By Russell A. Graves
West of the 100th meridian, where the sky domes over wide open plains, desert mule deer roam the draws, wheat field and mountain crags over a range that encompasses almost half of Texas. For many, mule deer are an enigma. Since whitetail deer largely dominate the collective consciousness of most Texans, when they think of deer, mule deer are a bit of a curiosity for most.
Even though I live in the midst of mule deer country, seeing them is still a treat. I grew up in northeast Texas where, like most of the state, whitetail are the dominant deer. So to see the curious-looking species is a treat.
I first saw a mule deer 18 years ago near the Pease River on the Matador Wildlife Management Area north of Paducah. The Matador is a sprawling, 28,000-acre patch of Rolling Plains rangelands that lie in the broken badlands and broad prairies of Northwest Texas and at the eastern periphery of the mule deer’s range in Texas.
When I first saw the buck, I couldn’t decide on his species. His gray color was a clue, but I’ve seen whitetails that are gray. His antlers were no help in the identification either. Books often mention branched main beams, but this buck’s antlers didn’t have the tell-tale dichotomy commonly exhibited by mule deer. The buck I saw was a standard eight-point with short brow points and longer- than-expected G2s. Curiously, the main-frame eight-point seems to be a phenotypical constant in many Texas Rolling Plains mule deer. Often mistaken as a hybrid of whitetail and mule deer, many mule deer—even the purebred variety—don’t exhibit branched antlers.
The trait, especially in Northwest Texas, seems to be one that’s found range-wide because most of the hundreds of mule deer bucks I have seen since that first buck do not have branched main beams, save for the two or three dozen exceptionally large bucks.
While his ears were longer that those of whitetails that I’d seen, that wasn’t the identifying clincher. Instead, as he retreated, he stotted into the sage scrub. That’s when I knew what he was.
A whitetail might have run or bounded away, but a mule deer stots. Stotting helps muleys retreat on rough and rocky ground. With each leap, all four feet hit the ground simultaneously for maximum stability. The retreating buck also gave me a chance to see another attribute that helped identify the buck as a mule deer—the white rump patch and black-tipped tail.
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