Mule Deer Adaptation

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My biggest frustration is empty woods. In places like Monte Cristo and the Manti-Lasal range, a hunter can travel past supreme habitat all day long without catching sight of a single deer. Thirty years ago, these places were crawling with deer, even giving up dozens of record-book bucks along the way. Today, not much about these woods has changed except there are almost no deer. And the few deer that still exist are the neurotic descendants of lone survivors.

During the seventies and eighties, while hundreds of trigger-happy hunters clambered around the mountainsides shooting wildly at any buck that dared step into the open, those few crazy-bucks held up in the thickest trees. They sprung from cover at the slightest human sight or scent and barreled along thick tree lines and out of sight without glancing back. Even something as benign as a squirrel’s bark would send these wide-eyed crazies flying into the next valley, never stopping to question the validity of the threat as they retreated into some dark hole on some private property or high mountain cliff. Today, the descendants of these neurotic deer are all that’s left—no longer Odocoileus hemionus, but Odocoileus neuroticus.

My friend Scott and I often travel together down a long and dusty road leading to an area on Monte Cristo where we both hunt. Every time we drive past a certain clearing in the trees above the road, Scott points out the exact location where his brother-in-law once shot a little two-point buck long ago. This appears to be the highlight of his family’s gun hunting tradition in recent years. Now, each time I drive down that road and look at that hillside clearing, I can’t help but wonder if that little buck was indeed the last of a generation of careless mule deer—yesterday’s deer.

What the modern mule deer lacks in numbers it makes up for in elusiveness. As an example, there are a few spots where I hunt that are always covered in deer sign—tracks, rubs, and droppings everywhere. But in a hundred days of hunting you’ll never actually see a single animal—at least not during daylight. It’s well known that deer are crepuscular animals (being most active in the morning and evening). But on heavily pressured public areas where I hunt, I’ve observed that today’s deer are mostly, if not completely, nocturnal. For the bowhunter, setting the alarm for 5 a.m. is almost useless because the deer have already fed, watered, and traveled to hidden bedding areas by starlight. That “great” area you chose to sit and watch before first light, remains quiet and empty as the sun comes up. It doesn’t matter how early you arrive because you’ve already missed the action. Utah wildlife biologist and author, Walt Prothero, wrote extensively on the mule deer’s keen ability to adapt to modern dangers. In his book Mule Deer Quest he wrote the following:

“But mule deer are quick learners and highly adaptable… The bucks that didn’t pause to watch their backtrail survived to do most of the breeding and pass on genes that made them more secretive. Bucks have essentially become nocturnal, at least during hunting seasons. They don’t pause in the open during daylight hours, and they won’t even come out in the open unless it’s dark. Most won’t move unless they’re certain they’ve been located (Prothero, 2002).”

Traditionally, mule deer experts have agreed that mule deer must rise out of their beds to feed occasionally throughout the day in order to maintain adequate energy and fat stores. However, in most of the high-pressured public areas where I hunt, I have observed that this is no longer the case. These modern mulies have simply adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle which provides plenty enough food ingestion at nighttime to negate daytime feeding. It’s like saying humans have to get up to eat occasionally during the night to survive. It’s just not necessary.

Another example of the mule deer’s ability to adapt to adverse conditions took place following the particularly harsh winter of 1983-1984. Every single deer in the mountains of Northern Utah was forced down to the lowest possible elevations in order to survive the extremely high snowpack. This forced many of the herds into our cities and even farther into the farmlands west of Ogden. By springtime, many deer had simply adapted to the city lifestyle and never did return to the mountains. Even today, small herds of mule deer are living year-round in the suburbs of Logan, Brigham City, North Ogden, West Weber, Hooper, Farmington, Bountiful, and many other small cities.

This amazing ability to adapt to innumerable adverse conditions—primarily man-made conditions—is all that’s kept the wily mule deer from becoming an endangered species.

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