All about the Mule Deer of Paradise

Deborah Essman, Arvilla Ohlde and I spent Tuesday in a hearing room in Mount Vernon, with a hundred of our new best friends.  Senator Kirk Pearson was chairing a Senate Natural Resources & Parks Committee work/study session on subjects near and dear to our hearts and most of us in the room had something to say.  The three agenda items were: Washington’s Hunter Education Program; Access and Road Closures on Public Land, and; The Skagit Valley Elk Herd.

Our comments were focused on issues with the Hunter Ed program and access to the public lands of Paradise.  I’ve written a handful of columns about these things over the last couple years, and it looks as if access and road closures will be long-term grist for this mill.  We have much to discuss about maintaining the public nature of our public ground—and access to it.  Much ado is stirring in Paradise at all levels, from you and me and local movers and shakers to our Legislative Delegation.  You and I will consider such issues over coming weeks…but not today.

Let us today consider the mule deer around us.  The guy who planted the question in my mind moved his family to Paradise in September a big city in the Midwest.  He knew a bit about white-tailed deer, but wanted to know the deer here.  His goal, he said, was to know enough about our native deer that he could drive his wife and kids around the valley, and they would think he knew some things.

Under by-laws and several resolutions of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA), I was duty-bound to answer his questions, and assuage his concerns.  I am passing along the gist of our confab to you, just in case you find a need to empower a newbie of your own.

You know about the deer of Washington, but things are rarely as simple as they seem.  Amidst conflicting points of view, we all mostly agree on three species of deer.

White-tailed deer (named for the white underside of their large tails) are largely in east and northeast counties, and down along the Columbia.  Columbian black-tailed deer (for the black upper side of their tails) are generally along the coast, and a range extending over the Cascade crest in a few spots.  Rocky Mountain mule deer, or muleys (for their huge ears), cover most everything east of the Cascades, and are the primary deer we see here in Paradise.  And it is not that simple.

Blacktails were long considered to be descendants of some mule deer and whitetail deer cross.  A decade and more ago, however, biologists apparently identified mitochondrial DNA (tracing mothers) suggesting that mule deer may have actually sprung from a blacktail/whitetail cross.  A very interesting introduction to this, and a reference to Valerius Geist’s book on muley life history, will be found at  On the other hand, our Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to identify muleys and whitetails as species, and blacktails as subspecies (, within a thorough discussion of deer foods and habitats.  Other subspecies and crosses are there, too.  It is generally agreed that mule deer are the largest and black-tailed deer the smallest of the three.

Given that ours are mostly muleys, the RCRGWD&OTTBA Science Education Committee requires the following.  The mule deer’s scientific name is Odocoileus hemionus.  It is a medium‑sized mammal, from 36 to 40+ inches at the shoulder, weighing 100 to 250 pounds (bucks are largest, of course).  Its summer color is reddish, becoming brown‑gray with its longer winter coat.  Look for the large ears, scrawny black‑tipped tail and white rump, and the trademark “bounce” when escaping.  Favored foods include shrubs, forbs, alfalfa and fruits.

Over the past 100 years, mule deer populations have suffered wide swings in population, with harsh winters, habitat loss and shifting climates.  While populations are relatively stable, many western biologists are studying what they see as a continuing slide in mule deer numbers.  A good summary of these issues is found at  In Washington, we have well over a hundred thousand muleys.

Locally, we see a couple interesting variations.  First are probably the “pinto” deer, with large white patches resulting from some sort of genetic mutation.  They are occasionally seen in a couple areas of the Yakima Canyon, and rarely up the Taneum.  Then there are the “striped‑tails,” on the west side of the valley, up the Taneum, Manastash and a few other areas.  These deer look just like muleys except for a black stripe running the length of their narrow tails, resulting from a blacktail‑muley cross.

In general, deer will be out foraging from dusk to dawn, but at this time of year we may see them feeding any time of day, putting on fat for winter.  You’ll see mule deer most anywhere.  Check out the Yakima Canyon, or drive the back roads up the Taneum, Cle Elum or Teanaway.

There’s something about finding and watching deer that can change the light in a fall sky.

Try it.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized