feature By: Jack Ballard | September, 19
On numerous occasions, I’ve spotted mule deer at similar elevations as bighorn sheep and mountain goats in various locations in the northern and southern Rocky Mountains during the summer and early autumn. One of the largest racks I’ve seen on a buck on public land came into view just at sunset on a late-August backpacking trip in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The animal was visible for a few moments as it crossed one of the range’s highest plateaus at over 10,000 feet above sea level.
Why do they ascend to such lofty areas? Deer, some experts have observed, are just like people when it comes to basic motivations. Show a mule deer buck a place where there is really good things to eat and a comfortable place to sleep, and it’s likely to stick around.
Lush, green forage is available at high elevations long after heat and a dearth of moisture have dried vegetation in the lowlands. Access to fine meals in the alpine zone satisfies the mule deer’s appetite in the summer. Temperature and bugs are also a factor. In general, heat decreases 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit for each additional 1,000 feet of elevation on sunny days. Thus, a mule deer lounging among the stunted trees at 10,000 feet contends with daytime temperatures of just around 60 degrees when it’s hitting 80 degrees at 6,000 feet. Studies have also shown that deer, like humans, enjoy the alpine breezes that keep bugs at bay. For hunters seeking mule deer in the early seasons (seasons involving archery, muzzleloader or rifle equipment from early September through mid-October), it’s worth noting bucks will be motivated by forage, comfort and security from disturbance versus the reproductive instincts that come into play in late October and November.
Whether buck or doe, fawn or gray-face, mule deer are somewhat unique among hoofed animals, a tribe known to mammal physiologists for a relatively small gut and short intestinal tract. These features force them to ingest less forage than many of their ruminant kin and focus on easily digested staples with high nutritional content. Thus, mule deer are quite selective in their use of range, seeking niches with the best forage within the broader boundaries that constitute a herd’s year-round range.
Where do they find the best feed during the early hunting seasons? To solve that riddle in a particular area, and hence discover the haunts of early-season bucks, it’s helpful to look at late-summer nutrition from a general standpoint and then focus on more specific habitats.
Mule deer are lovers of forbs, leafy green plants (nongrasses) that provide a deer with high levels of nutrition. Researchers have found that forbs may make up nearly half of a mule deer’s nutritional intake in the summer (46 percent). Although these browsers still consume lots of leaves, twigs and buds from trees and shrubs during the warm months of the year, their penchant for forbs usually takes them to areas where these plants are most abundant.
In the mountains, mule deer typically head to higher elevations for the summer. Brad Banulis, a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) in Montrose, urges hunters to look high in the early seasons. “In my region I’d advise hunters to generally look at the upper elevation range in a unit, usually in the alpine zone if that habitat is available.”
Lofty montane valleys, especially those hanging right below a major ridge, provide deer with seasonal forbs to eat, shade and cover in which to lounge and easy access to steep or timbered terrain in which to elude predators and people. Buck hunters should note a couple of factors making antlered deer different from does. Multiple studies of mountain mule deer have conclusively shown bucks summer at higher elevations than does and are tolerant of more open terrain than does with fawns.
“In mild conditions bucks stay higher than the does. If it’s a really mild fall, larger bucks may not come down from the high country until around the first of November when they’re moved by the rut,” says Banulis. He further notes that older bucks in his area seem more fond of dark timber and “nasty holes” than other deer.
On a warm day in early October, I sweated my way up a mountainside in northwestern Wyoming. The apex of the range loomed some 700 vertical feet above. My route, along a sharp ridge extending from the summit in an easterly direction, displayed two classic features of Rocky Mountain habitat. On the south-facing aspect, grass and low shrubs dominated the vegetation. The northern facet harbored a dense stand of evergreens, into which my prying eyes could see but 50 yards.
At regular intervals, I eased over the ridgeline from my course on its southern side to peer into the dark timber. As much a resting tactic as pure hunting, my expectations of sighting game in such a manner were low on that sunny midafternoon. But as I slowly brought the forest into view for the umpteenth time, sunlight striking the pointed tips of an antler just inside the treeline caught my attention. Adopting the movements of a tired garden slug, I very slowly inched up the slope for a better view.
The buck at last came into view. The shiny inches of antler I’d spotted were the terminus of a mule deer’s exceptionally tall, very heavy rack with deep forks on each side. Lounging in its bed, facing away, the buck was oblivious to my presence. The antlers were very narrow for an animal of this caliber, but the rack was unique, in part for the broad, knurled browtines I estimated at 6 inches in length.
Bringing a Marlin lever-action rifle to my shoulder, I found the buck’s front shoulder in the aperture sight. “Bang,” I said softly. The buck’s head swiveled instantly toward the source of the sound. It lunged from its bed and in a bound was lost in the timber. Ruing the fact it was an elk tag in my pocket, not a license for deer, I smiled, shook my head and continued up the ridgeline.
Mule deer inhabit the prairies as well as the mountains, sometimes in substantially greater numbers. Their late-summer priorities on the plains are identical to those of their kin found at alpine elevations. But the places where they find high-quality forage and cover are different. In native prairie habitat, mule deer tend to congregate in draws and breaks during the month of September. These folds in the flatlands not only offer escape cover, they also serve as natural funnels channeling water from thunderstorms and rain showers into the bottoms. The combination of more moisture and shade in the depths of the ravines (even shallow ones) allow forbs and nutritious shrubs to flourish in these locations while vegetation on the surrounding prairie is baking.
Water is critical to mule deer health and survival. Proximity to surface water is seldom an issue for mountain mule deer. “The high elevation habitat around here isn’t usually affected by precipitation variables and water scarcity,” explained Jeff Yost, a CPW wildlife biologist in Steamboat Springs. It may, however, be the most important key in locating early-season deer in prairie habitats during a drought, or for finding muleys in desert-like environments year-in and year-out. Mule deer need around a half-gallon of water each day per 100 pounds of body weight. Thus, a 250-pound buck needs 5 quarts (1.25 gallons) of water on a daily basis. Some of that may come from vegetation, but in most cases, mule deer ingest most of their liquid from a surface water source, be it a creek, spring, reservoir or stock tank.
How far will mule deer venture from water? Not as far as many hunters might think. Research studies from Texas to New Mexico to Montana have shown that mule deer densities increase in relation to a reliable water source. Deer are rarely found more than 1.5 miles from water, even where habitat would otherwise seem ideal. However, some observational studies have found that mule deer maintain something of a buffer zone around watering areas that are subject to frequent disturbance by humans or highly used by livestock. In these cases, deer may infrequently be found within a half mile of the water source unless they are traveling to or from it to drink. Big-buck hunters on the prowl in arid environments are thus advised to seek pockets of remote habitat with the best vegetation located from around .5 to 1.5 miles from water.
Early-season hunters can up their odds of finding a buck by attending to another desirable habitat feature. One study of mule deer use of habitat at two locations in Texas confirmed what some seasoned hunters have concluded through boots-on-the-ground observation. Mule deer seek out locations adjacent to canyon rims when available. Slopes beneath rimrocks with northern exposure offer three benefits to bucks: a comparatively cool environment in hot climates, escape cover and a broad field of view beneath them.
Understanding the types of habitat mule deer favor in early seasons is one key to locating them. Another is investing enough time and effort to thoroughly scout the best niches before and during the hunt. Both Banulis and Yost are adamant regarding the need for early-season, high-country hunters to spend adequate time glassing favorable habitat.
“Patience is the key in glassing high basins,” says Banulis. “Be looking at treeline or in the willows just above treeline. Evening and morning are best. Wait for deer to move and they’ll be a lot easier to spot.”
Yost spends plenty of time in his area conducting bighorn sheep surveys at very high elevations above treeline, where he often spots mule deer while he’s searching for sheep. “If you’re not seeing deer in the open, look in the krummholz (the stunted, gnarled trees growing at timberline). It’s often taller and hides bedded deer better than people realize. If you’re looking down from above treeline, focus on the edge of the timber. That’s where I see most of the mule deer during my sheep surveys.”
Mule deer seekers hunting lower elevations or in agricultural areas during the early seasons can also take a cue from these two biologists. During warm periods in late summer and early autumn, when deer are beginning to develop their winter coats, very early morning and late evening are the coolest portions of the daylight hours and the best times to catch deer on the move. Time and patience spent glassing habitat pockets that provide the best forage, water and cover are as valuable on the plains as in the high country.
Early-season deer hunters in the mountains should be aware of some precautions that may also influence their success. Yost cautions mountain hunters to be aware of other recreationists in the backcountry, both other hunters and nonhunters: “We have an increasing number of recreational users that are in the mountains during the hunting seasons. There are trail runners, hikers and anglers. In some popular places, these folks might be causing deer to avoid well-traveled areas.”
During muzzleloader and some early rifle seasons for deer, Yost notes that not all hunters are highly visible. “We’ve seen a huge increase in archery elk hunters. A lot of people are out there hunting, and a lot of them are wearing camo.” This precautionary advice applies as aptly to several other mountains states as well as Colorado.
It seems most mule deer hunter favor a November hunt when bull-necked, rutting bucks are highly visible among doe herds. But early-season stalking is often just as productive, especially for patient souls who know where to look.