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Mule Deer Facts

In this new section of the Mule Deer Foundation Web site, we provide answers to some general questions about our species:

  1. Where do mule deer live?
  2. What do mule deer eat?
  3. Why is habitat conservation necessary?
  4. What does a mule deer look like?
  5. How long do mule deer live?
  6. How big are mule deer?
  7. Do mule deer have good vision?
  8. Do mule deer have a good sense of smell?
  9. What are the features of mule deer antlers?
  10. What do mule deer do when alarmed?

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Where do mule deer live?

Mule deer and black-tailed deer (collectively called mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus) are icons of the American West. They are distributed 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.

What do mule deer eat?

Mule deer are primarily browsers, with a majority of their diet comprised of forbs (weeds) and browse (leaves and twigs of woody shrubs).

Deer digestive tracts differ from cattle and elk in that they have a smaller rumen in relation to their body size, so they must be more selective in their feeding. Instead of eating large quantities of low-quality feed like grass, deer must select the most nutritious plants and parts of plants.

Because of this, deer have more specific forage requirements than larger ruminants.

Why is mule deer and black-tailed deer habitat conservation necessary?

The MDF's mission is necessary due to loss of habitat, predators, poaching, highways crossing through the middle of transitional ranges, and subdivisions being built on winter ranges.

Only landscape-scale conservation efforts can make long-term gains in mule deer abundance in many areas.

What does a mule deer look like?

Mule deer are generally easy to identify due to their large mule-like ears (generally 3/4 the length of the head).

They usually have a distinctive black forehead, or mask, that contrasts sharply with a light grey face. The lighter facial coloration makes the eye rings and muzzle markings seem less obvious.

Mule deer are brownish-gray in color, have a white rump patch and a small white tail with a black tip.

How long do mule deer live?

Mule deer usually live 9-11 years in the wild and can live to be much older when in captivity.

How big are mule deer?

Mule deer range from 3 to 3-1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, 4-1/2 to 7 feet long and have a tail that is 5 to 8 inches long. They can weigh between 130-280 pounds. The female deer are smaller than the male.

Do mule deer have good vision?

Because the eyes of mule deer are located on the sides of their heads, they can see a 310 degree view around themselves. They have better nighttime vision than humans, but less accurate daytime and color vision.

Mule deer can detect slight predator movement up to 600 meters away, but they are not very good at detecting motionless forms.

Do mule deer have a good sense of smell?

Some biologists estimate that a mule deer's sense of smell is up to 1,000 times stronger than a human's. Research suggests that a mule deer can detect human odor at up to a half mile away. They can detect water that is up to two feet below ground.

What are the differences between mule deer antlers and those of a white-tailed deer?

Mule Deer Mature mule deer bucks have antlers with main beams that sweep outward and upward, forking once and then forking again. Brow tines are not always present. Mature bucks typically have eight to 10 total points (including brow tines that exceed one inch). These bucks are considered 4-point bucks (the number of points on one side of the rack excluding the brow tines).

Whitetail Typical white-tailed deer antlers have several antler tines that arise singly off a main beam that sweeps outward and forward from the bases. The brow tines are nearly always present and usually prominent. Mature white-tailed deer bucks frequently have eight total points, including the brow tines. 

What do mule deer do when alarmed?

A mule deer does not “flag” its tail (like a white-tailed deer), but often bounces away in a motion called “stotting,” in which all four hooves push off the ground at the same time. With each bound, a mule deer may jump as high as two feet and as far as 15 feet. A mule deer may not escape as fast as a white-tailed deer, but a mule deer is more effective in quickly moving through rugged terrain.

Both species may stop and look back at the source of potential danger, but this behavior is more typical of mule deer.

Stotting Mule Deer

Citation: Mule Deer Working Group. 2003. Mule Deer: Changing landscapes, changing perspectives. Mule Deer Working Group, Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

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