Deer In Decline

Mule deer prefer dry, open country and range over as much as 10 times more area than whitetails. (Photo by Russell Graves)

By Russell A. Graves

He’s the deer I’ve been searching for over the past couple of days. Driving throu-h the rugged badlands of the Tongue River Country of Northwest Texas, mule deer are numerous but big ones are rare.

On the flat fields where canyon draws feed to and from the agricultural grounds of the area, mule deer often congregate by the dozens to feed on an easy meal of fresh green shoots of tender wheat.

Their pattern is predictable: travel and bed in the rugged breaks and crags that have been created by incessant forces of wind and water and when it’s time to eat, move out to the open areas where humans cultivate the land and provide an easy meal for a variety of wildlife. Mule deer are especially fond of this loosely symbiotic relationship.

Their behavior seems at odds with the usual wariness that wild deer typically exhibit. Whitetails (the cousin of mule deer and the source of the ascendant DNA in which the mule deer evolved over millennia) are more paranoid and like to stick close to cover in order to flee if danger presents itself. Mule deer on the other hand, evolved in the western United States and out on the open plains where they could see danger well in advance.

Of the two primary Texas deer species, mule deer are the more claustrophobic, preferring to stick to the wide open areas where danger is easily spotted.

While the mule deer’s range is huge compared to the whitetail, winter and the mammal’s ultimate proximity to food sources make their pattern a little more predictable out here. With two days left in the old year, I roam this ranch in search of a post rutting buck that’s looking to recover his spent energy by tapping into his likely travel corridors as he goes back and forth to feed and bed.

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