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Hunting Whitetails in Mule Deer Country

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November 19, 2012
Hunting Whitetails in Mule Deer Country - 2

As whitetail deer continue to elbow their way into portions of the West that was once the sole province of mule deer, many muley hunters lament that their preferred game is running out of habitat. They complain that crossbreeding between the two species is resulting in animals that resemble mule deer in body, but whose antlers are characterized by beams and tines rather than forks and mass.

Last week, I had the opportunity to hunt in a region that has large, healthy herds of both types of deer, specifically the southeastern corner of Montana and the northeastern corner of Wyoming, near the town of Alzada, Mont. Since I’m not a wildlife biologist, I’m not going to draw any conclusions on crossbreeding or an ongoing battle for habitat, but I will share a few observations based on 5 full days of hunting.

While both mule deer and whitetails were plentiful on all of the ranches we hunted in both states, outfitter Mike Watkins of Trophies Plus Outfitters says that the majority of his Montana hunters kill mule deer, while the majority of his clients who hunt in Wyoming put their tags on whitetails. (My hunting partner and I had a tag in each state, and I indeed shot a muley in Montana and a whitetail in Wyoming; Jake shot a Wyoming mule deer and a Montana whitetail.)

The ranches we hunted were all within a 20-mile radius, but the terrain was quite different between the two states. The Wyoming ranch featured more varied terrain, with stands of ponderosa pines; deep, wooded canyons that opened up into sprawling pastures; and rolling sagebrush flats that dropped off suddenly at sheer sandstone cliffs.  Just a few miles to the north, the Montana ranches are much flatter and open and are defined by seas of sagebrush-dotted pastures and hay fields that are laced with meandering, oak- and willow-choked creek bottoms.

Later in the week, the weather turned cold and seemed to kick all of the deer into rut, but for our first two days of hunting, daytime temps were in the 50s. During this time, aside from feeding in open fields at first and last light, the whitetails seemed to hew to their reputation—keeping to the cover—whereas the mule deer were far more likely to be seen in the open throughout the day. Once the rut cranked up we saw both whitetails and mule deer in the open throughout the day, but rarely did we see both species of deer together.

The way a rancher works his cattle has a big impact on the feeding behavior of the two species, says Watkins. If he leaves his cows in the creek bottoms late in the season, this tends to push the whitetails out of those areas because they don’t like to compete with the livestock for food. The mule deer, on the other hand, don’t seem to be affected by the cattle.

As for crossbreeding, Watkins’ son Richard, our guide for the week, says that he’s rarely if ever seen a whitetail buck try and breed a mule deer doe, but he has seen it the other way around. The reasoning, according to Richard, lies in the size of the deer. Muley bucks are able to more easily dominate diminutive whitetail does, whereas whitetail bucks tend to be rebuffed by the larger mule deer does.

Do you live in an area that holds both whitetails and mule deer, or have you hunted in such a region? We’d love to hear your observations about the species’ interactions in the comments.

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from Tom Anderson wrote 1 year 21 weeks ago

I concur with HBhunter. I hunt in NE Montana and observe the same types of behavior among the bucks. I've taken both species with bow and gun and in a lot of the country around the Fort Peck Damn area it is not uncommon to see Mule deer and Whitetails concentrated together. I have a couple of WT racks that show forks on tines above the main beam. Otherwise the bodies and other characteristics look very much like whitetails and the bucks were in classic WT habitat. The author makes the point that WT bucks seem to be relentless in following the does. During the rut, I've observed WT bucks chasing WT does across open wheat fields where one would never find them during the rest of the year. I'm not sure that cross breeding is a big problem at this time. It would be interesting if some research in controlled settings using artificial insemination could be done to more closely understand the genetic implications.

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from HBhunter wrote 1 year 21 weeks ago

I think it may be the other way around as far crossbreeding is concerned. Here we have a mix of both species and from my observations the whitetail buck is the one most responsible for the breeding.

This is because of the behavior characteristics of the species.

A whitetail buck will chase a doe in heat until the point at which she allows him to breed. Even if it takes him across the county. A mule deer buck will not put in that effort. If he tries to breed a doe and she runs off he won't immediately chase her down and try again. He'll hang out and wait awhile with her until he thinks she will accept him and try again. But he's not aggressive like the whitetail is about it.
End result is that whitetail bucks will chase a doe until she allows breeding while a muley buck will not. So Mule deer bucks breed very little whitetail does while Whitetail bucks will breed with anything that stops running from them.

Hope this helps and doesn't muddle things up?.....

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from HBhunter wrote 1 year 21 weeks ago

I think it may be the other way around as far crossbreeding is concerned. Here we have a mix of both species and from my observations the whitetail buck is the one most responsible for the breeding.

This is because of the behavior characteristics of the species.

A whitetail buck will chase a doe in heat until the point at which she allows him to breed. Even if it takes him across the county. A mule deer buck will not put in that effort. If he tries to breed a doe and she runs off he won't immediately chase her down and try again. He'll hang out and wait awhile with her until he thinks she will accept him and try again. But he's not aggressive like the whitetail is about it.
End result is that whitetail bucks will chase a doe until she allows breeding while a muley buck will not. So Mule deer bucks breed very little whitetail does while Whitetail bucks will breed with anything that stops running from them.

Hope this helps and doesn't muddle things up?.....

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from Tom Anderson wrote 1 year 21 weeks ago

I concur with HBhunter. I hunt in NE Montana and observe the same types of behavior among the bucks. I've taken both species with bow and gun and in a lot of the country around the Fort Peck Damn area it is not uncommon to see Mule deer and Whitetails concentrated together. I have a couple of WT racks that show forks on tines above the main beam. Otherwise the bodies and other characteristics look very much like whitetails and the bucks were in classic WT habitat. The author makes the point that WT bucks seem to be relentless in following the does. During the rut, I've observed WT bucks chasing WT does across open wheat fields where one would never find them during the rest of the year. I'm not sure that cross breeding is a big problem at this time. It would be interesting if some research in controlled settings using artificial insemination could be done to more closely understand the genetic implications.

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