Mule Deer Crazy

By: Clifford F. Shipley, DVM, DACT
Originally appeared in the Winter 2016 Issue of Whitetails of Louisiana

The phone rings. Another person wants to know if I have any mule deer for sale. Preferably an adult doe. Preferably pregnant. If not that, a fawn, a buck, any semen? That went on all summer and fall, almost every day. I've been raising mule deer for ten years and sometimes have had trouble getting anyone to show any interest in anything, buck, doe, or fawns. That's changed and I'm not entirely sure why. They are much calmer and a little larger than their whitetail counterparts but can come unglued if they feel trapped and may want to play tag with you (even the does!). A little larger than most whitetails, they have different behavior as fawns and during breeding. They are great animals and it seems they are becoming the new “in” thing to raise.

First, let me tell you a little more about “mulies". Scientific name Odocoileus hemionus, mule deer are native to the western part of the country. Stretching from the western part of the Great Plains from Canada to Mexico, mule deer are accustomed to mountains, high plains, and the desert southwest. Depending on whom you speak with or read, there are probably three subspecies. They are grey primarily with larger ears than their eastern cousin the whitetail. Named "mule deer” by Lewis and Clark on the great expedition, they are symbolic of the west and a much sought-after trophy. Populations have declined in recent years and scientists tend to remain baffled as to the main cause. A variety of things have probably contributed to this decline, from habitat loss, predation, disease, drought and loss of winter migration routes and range.

This decline in wild numbers and the associated decrease in tags and trophy animals may be driving the mule deer farming market as a true trophy mule deer is indeed a rare find and hunts that provide opportunity at such are pricey with no guarantees of success. Deer farmers may help fill this role and also help in the preservation of the species as we raise populations that are removed from predation, disease, and have proper nutrition.

Those of us “crazies'' that are raising mule deer have started a Mule Deer Farmers Association and ask that any and all join us to help start this off with a bang. We will be meeting in Dallas at the North American Deer Farmers Association and will have a presentation there that will hopefully be informative and helpful to new mule deer farmers. Dues are $100.00 and can be sent to Darren Deckard (Show Me Whitetails, 4004 State Highway J, Marshfield, Missouri 65706).

There are people that have been raising mule deer longer than I have but they are few and far between. L got my original breeding stock from Minnesota, South Dakota and Alberta, Canada via South Dakota. I believe these were all originally northern Rocky Mountain mule deer and have very large body size (my first buck weighed over 350 pounds (weight tape wouldn’t fit) and scored 190 or so (never officially scored) after being moved twice in his life and having to adapt to a new climate (Illinois is humid and wet to say the least). I've bred up from there, but it hasn’t been easy. Finding semen or breeding stock was difficult. It was very hard to find anyone raising them. I did net searches, called people, researched and prayed. Most people when I called would simply say they didn’t raise them anymore. “Tough to raise." “Get diarrhea and die.” “Can't keep them alive.” Would be all I would hear. Too stupid to know when to quit, I finally found some and started on my adventure. All those statements are true. They get parasites in wet climates and require monitoring. The fawns have a thick, wooly type hair coat perfect for fly strike in warm, wet climates and need to be watched closely post fawning.

Nutrition has been interesting. I've been told a million different things. They need more fiber. They need more protein. They need ___! I don’t know what they need, but I will tell you that I feed mine the same thing as my whitetails almost all the time. They have access to great pasture (clover, rye, orchard grass) and the best hay (alfalfa) that I can find. They love treats such as apples, plums, peaches, pears and browse. I’ve been given rations and there is one commercial company that was making a mule deer feed (that I can’t get due to location and shipping). I believe that they do best when they can browse, and you keep them clean and dry and don't overcrowd. That said, I know one person that has had them on a small lot for years!

I vaccinate them for the same things that I do my whitetails. They do get EHD/Bluetongue, but it seems to be less severe. Where I hunt in Wyoming, the game warden told me they get it, but rarely die but it can make the bucks sterile (interesting to note that my buddies have killed a couple of bucks that had small/ nonexistent testicles). I've never had it in my mule deer, but I vaccinate and do pretty good midge control. You should probably consult with your local veterinarian to see what diseases you have prevalent in your area or on your farm when designing a vaccination program.

It is gratifying to see more people breeding these wonderful animals. You will fall in love with them and their gentle nature. My does follow me around like dogs and are visitor favorites. Bucks need to be respected like their whitetail counterparts, but most of mine will come within a few feet or less for treats and are not nearly as flighty as their whitetail cousins. Think carefully when getting into the business and try to buy from reputable breeders and keep them healthy. Many are crossbreeding and trying to breed up to mule deer and I wish I had advice but haven’t raised any myself. In the book, Deer of the Southwest, the author remarks that they don't know if they are whitetail or mule deer and thus have a reduced escape and hiding strategy. l have seen some and they seemed fine. They do cross naturally in the wild as well. Pure mule deer have a long metatarsal gland and pure whitetails have a small focal metatarsal gland. Crosses are intermediate in gland length. DNA will also be beneficial but many of the deer have never been tested, this will probably change as the industry grows and matures. Have fun and enjoy them. You‘ll not be sorry.

Clifford F. Shipley, DVM. DACT
Attending Veterinarian for Agricultural Animals
Agricultural Animal Care and Use Program
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine
1008 West Hazelwood Drive
Urbana, IL 61802
Office: 217-333-2479
Cell: 217-493-2958