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Understanding the Black-tailed Deer at Cabela's

Understanding the Black-tailed Deer

Author: Craig Springer

I haven’t topped the summer of ’82, just yet. It had to be about the most exciting for me. Nineteen years old and fresh out of my freshman year of college in Ohio, I landed a summer job as a back-country ranger at North Cascades National Park on the west side of Washington state.

The rain wore on me, but getting paid to hike, and fishing at bivouac was about as good as it gets. I had a commission to write tickets for minor offenses, but the ticket book never came out of the back pack over the entire three months.

Youth is the age of discovery, and I did a fair amount of discovering that summer. A few firsts for me were native rainbow trout, band-tailed pigeons, ptarmigan, and black-tailed deer -- we didn’t have those back in Ohio.

Black-tailed deer are closely related to mule deer and only until recently were considered a separate species. Today, scientist consider them a subspecies of mule deer. A blacktail is to a mule deer what the tiny Florida Key deer is to a Virginia whitetail -both are whitetailed deer with strong regional differences in size and pelage.

One difference with the deer at hand is size. Black-tailed deer are smaller than muleys, reaching up to 300 pounds; mulies can put on another 100 pounds. The ears are smaller too, only going about six inches tall, a little more than half the size of a mule deer. As you might have guessed, the tails are also different. Mule deer have only a small black-tipped tail; the tail is entirely black on the black-tailed deer.

The black-tailed deer range along the coastal rainforest of the Pacific Northwest from Alaska, southward to central California. They range eastward about as far as the rainforest goes.

Because the pacific slope can be characterized in a word -wet- black-tailed deer usually have a small home range and do not make long-distance seasonal moves. Since the snows in the coastal mountains are not too severe, blacktails may simply move downhill to shelter for the winter.
Does come into heat in October, and if not bred, will be receptive about every 28 days. Blacktail does have gone a long time, sometimes into late April, before breeding. Bucks lose interest in reproduction about December but are still capable of breeding up until April, when their testicles stop producing sperm. Fawns come into this world about June or July. A first-time mom may drop only one youngster while older does may have up to three, depending on the conditions of the habitat where they live. Good habitat usually means greater fertility. Before the fawns can walk, they are ready to nurse. Blacktailed does gives nutritious milk, rich in up to 12 percent butterfat. Domestic cow’s milk by comparison has only about three percent butterfat.

With the exception of the breeding season, blacktailed bucks stay bachelors most of the year. During harsher winters, the bucks may mix with does, but come springtime, they part company.

When it comes to feeding, blacktails prefer eating early in the morning and late in the afternoon. As the summer progresses, they eat earlier and later and in many cases hunker down in the shade at first light, to avoid the heat of the day. On stormy evenings, blacktails are especially active around dusk.

A good place to find a blacktail is up slope on a ridgeline during the day, where they lie and rest with the benefit of scent carried uphill on drafts. During the day, they may take a breather in the feeding area, but at night they may retire to one of their many beds. Blacktails habitually use the same beds, but not the same one every night.

Even though blacktails have big ears, and move them individually to follow sound, it¿s their sense of smell that keeps them out of trouble. They may hear leaves rustle and twigs break, but a lot of animals or things could cause that. A blacktail’s ears may put it on alert, but if they catch a whiff of a cougar or a stinky deer hunter, they’re off to the races. Whitetailed deer are pretty savvy animals; they know when to stay put in the face of danger. But a blacktail, on the other hand, has a tendency to get nervous and bolt, and to a fault, they tend to stop and take a look over their shoulder. A savvy deer hunter will have the rifle shouldered, the trigger pulled, and a clean kill on the forest floor.

A spooked blacktail bounds with not much grace. They and mulies run differently than a smooth running whitetail. Blacktails look as though they push hard off their back feet, and they do. They lumber through the rainforest at about 35 miles per hour; they could qualify for the Olympics bounding 25 feet at maximum, eight feet high. Pretty impressive for a large animal, and it makes sense given they have to match wits with their primary predator, the cougar. The blacktail has another adaptation for escaping predators -swimming. Blacktails are frequently spotted in the water of Puget Sound and in the panhandle of Alaska, sometimes five miles away from the nearest land.

The future of black-tailed deer seems relatively secure. They are though, threatened by many of the things that other deer face: logging, mining, and housing developments. All of these things stem for one thing in particular, and that’s human population growth, and in the case of blacktail, immigration to the Pacific Northwest.

Given moderate increases in these elements, the black-tailed deer will prosper as will hunters seeking this interesting species.