I read an OpEd from a rancher in Wyoming lamenting the decline of mule deer populations of his lifetime. Are there similar decreases in mule deer populations in Idaho

Question Answered by Gregg Losinski, Environmental Science Educator

Mule deer are an icon of the West.  Unlike other members of the deer family such as elk and moose, mule deer distribution was always limited to the wide open spaces of the Intermountain West.  Over the past decades, a succession of adverse factors has resulted in a serious impact on mule deer populations everywhere.  The one thing all these factors have in common has been a negative impact on the habitat required for mule deer to thrive.

Unlike their cousins, the white-tailed deer, mule deer are more influenced by human activities and less able to adapt to man’s impact on their habitat.  While mule deer populations struggle in some areas, white-tailed deer numbers are growing in others.  Also, unlike elk, mule deer carry fewer energy reserves on their bodies when they enter winter and are more dependent on finding forage during the winter.  This means that throughout the year it is also important that mule deer have quality habitat so that they enter the winter in the best physical condition possible.  Even when they are in good condition, a normal winter can result in many fawns and does dying. Winter feeding is a practice that may make humans feel good but that is actually of very little benefit for mule deer.

Like all animals, mule deer need various types of habitats throughout the year. It is important that mule deer are able to move freely.  As their habitat is fragmented more and more by human development it becomes more difficult for them to get to the places they need to be at key points in their life cycle.  Human activities such as changing agricultural practices, energy development, and forest management have also had a major impact.  Healthy aspen communities play an important role for mule deer, yet all across the West aspen have been disappearing at an alarming rate.  Eastern Idaho has lost an estimated 60% of its aspen in the last 100 years and Arizona is estimated to have lost 90% during that same time. 

When a truly hard winter hits, such as back in 1992, mule deer populations in all the western states crashed.  All of the various herds rebounded at different rates because of the wide variation in habitat quality, but none have made it back to their heydays of the early nineties.

Game managers have a saying that you can use hunters to manage elk populations, but that habitat and weather are what drive mule deer numbers.  That is why game management agencies often propose to hunt more mule deer than some hunters think wise.  Biologists know that deer cannot be stockpiled and that rather than have winter take half the herds, more animals might as well end up in people’s freezers.

Mule Deer Hooves

Mule deer are uniquely adapted to desert and arid environments.  They use their sharp hooves to dig holes into the ground when searching for deep water.

A deer’s hooves are actually two elongated toes with big, thick toenails that are comparable to the third and fourth fingers on your hand. The second and fifth “fingers” are located behind the hooves and called dewclaws.

Plantigrade, Digitigrade, Unguligrade


Mammals have three types of feet:

  • Plantigrade (walking on the sole of the foot) The whole foot is in contact with the ground at some point during the step. These are slower moving animals. “Walk” your hands on the ground using the entire flat of the hand. Examples: bear, badger, raccoon, skunk, human being

  • Digitigrade (walking on toes) These animals walk on their toes. These are faster movers than the plantigrade animals. ”Walk” your hands on the ground with only fingers touching the ground, and the “heel” of the hand raised up. Examples: bobcat, mountain lion, wolf, coyote, fox, rabbit, squirrel, mouse

  • Unguligrade (walking on hooves) These animals move on the tips of their toenails, which we call hooves. This group includes the fastest moving animals. “Walk” on your hands with the fingers bent under so that they are “walking” on your fingernails. Examples: deer, pigs, goats, pronghorn

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