The Status of Mule Deer Herds – Then and Now

Author’s Note: Longtime, avid hunter Marshall Johnson of Bismarck, North Dakota, is the senior regional director for the Mule Deer Foundation that restores, improves and protects mule deer habitat, including land and easement acquisitions, and develops programs that help mule deer and black-tailed deer conservation.

Mule Deer Hunters
The Status of Mule Deer Herds – Then and Now

USA – -( Mule deer and black-tailed deer live throughout western North America from the coastal islands of Alaska down the West Coast to southern Baja, Mexico, and from the northern border of the Mexican state of Zacatecas, up through the Great Plains to the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and the southern Yukon Territory.

Mule deer: are browsers with a majority of their diet weeds and leaves and twigs of woody shrubs; grow 3 to 3-1/2 feet tall and generally weigh 130-280 pounds; have a 310-degree view around themselves due to their eyes being located on the sides of their heads; can detect movement up to 1900+ feet away; and have a sense of smell 1,000 times stronger than a human’s.

In the past couple of years, we’ve seen improvements in America’s mule deer herd.

All across the mule-deer range are pockets where the mule deer are doing fairly well, and also there will be pockets where the mule deer aren’t doing so well. The reason for this is that the weather is the number-one culprit impacting mule-deer populations. Especially in the Northwest, the weather is the number-one killer of mule deer and other wildlife. If you look at a typical year with good summers, and the mule deer have fed up and have a good layer of fat on them, you would think they could sustain heavy snowfalls. However, when you add in the rut, many of those mule-deer bucks get beat-up badly, fighting one another. But those bucks usually live until March, although they may be in a bad condition. If we get a really tough blizzard in later March, that seems to be when the most mule-deer fatalities occur.

Mule Deer Hunters’ Bible
Mule Deer Hunters’ Bible

Many people believe that heavy winter snows cause the most mule-deer fatalities. However, the late March/winter snows have the most devastating effects on most of the mule-deer herds in the West. In North Dakota and eastern Montana in 2010 – 2012, we had three horrific winter snows, and those states lost about 75% of their mule-deer herds during that time. Those winters went from November and deep in March. Fortunately, states like North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department did excellent jobs of managing their mule-deer herds and helping the herds to rebuild by limiting the number of tags that were given out to bring the number of mule deer in the herds back up.

I went to quite a few meetings that our Department of Game and Fish had with hunters and heard numbers of hunters say, “Let us put our guns away for a few years if that will help the population of mule deer gets back to where it needs to be. We still can hunt pheasants, grouse, and geese.”

In North Dakota and South Dakota, we’re seeing about a 25% increase in the number of tags being allotted for harvesting mule deer. There are pockets where the mule-deer population is still struggling, for instance in central and eastern Washington. Those places were hit very hard by wildfires three years ago, but those herds are starting to rebuild. However, overall throughout the mule-deer range, I feel we’ve had a good year of mule-deer reproduction, due to adequate rain.

To learn more about hunting mule deer, go to John E. Phillips’ book, “Mule Deer Hunters’ Bible,” available in Kindle and print versions and including information from 30+ mule deer hunters.

About the author:

For the past 40 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a fulltime outdoor writer, traveling the world interviewing hunters, guides, outfitters and other outdoorsmen about how they hunt and fish. An award-winning author, John has been hunting and fishing since his kindergarten days with his dad and brother and has had the good fortune to fish and hunt with experts. He's also travelled across the U.S. as a newspaper writer, magazine writer, outdoor photographer and radio host, and for the last 13 years, as a provider of outdoors internet content for numerous companies daily. He was the 2007 Legendary Communicator chosen for induction into the National Fresh Water Hall of Fame, the Crossbow Communicator of the Year in 2008, and in 2012, he was presented the Homer Circle Fishing Communicator Award by the American Sportfishing Association and the Professional Outdoor Media Association.

The author of almost 30 books on the outdoors, many on Amazon, Phillips is a founding member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association (POMA) and an active member of the Southeastern Outdoors Press Association (SEOPA). Phillips also is the owner of Night Hawk Publications, a marketing and publishing firm, and president of Creative Concepts, an outdoor consulting group. Visit him Online at

  • 7 thoughts on “The Status of Mule Deer Herds – Then and Now

    1. in North Dakota those 3 winters listed were nothing compared to the period of 95 thru 98 .those winters where harsh .the eastern part of the state was buried and froze with temps up to -60 below without wind chill .i have thought the encroachment of white tailed deer was a great threat to mule deer in the region

    2. The habitat in north eastern California has not changed significantly in the last hundred years. I wonder if the protected status of mountain lions has anything to do with our problem?

      1. While I generally agree with ‘Grim’ that predators are needed in the ecosystem. Coyotes and bears are still hunted but Lions are protected ie not managed. Thus their impact on the deer population has increased. Obviously they are not the sole or the biggest problem.
        Personal Opinion: Loss of habitat, migration routes, winter ranges, and poor management by game dept’s are the bigger problems.

    3. I read that the number of mule deer were decreasing because of unlimited numbers of subdivisions and shopping centers being built all over the western states. Places that were once pasture or range are now being bought by sub dividers and turned into subdivisions. Not good for mule deer or wildlife.

      1. CC is correct! Here in Washington, habitat loss (particularly critical winter habitat) is the number 1 reason for decreasing mule dear numbers. Closely behind habitat loss is poaching, which, if we knew the real poaching data, may be the number 1 cause of reduced mule and blacktail deer populations.

        1. Pretty much agree with ‘Grim’. Winter habitat and migration route loses can be seen all of the west. I’ve noticed an increase in ‘road kills’ as traffic & speed has increased over the years. Also notice roads being built with no or very little concern how wildlife will cross it to food & water sources.

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