Mule Deer Revival
Article by Russell A. Graves
Photos by Russell A. Graves, Ben Masters, and Wyman Meinzer
When I saw him across the field, I knew the deer was special. Or, I should say, special in the context of mule deer in the Texas Rolling Plains. I’ve seen mule deer bucks as big as this one in the Trans-Pecos or on tightly managed ranches in the southeastern Panhandle but none this big in any kind of free-range context.
At first, he had his head down in the grass that was burnished a pale yellow after a dry summer and a curing freeze back in early November. Even from 100 yards away, the width and mass of his antlers was obvious. This was the biggest mule deer I’ve ever seen in northwest Texas.
Deer like this are rare around here so I had to attempt to get a picture. The wind was in my favor and the sun at my back so I crept easterly towards him taking care to move slowly and use the spotty junipers as cover. Within five minutes, I was 40 yards away—a perfect distance for an image. Raising my camera, I took one frame and he looked up. Not directly at me, but past me. I knew he could see me but he wasn’t spooked. So, I sat with him for 10 more minutes as he fed.
Big, wide and mature, he was the antithesis of most mule deer I’ve seen around here over the past two decades. Fork horns and six points are fairly common but wide and heavily massed mule deer bucks have always eluded me.
Are the big deer that much smarter and able to evade detection better than smaller deer? Even better than a whitetail? I don’t think so. Big mule deer are simply rare.
But it shouldn’t be that way.
Conventional wisdom dictates in this modern era of enlightened deer management, mule deer antler sizes should be getting bigger and bigger. If you were to take an average of whitetail antler size over the past quarter century, chances are you’d see the trend line heading up, albeit ever so slightly. Mule deer, at least anecdotally, seem to be headed in the opposite direction.
When I first moved to Childress County in 1993, it was not uncommon to see big-antlered, mature mule deer. It was not uncommon to see big herds of mule deer in wheat fields. Sometimes more than 100 deer grazed in the fields, and at least 15 percent would be of trophy quality by most standards. By the end of the decade, I could see that the numbers of mature deer were diminishing.
My analysis isn’t scientific at all—just a general observation. But, it was an observation that seemed to hold true even as the years ticked by early in the new century.
In the early 1990s, the Texas AgriLife Extension Service reported that across the entire Rolling Plains, just over a million acres was leased for hunting. As word got out through the outdoor media in the late 1990s about the quality of whitetails and mule deer, the number of acres under lease steadily increased as did the number of hunters. While correlation does not imply causation, the number of mature mule deer began to fall precipitously.
A 2019 bulletin provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist Dana Wright backs up the thesis: “…TPWD data for the past 14 years indicate annual, intensive mule deer buck harvest has created a skewed sex ratio and an age structure inordinately weighted towards young deer in the buck segment of the population.”
The Mule Deer
Do not misunderstand. Hunters and hunting pressure are just one component of the complex puzzle that is the Texas Desert Mule Deer subspecies. As far as Texas deer, the desert mule deer is the less common cousin of the whitetail, Texas’ most prominent deer.
Because its range is found in the least populated regions of Texas, many aren’t as familiar with the deer that roams chiefly in the Texas Panhandle and the mountains and basins of the Trans-Pecos. The mule deer is a laid-back cousin to the more manic whitetail, and that’s part of the biological problem that makes the species arguably easier to hunt than its whitetail cousin.
In addition, the mule deer as a species isn’t as adaptable as the whitetail, doesn’t breed as quickly or as often as a whitetail, has a narrow range of acceptable habitats, and doesn’t feed or breed as aggressively as the whitetail and therefore, is more easily extirpated and negatively impacted by over-harvesting.
Historically, mule deer resided in nearly every Texas county west of the 100th meridian. By the middle part of the 20th century, over-hunting and habitat mismanagement reduced their range substantially and pushed them into the desert mountains of western Texas and tiny pockets in the Panhandle. Currently, due to a trap and translocate program that ended in 1988 and stricter adherence to sound habitat and population management philosophies, their numbers and range have expanded from the low point of the 20th century. By 2010, mule deer numbers in the region reached an all-time high.
In body size, mule deer are slightly larger than whitetails, and the first thing you’ll probably notice are its large namesake ears that resemble those of a mule. A main physical characteristic that makes mule deer easy to spot is the white rump with a black tipped tail. While whitetails generally prefer wetter and vegetatively dense habitats found in the eastern two-thirds of Texas, mule deer prefer dry, open country and range over as much as 10 times more area than whitetails. Their diets vary as well.
Combine hunting pressure with habitat changes and the biological nuances of the mule deer and a picture begins to form that explains why the mule deer is the only big game species in decline in North America.
With stakeholders voicing their concerns about the antler quality of mule deer, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department decided to implement a practice that’s been used with success in improving age structure, sex-ratio and ultimately antler quality in whitetail deer. Starting in 2018, experimental antler restrictions were implemented in six Rolling Plains counties including Briscoe, Childress, Cottle, Floyd, Hall and Motley counties. After three years, harvest data will be assessed and at the end of four hunting seasons, the department will propose either to extend the experiment, modify the antler restriction or permanently terminate the experiment.
“We received lots of comments concerning the skewed buck to doe ratio that landowners and hunters were seeing on their properties,” said TPWD biologist Dana Wright whose work territory encompasses the counties affected by the newly implemented antler restrictions. “Our surveys for the area indicated that it was as high as one buck for every 6.6 does.”
According to the department, their data suggest that for the past 14 years, intensive mule deer buck harvest, “…has created a skewed sex ratio and an age structure inordinately weighted towards young deer in the buck segment of the population.”
The restrictions are pretty straightforward: the harvest of any buck with an outside spread under 20 inches is prohibited. In other words, a buck must have antlers wider than his outstretched ears. By doing so, TPWD said the regulation should help to improve overall hunter as well as manager satisfaction. In addition, the restrictions are hoped to improve sex ratios and age class and improve reproductive successes and fawn recruitment.
“The antler restriction was implemented in response to landowner and hunter requests for a regulation that would limit over-harvest of young bucks,” Wright said.
She said there was also concern from both landowners and hunters in the area that the quality of the mule deer bucks they were seeing had been significantly affected by the lack of mature bucks primarily due to the over-harvest of young bucks in the area. Prior to the antler restriction, Wright explained, 73 percent of the mule deer bucks harvested in those counties were 4 1/2 years old or younger.
“The experimental antler restriction is meant to shift the harvest to older bucks,” she said.
According to TPWD data, during the first year of the experiment, 65 percent of the bucks brought to the check stations were 5 1/2 years old or older. The sex ratio, which averaged 4.5 does per buck (an indicator of intense buck harvest). After the initial year of the experimental antler restriction, the average sex ratio was improved by almost half. Helicopter surveys showed more bucks than in years past and regions surveyed showed 2.6 does per buck—signs that the restrictions are paying positive dividends.
The Whitetail Analogy
The basis for antler restrictions is nothing new. For two decades, whitetail deer in parts of Texas have been under the guise of antler restrictions. Beginning with six counties east of Austin, the antler restrictions went into place in 1999. According to the department’s research, in the 1990s 52 percent of the bucks harvested in the counties under the initial, experimental guidelines were 1 1/2 years old. By 2008, the percentage of bucks in that age class had dropped to 21 percent.
Conversely in the 1990s (in regards to older age bucks 4.5 years or older), only 4 percent of the bucks were in the older age class. By 2008, 41 percent of the deer harvested fell into the advanced age class.
Because of the success of the initial counties, the regulations began to creep into other counties in the region. In all areas where whitetail antler restrictions were implemented, improved sex ratios, age classes and antler quality have all seen steady improvement.
In short, antler restrictions work.
While only one year of the mule deer antler restriction experiment is under their belt, Wright said that the management strategy seems to be working as planned and that her constituents are satisfied.
“I have received a lot of positive comments from hunters and landowners saying that they have seen more mule deer bucks this past year, but it's still too early to tell what effect the antler restriction is having on the population,” she said. “We hope to see a lot of older bucks at the mule deer check stations and continue to hear stories about all the great bucks that people are starting to see in the area. Every week someone calls me or sends me pictures of nice bucks they are seeing, complimenting the new regulation.