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The mule deer is a deer indigenous to western North America; it is named for its ears, which are large like those of the mule. Mule deer can be divided into two main groups: the mule deer (sensu stricto) of which there are eight subspecies and the black-tailed deer but to save confusion for this purpose we will leave Blacktail for a future article. The first group includes all subspecies, except O. h. columbianus and O. h. sitkensis, which are in the black-tailed deer group. The two main groups have previously been treated as separate species, however they will hybridize. Mule deer apparently evolved from the black-tailed deer. Mule deer have also been successfully introduced to Argentina and Kauai, Hawaii. A small number of Mule deer were also introduced to New Zealand however failed to establish.
Safari Club International, for the purpose of antler-size records, class the Mule deer as Rockymountain Mule deer and Desert Mule deer. The Desert Mule deer is slightly smaller than the Rockymountain Mule deer, and paler in colour with a smaller caudal rump patch. The typical Desert Mule deer (O. h. crookei) has a comparatively small forehead patch and a dark line running partway down its tail. Many Desert Mule deer racks lack brow tines.
While White-tailed deer are closely related to Mule deer they are distinct.
Unlike the related White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), mule deer are only found on the western Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the southwest United States, and on the west coast of North America. The most noticeable differences between white-tailed and mule deer are ear size, tail colour, and antler configuration. In many cases, body size is also a key difference. The mule deer’s tail is black-tipped, whereas the white-tailed deer’s is not. Mule deer antlers are bifurcated; they “fork” as they grow, rather than branching from a single main beam, as is the case with White-tailed deer. While White-tailed deer are closely related to Mule deer they are distinct. The two species however can hybridize although this is rare and more noticeable within captivity.
Each spring, a buck’s antlers start to regrow almost immediately after the old antlers are shed. Shedding typically takes place in mid-February, with this varying slightly in different locations.
Although capable of running, mule deer are often seen stotting (also called pronking), with all four feet coming down together – in similar fashion as fallow deer.
The mule deer is the larger of the Odocoileus species on average, with a height of 80–106 cm (31–42 in) at the shoulders and a nose-to-tail length ranging from 1.2 to 2.1 m (3.9 to 6.9 ft). Of this, the tail may comprise 11.6 to 23 cm (4.6 to 9.1 in). Adult bucks normally weigh 55–150 kg (121–331 lb), averaging around 92 kg (203 lb), although trophy specimens may weigh up to 210 kg (460 lb). Does are smaller and typically weigh from 43 to 90 kg (95 to 198 lb), with an average of around 68 kg (150 lb).
Unlike the White-tailed deer, the mule deer does not generally show marked size variation across its range, although environmental conditions can cause considerable weight fluctuations in any given population. Again we have an example of deer being a product of their environment!
In addition to movements related to available shelter and food, the breeding cycle is important in understanding deer behaviour. The rut or mating season usually begins in the fall as a doe enters estrus for a period of a few days (generally 24 – 48 hours) and males become more aggressive, competing for mates. Doe may mate with more than one buck and go back into estrus within a month if they do not become pregnant. Fawns are born in the spring and generally stay with their mother for approximately six months. Mule deer females usually give birth to two fawns, although if it is their first time having a fawn, they often have just one. The survival rate of Mule deer fawns is low, during labour only approximately 50percent survive.
A buck’s antlers fall off during the winter, they grow again in preparation for the next season’s rut. The annual cycle of antler growth is regulated by changes in the length of the day.
The size of mule deer groups follows a marked seasonal pattern. Groups are smallest during fawning season (June and July in Saskatchewan and Alberta) and largest in early gestation (winter; February and March in Saskatchewan and Alberta).
Besides humans, the three leading predators of mule deer are coyotes, wolves, and cougars. Bobcats, Canada lynx, wolverines, American black bears, and grizzly bears may prey upon adult deer, but most often only attack fawns or infirm specimens, or eat a deer after it has died naturally. Bears and smaller-sized carnivores are typically opportunistic feeders, and pose little threat to a strong, healthy mule deer.
Within 99 studies of mule deer diets, evidence suggests, 788 species of plants were consumed, their diets vary greatly depending on the season, geographic region, year, and elevation. These plants consisted of shrubs and trees, grasses and grass-like plants and forbs (A forb or phorb is a herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid (grass, sedge, or rush).
Humans sometimes engage in supplemental feeding efforts in severe winters in an attempt to avoid mule deer starvation. Wildlife agencies discourage most such efforts, which may cause harm to mule deer populations by spreading disease (such as tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease) when deer congregate for feed, disrupting migratory patterns, and causing overpopulation of local mule deer populations and overbrowsing of shrubs and forbs. Supplemental feeding efforts are appropriate when carefully conducted under limited circumstances, but to be successful, the feeding must begin early in the severe winter (before poor range conditions and severe weather cause malnourishment or starvation) and must be continued until range conditions can support the herd.
Mule deer are variably gregarious, with a large proportion of solitary individuals (35 to 64%) and small groups (groups consisting of 5 deer, 50 to 78%). Reported mean group size measurements are three to five and typical group size (i.e. crowding) is about seven.
Based on the third edition of Mammal Species of the World, are:
Mule deer (sensu stricto) group:
• O. h. californicus – California mule deer
• O. h. cerrosensis – Cedros/Cerros Island mule deer; named after Cedros Island, the only place the subspecies is found
• O. h. eremicus – desert/burro mule deer; found in the Lower Colorado River Valley, northwestern Mexico, southeastern California, and Arizona
• O. h. fuliginatus – southern mule deer; found in southernmost California and Baja California
• O. h. hemionus – Rocky Mountain mule deer; found in western and central North America
• O. h. inyoensis – Inyo mule deer; named after Inyo County, California and found in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California
• O. h. peninsulae – peninsular mule deer; found in Baja California Sur
• O. h. sheldoni – Tiburon Island mule deer; found on Tiburón Island
Numerous guided hunts for Mule deer are available which cost between as little as US$2,000 and US$5,500. Higher quality hunts can be US$8,000 or more. Mule deer hunts are often conducted in conjunction with Elk as many can be found within the same range.