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Wildlife Species Guide

Mule Deer

<< Back to Index | Description | Distribution | Habitat and home |
| Foods | Reproduction | Importance | Hunting


The mule deer, named for its large mule-like ears, which are usually about one-quarter larger than those of the white-tailed deer, has an obvious white rump patch, with a rather small rope-like tail that is white with a black tip. When it is alarmed it runs with a stiff-legged bounce as if bouncing on coiled springs, holding its tail in a downward position. It sheds its hair twice a year, which produces a fine textured reddish-brown coat in the summer and a coarser buff to gray in the winter. During winter the buck displays a dark v-shaped area on its forehead and a black to dark brown coloration on its chest. A fawn has a similar reddish brown summer coat with white spots on its back and sides, which gradually disappear within three to four months.

A male fawn develops hair-covered bumps at the front of his skull as he grows during the year. These bumps or buttons are the beginning of antler growth, and further development starts the following spring, when the buttons enlarge with a velvety covering of skin. The antlers grow with this skin covering, called velvet, until August when a hormonal change stops the process and the antlers harden to a bone-like consistency. The velvet drys and the buck removes it through vigorous rubbing on small trees and shrubs, which also hardens the antlers.

A yearling buck usually has two points on each antler in he form of a "Y", while the adult buck has an additional "Y" at each point, which makes four points on each typical antler.

Antlers remain hard and polished until they are shed in late winter. The remarkable process of antler growth is renewed in the spring and the cycle continues throughout the adult buck's life. The buck produces its largest set of antlers when it is about six years old.

By early November a male fawn weighs about 81 pounds and a female fawn about 73 pounds. Yearling bucks average 140 pounds while does weigh about 15 percent less. Older bucks, with good nutrition, can weigh as much as 250 pounds or more.

Distribution and abundance

Mule deer can be found throughout Nebraska, but are mainly located in the western portion of the state. Concentrations occur in and near the Pine Ridge of Northwestern Nebraska, the Wildcat Hills and Cheyenne Escarpment in Banner, Morrill and ScottsBluff counties, the Niobrara River Valley and breaks east to Rock county, and over a relatively large area of southwestern Nebraska. Estimates generated by computer predict an average mule deer population of between 35,000 and 40,000 animals in the population each year during the early 1990s.

During the first statewide deer season in 1961 hunters took 4,154 mule deer and since 1987 they have averaged about 9,800.

Habitat and home

Unlike whitetails that thrive in areas of dense cover with good concealment, mule deer are more apt to be found in association with more open upland habitats. The classic mule deer habitat is rough, steep canyons sparsely vegetated with brushy pockets that carve their way down through open grasslands. Mule deer often bed in plum thickets or other shrubby areas. The Pine Ridge with its rough topography and ponderosa pines is also prime range. Although a mule deer is less likely to use mature timber along stream courses, it may frequent timbered areas along the upper reaches of small streams and creeks.

Mule deer are also fond of wheat country, clover and sunflower patches, and small grain and alfalfa crops within their occupied range.


Mule deer are most active during dawn and dusk, when they venture from protective cover when it is time to feed. In the spring each doe moves off by herself to select a fawning area, and a buck becomes solitary or joins a small group of bachelors as his antlers develop. Most fawns are born in early summer. The fawn's survival strategy is based on its protective coloration, its ability to remain motionless as danger approaches, and its small amount of scent which makes finding it difficult for predators. The doe leaves her fawn unattended while she feeds, but stays in the vicinity, returning only to nurse the fawn. This behavior leads some well-intentioned people to think a bedded fawn has been abandoned, when in reality the doe is close by and probably watching. The best thing to do if you encounter a fawn is to leave the area and allow the doe to return and move her fawn to a safe location.

Mating occurs in the fall, with bucks setting up territories based on dominance, and busily trying to locate does. In the fall the buck's antlers are hardened and polished, and he uses them to defend his territory and protect his does. Most mating is concluded by the time winter sets in. If the winter is severe with low temperatures and deep snows, the deer "yard up", or gather together, in areas that provide for most of their needs. Many deer in a group are able to break trails in deep snow more efficiently than a single deer can, which allows each individual to conserve needed energy to fight off the cold.


Mule deer are ruminants and digest their food in much the same way as a cow. This digestive process allows them to utilize a wide range of vegetative food stuffs in their diet. In the Pine Ridge, agricultural crops comprise 41 percent of the food with corn (19 percent), green wheat (11 percent) and alfalfa (10 percent) of major importance. In this same area, buck brush makes up 13 percent of the November diet, and ponderosa Pine comprises 18 Percent.

In the North Platte Valley, where 51 percent of the diet consists of crops, com (19 percent), beets (12 percent), and green wheat and alfalfa (each 8 percent) are of particular significance. Here, buck brush (13 percent) and cottonwood (6 percent) are the major woody species used.

On the Bessey Division of the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey, where no crops are available, woody plants comprise 77 percent of the food. Primary species used are buck brush (32 percent), jack pine (23 percent), and wild rose (13 percent). Sunflowers comprise 15 percent, soapweed 3 percent, and miscellaneous grasses and sedges, 4 percent. Small samples from the Bessey Division for spring and autumn show grasses make up about 34 percent of the deer's diet and sedges about six percent. In autumn about 34 percent of the diet is wild rose and 21 percent is redroot, the most important foods.


The mule deer's breeding season begins in October and ends in early February, with the peak occurring in mid to late November. This is also referred to as the "rut", a time when the buck's neck swells and he fights other bucks for dominance. A single buck is capable of breeding several does.

Does are in heat for about 24 hours, and cycle every 28 days if they are not bred. Fawns are born after a 202 day gestation period, with about half of the young being born between late May and late June.

The mule deer's reproductive rate of 94 fawns per 100 does is low compared to the whitetail's 140 fawns for every 100 does. Sexual maturity is slow in mule deer and only seven percent of the does breed when they are fawns and only 68 percent of yearling does become pregnant. About 65 percent of pregnant mule deer does carry twins compared to 82 percent of whitetail does having multiple births.


The mule deer is a symbol of Nebraska's western heritage. A native of the prairie, it remains conspicuous among wildlife residents. Locals and visitors alike appreciate its graceful beauty and its adaptability to harsh environments. Hunters spend thousands of hours in their pursuit each year, and in doing so contribute monetarily to local economies.

Unfortunately, the mule deer's fondness for agricultural crops can lead to problems where deer populations are high. Winter concentrations can cause substantial damage to stored crops, although protective measures such as location selection, fencing, and repellents can reduce these losses. Legal harvest, through hunting seasons, continues to be the major tool employed by wildlife managers to reduce deer populations to minimize problems suffered by landowners.


To be successful the hunter must know the deer's habits and be able to recognize sign that signals a buck is in the area. One sure sign that a male deer is in the vicinity is a "rub"-a branch or sapling that has been stripped of its bark by a buck knocking the velvet from its antlers. Later in the fall, as the rut approaches, fresh sign of this antlerwork may appear on larger, harder trees, as restless bucks shape up their fighting skills.

An even better sign that buck is around is an active "scrape". This is where a buck has pawed the leaves and grass away, exposing a patch of bare earth from one to three feet in diameter. He generously applies his scent and tracks in the scrape, which serves as a signal to does that he is in the area and available, and warns other bucks that this is his territory and they'd better stay out, or risk a fight.

A buck fully caught up in the fever of the rut may have several scrapes which he checks frequently, or he may post just one and stay nearby. Whichever is the case, the scrape that is being renewed and maintained is a sure sign that a buck will be along sooner or later, and it merits careful consideration on the part of the hunter.

Of all the sign a hunter is likely to come across, deer tracks are the most obvious and are also the most misused and misunderstood by the novice hunter. A lot of greenhorn deer hunters are likely to latch onto the first set of tracks they find and spend the rest of the day following them, almost invariably without seeing the deer.

Tracks are a valuable sign to the hunters, chiefly as an indication of the frequency and direction of travel. They might also give an indication of the size of the deer using an area. Generally, they provide a lot of the same information as do droppings.

Some hunters claim they can distinguish tracks of bucks from those of does, but other experienced hunters discount this. Generally, the tracks of bucks and does look identical, although a hunter tracking a deer might surmise he's on the trail of a buck if it is traveling alone and sticking to more secluded or secretive haunts.

Following a set of tracks in hopes of getting a shot at the deer making the tracks is an iffy game, and is a tactic mastered by only a few specialists. Most hunters follow a trail too slowly or make too much noise to be successful. And, a lot of hunters cannot distinguish a really fresh track, and thus may take up on a trail half a day old or more.

Most hunters following deer tracks pay way too much attention to the impressions themselves and almost forget to look for the deer standing in the tracks. Experienced trackers look for the most distant visible sign, giving it just a glance while keeping their eyes on cover ahead, ready for a shot. They also look behind, because deer often double back on their trail to see if they are being pursued.

About the only time most hunters will need to track a deer is after they have taken a shot at one. If the deer doesn't go down, the hunter should check where the deer was standing when the shot was fired, looking for blood, hair, or other signs of a hit. If none is apparent, he should take up the track for a few hundred yards, looking for blood on the ground, bushes and trees the deer may have brushed against, or for signs of staggering, limping or other evidence of a hit.

Venison derived from the mule deer is the reward of the hunt. Whether a buck, doe or fawn is taken, each warrant the hunter's respect and proper care in preparing the meat for the table. Carefully field dressed, cooled and butchered venison provides many delicious meals for the hunter and his family.

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