Bringing Mule Deer Back
“The mule deer is a species marked for extinction . . . Either the whitetail deer or man may cause that extinction. Without either, the mule deer could continue unimpeded for as long as habitats exist and the sun rises.” ... Dr. Valerius Geist 1999.
We are two days into the Black Hills deer season. Nearly 3600 hunters applied for 100 any deer tags that would allow them to harvest a mule deer on the national forest. They could take any deer they wish, but if they had applied for the any whitetail tag they could hunt every other year instead of waiting on the long odds. But the shrinking herd of mule deer is such an incredible draw and the massive bucks that live in Rapid City stoke imaginations.
Dr. Geist’s quote from the top of the story has been often repeated over the last two decades including several times recently in the national media. While South Dakota has done what it could to reduce predation by reducing the lion population, little has been done to target perhaps the larger threat, white-tailed deer.
I travel every spring to the Denver RMEF Banquet. A booking agent asked me if I could take some of his mule deer clients. That at one point he had thirty outfitters offering hunts and that all but a handful had stopped due to low numbers in their area and the difficulty of hunters getting drawn for a license. Many other western states face the same challenge and are looking for their own solutions.
I have been observing nature conduct its own experiments over the last six years. When whitetail numbers were decimated by EHD outbreaks, the mule deer came through relatively healthy. The overall number of deer in my hay meadows declined dramatically, but without the whitetail, mule deer populations surged. Despite healthy coyote populations that took fawns. Where I would have once counted fifty white-tail and a dozen mule deer, I now see the count reversed.
Whitetail are a much more dominant species that has been around for millions of years according to fossil records while mule deer are a relatively new species with less than 20 thousand years of evidence. White-tailed bucks are much more aggressive breeders that will harass and breed mule-deer does and produce viable offspring which resemble whitetails. According to Tod Black a biologist with the Mule Deer Foundation, mule-deer bucks will occasionally breed with whitetail does, but the fawns produced are less likely to survive.
If states truly wished to increase mule deer numbers, the path would include a dramatic reduction in targeted whitetail populations. Removal of keystone predators and habitat improvement would also come into play, but eliminating the top game species in the nation from any game pool is unpalatable to any Game and Fish Department that is at least partially funded through license sales. Another option would be dramatically elevated license costs for mule deer much as they are for elk or sheep with those additional dollars targeted to elevating populations.
This past week, I was privileged to see the pre-rut activities of two veteran white-tails. Each buck was at least five years old with visible scars from previous hunting seasons displayed with a misshapen rack on one and a poorly healed broken leg on the other. While the prime breeding season is still weeks away, the cool wet weather and shortened daylight had them chasing does aggressively over the fields.
In the mulie fields a few miles north, forty plus does and fawns looked on with disinterest as a dozen young bucks milled around and bullied each other. They had little interest yet in the does themselves. The older mule-deer bucks have yet to venture into the fields that have already been taken by their white-tail rivals.
There is little to stop the local whitetail herd from rebuilding and once again slowly replacing the mule deer, but for now at least, they have the upper hand.