The following is a multi-part article about modern mule deer behavior, adaptation, and the future of hunting.
Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 1
BRILLIANT! This word echoed in my head throughout the entire deer hunt this year while observing mature bucks and their ingenious evasive tactics. For the most part, I knew where the big bucks lived, but getting close seemed almost impossible. In recent years, these highly pressured, public land bucks (and even does) have developed fascinating tactics to avoid modern hunters. Here are some examples:
While hunting in this unit last year, I stumbled across an ancient flint arrowhead. As I held the little piece of history in my hand, I thought of two things. First, how serendipitous it was to find such a rare bowhunting treasure left by ancient bowhunters. And second, part of the reason why the deer in were so dang smart was because ancient folk have been chasing these critters for centuries before us moderns came along. Unlike a lot of other units, the deer here have been mastering the art of human evasion for centuries. Thanks a lot, Native Americans! Other than people-predators, mule deer are stalked year-round by cougars, coyotes, bears, and now wolves. In order to survive, they must be on constant high alert. Now throw in ancient hunters, modern bowhunters, muzzleloader hunters, rifle hunters, and poachers, and pretty soon the few remaining deer are either super-survivalists or non-existent.
Early one morning on this year’s bowhunt I watched a group of bucks feeding along a steep and open mountainside. One of the bucks was a solid 4-point and worth a closer look. Unfortunately there was no way to approach them without being spotted. So, I waited until the sun came up and for the bucks to meander over a finger ridge to bed. They weren’t in a hurry and I figured they’d bed a short distance from where they disappeared. This was NOT the case. I found their tracks alright and followed them for quite some distance. They meandered through some dense scrub-aspens, then dropped down the canyon for another couple hundred yards, then turned left and continued along a steep and rocky slope. Eventually they took a sharp turn and went straight back up the mountain. What the heck were they doing! It seemed random and chaotic. At that point I realized it was futile to continue pursuing these travelling bucks through such thick and noisy terrain. As I stood there trying to figure out what to do next, I suddenly heard the deer above me jump up and bound away. They had bedded in such a way that anyone crazy enough to follow them would eventually get winded by the rising thermals. Pretty obvious, but BRILLIANT on their part!
Last season while hunting the same unit, I watched three very nice 4-points feed atop an open hillside. As the sun got higher, the bucks disappeared over the ridge. I climbed after them, being careful to keep the wind in my face. The whole area was above timberline so I knew that if I could get to their elevation I would see where they bedded. Well, when I got there they were gone. I followed in the direction they had headed and found some sparse timber that I was sure they’d bedded in. But there was no trace of them. I spent the entire day exploring every piece of cover in the area, but they were gone. I was perplexed that they could simply disappear in the wide open. BRILLIANT! I returned to the same spot this year, and sure enough the bucks were there again. It was early so I watched them feed for a while. This time I was perched across the valley but on their same elevation. I was certain I could watch where they bedded this time. Well, the bucks dropped into a small draw and disappeared momentarily, but never reappeared. Sure of where they bedded, I made a stalk. But when I got there, the bucks were gone. Again, I wasted half the day circling around the mountain trying to figure out where they went, but never did.
On the last day of this year’s bowhunt, I went back to the same hillside and observed a lone four-point buck feeding in the open brush above timberline. There was plenty of time for a stalk, so I waited patiently to see which direction he was feeding before entering the thick timber that separated us. Interestingly, there was a small group of does feeding just below him. As the does moved along, so did he. Apparently he was using the does as a security fence between the pine-line and the open feeding area. From the tree line, a hunter would have to get through the doe group to get close enough for a shot. BRILLIANT! With the clock ticking, I decided to make the stalk. Well, I didn’t get too far. Before I even got to the timber that separated us, an unseen doe busted me, snorted once, and trotted off. The buck stood staring in my direction for fifteen minutes before wandering off, never to be seen again.
While all this was going on, my wife Esther had set up an ambush in some thick timber adjacent to a feeding zone. She was similarly impressed by the deer in her area. At one point, two doe fed along. One doe had apparently been relegated to security and wasn’t allowed to feed. When she finally did put her head down to eat something, the other doe ran over and began swatting her with its hooves, driving the security-only doe back to standing watch. BRILLIANT!
Just about every deer group I’ve seen has a security system. While feeding is high on the deer’s priority list, sheer survival supersedes everything. In most cases, a herd will have a lead doe (or for elk, a lead cow). The lead doe is generally the oldest, wisest, and strongest doe. She rarely feeds while the other deer are feeding, but stands guard instead. She only feeds when she feels secure or while other does in the group are bedded. During the 2012 archery extended hunt, I watched a very large doe walking a head of a small group of deer including a very large buck. She emerged from some thick oak-brush just twenty yards below me. She couldn’t see or smell me, but somehow suspected danger. She continually buried her head in the brush, and then whipped it up looking one way, then the other, in attempt to catch a predator’s movement. I watched her mock-feed like this for about twenty minutes while the other deer fed around her with nary a concern. In all that time, the lead doe never ate a single thing. BRILLIANT!
These evasive tactics are not only used by deer, but elk too. While deer hunting in Southern Utah, I was sitting out a thunderstorm beneath a large pine tree at the edge of a large, steep meadow. It was mid-afternoon and out of the timber emerged a whole herd of elk, approximately 50 head, including a giant 6×6 herd bull. The herd fed into the meadow, and eventually two large cows split off and headed down to a small stream. At the stream, neither cow watered but instead stood facing in opposite directions. I was a little perplexed by this strange behavior, but not a minute later the 6×6 herd bull began making his way down to the stream. When he got there, he stomped into the water, drank for a couple minutes, and then wandered back to the herd. The two sentinel cows never drank, but just stood watch and then followed the bull back up. It then occurred to me that the cows were strictly providing sentinel duty for the bull, putting security before water. BRILLIANT!