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Author: Thomas McIntyre
Learn more about the Icon of the west, the Mule Deer.
ODOCOILEUS HEMIONUS, may be more half whitetail and half blacktail. If the suggestion of ethologists, such as Valerius Geist, is correct, the mule deer resulted from the interbreeding of those two much older species as little as 7000 years ago. Here, then, is the very real possibility that one of the world's great big-game animals was still evolving when Jericho was already an ancient city and the Paleo-Indian's migration into North America was thousands of years old.
The mule deer was able to rise up so late in the game because it did so in the fortress of high places. Wild sheep are thought to be the ultimate mountain dwellers, unparalleled in using elevation and broken ground for protection, but they are mere panic-stricken stampeders compared to the aerobatic mule deer. It is the mule deer who is the true master of using the steep slopes and rough terrain of the Rocky Mountain West to its best advantage, and does so without even running.
That's what catches the eye first. The writer Richard Nelson describes how mule deer, when approached too closely, bound off without ever breaking into a run, "springing with all four legs at once like jumping mechanical toys." In fact, mule deer can appear to have taken on a preternaturally carefree, Pepé Le Pew bounce as they sail over a deadfall or tumbled rocks (imagine the frustration of a bear or lion as it chases after such an insufferable creature stotting-the word for the way antelope boing across the level African veldt-straight uphill over every obstacle). The mule deer's demeanor, even in desperate flight, is one of transcendental calm, versus the coffee jitters of whitetail. Which brings up the "look," that moment when a mule deer pauses just below skyline and turns its head back, not so much to see if anything is gaining on it as to look down on whatever it has left eating its dust, hunters' hearts often stopping at the sight. And did I mention antlers?
Whitetail hunters will of course disagree, but the mule deer's are the way antlers were meant to be. Fewer than 4% of the thousands of typical whitetail in the Boone and Crockett Records Book score high enough to make even the bare minimum for mule deer (the official world's-record whitetail would rank just 7th as a mule deer); and every fall hotshot whitetail hunters out for elk have to be cautioned against mistaking mule deer for wapiti, and every fall more than one of them makes that mistake. It's not just size that matters, though, it is the entire aspect of the mule deer's antlers.
While the whitetail is satisfied with a single main beam for each of its antlers, the mule deer lets its fork. The mule deer likes its antlers, at their best, high, wide, and handsome, and there's no fooling around with the number of points: A mule-deer buck with the rare eyeguard and four tines on each antler is a "four pointer" (or maybe a "four-by-four"); call it a "ten pointer" the way most hunters optimistically would a whitetail and you'll get laughed all the way back across the 100th Meridian. When it comes to antlers, the mule deer is a firm believer in truth in advertising.
The whitetail, unchanged for millions of years, just like the shark and the opossum, is far too successful a survivor and adapter to be identified with any single territory. What is the archetype of whitetail country anyway? Canadian prairie, Pennsylvania forest, Iowa cornfield, Missouri hardwood, Texas brushland, Florida pines and Spanish oaks? Admittedly, the mule deer lives in a wide variety of habitats, too; but when you think of its true country, what you can't help but seeing is rimrock and piñon, sage and grama grass and shattered granite. A golden eagle quarters overhead; the skirling of a redtail is in the wind; the air fills with the wingbeats of flushed grouse. The naked fall sun, dropping below a saw-toothed horizon, is somehow more melancholy than it would be if it were filtering through the stripped limbs of a whitetail woods. Cold air stings the throat as you catch your breath before topping a ridge, and when you do you see, too, that the view from mule-deer country is always one of vistas.
Mule deer mean a binocular sharp enough to detect the flicking of a long ear or the mahogany gleam of a heavy tine half-a-mile away. They mean slipping along beneath crestlines to mask your silhouette or easing out to where the tableland breaks away, to spot a buck bedded on a ledge below. They mean long-range, extremely accurate, scoped rifles-you think of all the classic Western custom gunmakers and wonder how much the mule deer is owed for the design of the modern big-game rifle and cartridge. They mean Indian summer, and then the first real snows.
I love the bugle of elk in September. I love the cautious approach of whitetail across leaf litter and through the trees at the end of autumn. What I live for is the weeks in between when I can look for the great gray deer in that open and rugged land that created it and that it seems to embody. I look for trails and tracks and droppings and beds, all the time looking for the shimmer of a slate-blue hollow-haired coat and burred antlers somewhere up there in the Shining Mountains.
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