the attractions to this area is the network of well maintained roads that are in place to service the natural gas and oil wells in the area. This also demonstrates that wildlife can coexist with energy exploration and production.

A herd of mule deer crossing a service road on the Book Cliffs
A herd of mule deer crossing a service road on the Book Cliffs

The Book Cliff area

Video of some Book Cliff bucks

The Henry Mountains

The Henrys are an isolated mountain range in south central Utah. Running north and south from just below Hanksville to north of Lake Powell, the Henrys are steep and rugged and cover a deceptively large area. This area is bordered on the west by Capitol Reef National Park and on the east by State Highway 95 on the east.

As with the Books, deer tend to stay in the higher mountains during the summer and move to lower elevations in the winter. There is also a well established bison herd that makes the Henry Mountains their home.

The Henry Mountains

A markerThe Henry Mountains -
Henry Mountains, Utah, USA
get directions

Although Michael's earliest wildlife video, this footage of Henry Mountain bucks is one of our most viewed videos.

The Paunsaugunt Plateau

Another large geographic area where the mulies migrate from high summer range to lower winter habitat, the Paunsaugunt covers the country from the Bryce Canyon area on the north to Kanab on the south.

During the summer and early fall we like to camp at Tropic Reservoir and look for bucks in velvet along the river bottoms.

Later in the year we travel north from the Kanab area and look for mulies in the pinion and juniper lowlands near waterholes.

Summer Paunsaugunt mulies in velvet

The Paunsaugunt

A markerPaunsaugunt Plateau, Utah -
Paunsaugunt Plateau, Dixie National Forest, Utah 84741, USA
get directions

Winter waterhole footage of Paunsaugunt deer

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    • Taranwanderer profile image

      Taranwanderer 20 months ago

      Great hub! I actually though mule deer were wildlife that's native to West Texas, but I may be thinking of another type of deer. Perhaps white-tail? I liked reading this; maybe you can stop by my piece on the mightiest of the big Cats - https://hubpages.com/education/Simba-the-Lion-The-...