Mule Deer: The Ultimate Alpine Game

Like that of other great game animals, the muls deer's mystique is inextricably entwined with its environment.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Our favorite animals say volumes about what we are, or what we'd like to be. In Montana, where I live, there are lots of horse people-a few of whom are real cowgirls and cowboys. Most, however, are wannabes. Me? I've always been a wannabe Mountain Man, which is how I met my favorite game animal, the mule deer.

As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I dreamed about running away and living off the land in the hilly woods north of our family farm. My first glimpse of real mountains came in 1953 when, after graduating from high school, I drove west with my older brother to become a structural ironworker in Montana. The Badlands of North Dakota were impressive enough, but it was the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, rising like sheeted ghosts above the plains, that really ignited my imagination. Having hunted since the age of 10 with a .22-caliber rifle that I purchased with money I had earned trapping, I was also intrigued by the herds of fleet-footed antelope and strange-looking deer with big ears that we saw along the way.

Ironwork suited me fine because I love being in high places, and walking narrow steel beams hundreds of feet above the ground was almost like climbing mountains. Two years later, I married a prairie flower named Mary, and by 1957 we made our home in the Rockies raising healthy young Montanans on diets of mule deer and elk meat.

I purchased a 35mm camera and a telephoto lens with the declared intention of selling wildlife photos and hunting stories to the various hunting and shooting magazines, which I read avidly. I was naive but also lucky, because only a year later outdoor life bought two of my photos-one of a mule deer running through a herd of elk and another of running bighorn sheep-which it published with articles written by my hero, the late Jack O'Connor. I was in hog heaven. A few months later, outdoor life published a story I had written about elk hunting. The money from those sales paid for the camera, with enough left over to buy a newfangled electric typewriter, which Mary used to transcribe my handwritten manuscripts. "This is easy and a great way to make a living," I wrongly assumed. But, having been paid for pursuing alpine adventures with gun and camera, I was now a part-time Mountain Man. Fortunately, I didn't quit my day job.

To those who might ask why anyone would pick the often maligned mule deer as their favorite game animal, I'll admit that I came to the choice gradually and grudgingly. My enlightenment was analogous to the guy who, after playing the field, finally realizes that the girl next door is the fairest maiden of them all. Like many western hunters, I took muleys for granted, primarily because they were so plentiful.

Then, one day in the 1970s, while camping with our three teenage sons, it dawned on me (and they agreed) that we'd had more fun hunting mule deer than any other species. A number of years passed, during which I either hunted or photographed most North American big game, before I concluded that, for me at least, the mule deer was best in the West and, arguably, the best on the continent-not because I loved other species less, but because I love mule deer more.

** Picking a Favorite**
The mule deer's vast domain extends from the Badlands of the Dakotas to the coastal ranges of Washington, Oregon and California, and from subarctic Alberta and British Columbia to northern Mexico. But the ones I know and love best are those that dwell high in the Rocky Mountains, where they epitomize alpine game.

"What about species such as bighorn sheep, mountain goats and elk?" you might ask. As I see it, stalking mule deer is the poor man's equivalent of bighorn sheep hunting. Apart from paying upward of $100,000 for a sheep-hunting permit at a ritzy sportsmen's club auction or drawing a once-in-a-lifetime permit in a state lottery-which I actually did-your chances of hunting bighorn sheep are slim tnil. Moreover, mule deer are the superior game animal: more elusive, more adaptable and noticeably smarter. If bighorns were as smart as mule deer, there would be far more of them.

And mountain goats are even less adaptable or intelligent than sheep. Though I've never seen mule deer traversing sheer cliffs, as only goats can, I have hunted muleys at elevations from which I could look down on goats.

I am so torn between elk and mule deer that when picking a favorite, I must rely on my original criterion of "having fun." Don't misunderstand me; I enjoy elk hunting. But the single word that describes it best is not "fun"; it's "work." Elk are much harder to find-meaning more miles to go and more mountains to climb-and when you finally get one on the ground the hard work really starts. Com-pared with elk, mule deer are easy to carry out.

The most egregious and unsubstantiated charge against mule deer is that they are stupid. It is interesting, however, that those who make the charge seldom take trophy-class bucks. Moreover, if anything, the acid test for intelligence in an animal is its ability to survive and thrive in a wide variety of climates and terrains, as mule deer have.

Here, one is compelled to compare the muley to whitetail deer, which are generally accorded genius status. The fundamental differences between the species result not from deductive reasoning or acquired skills, but from instinctive survival techniques related to their environments. When threatened, whitetails run and hide, which is a remarkably effective defense against rifle-toting hunters. Even the best sharpshooters can't hit what they can't see. Though mule deer are surprisingly good at hiding, their primary escape technique is to run just fast enough and far enough to keep safe distances between themselves and their pursuers. This works very well against four-footed predators and arrow-slinging humans, but not against today's flat-shooting rifles. However, the mule deer seems to be catching on fast.

**High Adventure **
Though I've taken several trophy bucks, I've never measured the quality of any hunt in terms of antler size. For example, early on the morning of November 12, 1992, outfitter Keith Atcheson, my friend Glen Sapir and I left our vehicle and began walking along the serpentine south rim of Montana's vast and incredibly rugged Missouri River Breaks. Our goal was to relocate a huge mule deer buck that had eluded us the previous evening by disappearing into the labyrinthine canyons of the Breaks. "These deer can climb like mountain goats," Atcheson said. "But with estrous does around, that buck will be back here by morning, and we'll find him."

When legal shooting time arrived, we slipped onto a point overlooking the head of a large draw where the dimly lit mosaic of snow patches and bare ground made game quite hard to see. Soon, movement on the far side of a draw about 200 yards away caught my attention, and, through my 7x50 binoculars, I saw a mule deer doe running to the right and a large buck running uphill to the left. "Good buck, good buck!" Atcheson said. "Take him before he goes over the ridge."

Needing a rest, I quickly laid my daypack on the ground and flopped down beside it. Then, with my right thigh resting squarely on a cactus, I began searching the area through my riflescope.

"The buck is standing broadside on the skyline," said Sapir, who had already taken a buck.

His antlers seemed less imposing than they had appeared through the binoculars, but I attributed that to the lower 4X magnification of my riflescope. Trying to ignore the now searing pain of cactus spines, I put the crosshairs behind the deer's shoulder and carefully squeezed the trigger.

"You shot the doe!" Atcheson said in amazement. "The buck is beside that tree on the skyline. He never even flinched when you shot."

He stood for a few seconds with regal antlers silhouetted against the sky before turning and bounding away. Questions and self-doubts raced through my mind as we hurried to the spot where, instead of an illegal doe, a mediocre 3x3 buck lay dead on the ground. Like the larger buck that I had first seen and Sapir and Atcheson were fixated on, this one was also on the skyline.

My companions felt terrible about what had happened, but other than feeling a bit stupid, I wasn't bothered by it. It had been a great hunt in magnificent country with fine companions. I had made a clean kill at 250 yards on a deer that would make great table fare. After pulling the last of about 100 cactus spines from my leg, I could even laugh about it.

Today, warning flags are being raised about the mule deer's well-being. Overharvesting by hunters, an overabundance of natural predators, extreme weather and range encroachments by subdivisions have combined to reduce mule deer populations throughout the West. Some doomsayers have all but written the mule deer's obituary. Though the situation is serious, I am convinced that the gray deer's glory days are far from over. Among their many attributes, mule deer multiply very rapidly. With better management by game departments, which is happening, they will flourish again. Besides, what would a Mountain Man do without mule deer?d for a few seconds with regal antlers silhouetted against the sky before turning and bounding away. Questions and self-doubts raced through my mind as we hurried to the spot where, instead of an illegal doe, a mediocre 3x3 buck lay dead on the ground. Like the larger buck that I had first seen and Sapir and Atcheson were fixated on, this one was also on the skyline.

My companions felt terrible about what had happened, but other than feeling a bit stupid, I wasn't bothered by it. It had been a great hunt in magnificent country with fine companions. I had made a clean kill at 250 yards on a deer that would make great table fare. After pulling the last of about 100 cactus spines from my leg, I could even laugh about it.

Today, warning flags are being raised about the mule deer's well-being. Overharvesting by hunters, an overabundance of natural predators, extreme weather and range encroachments by subdivisions have combined to reduce mule deer populations throughout the West. Some doomsayers have all but written the mule deer's obituary. Though the situation is serious, I am convinced that the gray deer's glory days are far from over. Among their many attributes, mule deer multiply very rapidly. With better management by game departments, which is happening, they will flourish again. Besides, what would a Mountain Man do without mule deer?