B&C MULE DEER BUCKS – WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM NOW? by Mike Duplan

B&C MULE DEER BUCKS – WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM NOW? by Mike Duplan

It’s no secret that the first decade of our new millennium, the period of 2000-2009 produced an incredible number of Boone & Crockett mule deer entries.  Living in Colorado for nearly 25 years I have personally seen big buck numbers go from almost non-existent in the early 90’s to what was generally observed as a healthy abundance in the 2000’s.  Colorado has always led the B&C records with total entries for mule deer. That fact is very common knowledge for serious mule deer hunters but for a few years in the mid part of the last decade, the number of entries to come from the state surprised even this group.  Boone & Crockett entries for mule deer during the last decade peaked in 2004 and that was mainly due to the huge numbers of bucks to come from Colorado.  Tag numbers increased and the winter of 2007/2008 had a serious impact on some of the state’s best mule deer herds and the outlook is now much different.

Sonora Mexico was another area that really received a great deal of press and attention from mule deer hunters.  Many great bucks were taken in what some have described as very easy hunting circumstances.  Perhaps in retrospect, this new found “Eldorado” of mule deer hunting might have seen it’s better days.  Deer management is controlled by private ranch owners and outfitters as apposed to biologists and game departments and the harvest was maximized and probably exceeded in many places.  There might be a few responsible outfitters reading this right now that are screaming out loud at this statement but there are enough stories of ranches leased, shot out and outfitters moving on that there is some legitimacy to this statement. Ranches that should have seen 3-4 mature bucks harvested off them were booking a dozen hunters and filling tags.  Time will tell if the pressure put on the Sonora mule deer herds will have long-term effects but hunter numbers have dropped in the last five years. What might actually help bring back buck numbers in an inadvertent way is the increase of violence and desperation in Mexico.  Some hunters are flat out refusing to go to Mexico and many are hesitant.  Though actual incidents involving sport hunters are almost non-existent, the lawlessness and fear that is perpetrated in Mexico and the border towns will keep many hunters north of the border and build some buck age class on some areas.

In my opinion, and this is anecdotal and arm chair biology, there are some factors that have occurred in the last decade that should show up in the number of B&C entries in the last 3 years.  The gas-drilling boom on Wyoming’s mule deer winter range, the severe and devastating winter of 2007/2008 in the Rocky Mountain West, and finally the economic downturn coupled with the possible over harvest of mature mule deer in parts of Sonora.  There are many variables that will play into these numbers, which makes the validity of these observations null in the true scientific mind.  Tag numbers, weather during hunting seasons, and other factors indirectly come into play.  That being said the purpose of this inquiry and article is simply to gauge what had happened in the last decade to where we are in the last 3 years.  Where are big mule trending right now and where should a serious mule deer hunter focus his sights on B&C class mule deer?

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There is a lot that goes into producing B&C mule deer and in my opinion, the number one factor in producing B&C bucks is for a deer to get age.  Over-hunting bucks leads to a cumulative affect of less older age class animals and hence less of a mathematical chance of there being a record-class buck in a given herd. Genetics play a part to an extent but habitat and age play a more dominant role in producing big deer.  When you limit harvest in an area with good genetic potential and great habitat, mule deer can get big and old.  This was well illustrated in Colorado when buck tags were dramatically limited in 1999 and 5 years later B&C mule deer entries in Colorado were skyrocketing.  Not every area can or will produce B&C class deer but in the areas that do, the number of entries is in my mind a direct correlation to the overall presence of mature bucks in a given area.  The argument can be made that hunters pursue higher scoring mature deer with more intensity than lower scoring mature bucks that are genetically inferior according to B&C entry standards.  There has been a suggestion by some that we as hunters are diluting the gene pool by focusing on B&C criteria bucks. I would argue that there is a very, very small percentage of the hunting population that operates this way.  Most hunters are looking for a big buck first and score is less of an incentive to pull the trigger.  For example a mature 28” buck with huge backs, crab-claw fronts and short beams is going to score in the low 180’s versus a more balanced 28” buck with long main beams and a good inside spread.  Standing side by side, the big back fork buck will have much more eye appeal and is the buck most hunters would probably take.  It’s the wow-factor and wall appeal that inspires hunters first and true score conscious hunters are a rare breed.  Sure people seem to ask all to often “What does he score?”  but I do believe that is a relatively innocuous question driven by our big buck crowd/culture and an attempt to confirm the subconscious score guess that the inquiring hunter has already estimated in his mind.

Off to www.boone-crockett.org I went to see what I could find on mule deer B&C buck trends and to see what suspicions were confirmed or debunked.  What I saw was an overall and somewhat alarming decline in overall B&C mule deer entries.  Are the modern glory years of the 2000’s gone now?  The numbers are starting to suggest just that.  Basically, there were a combined 71 typical and non-typical mule deer entries in 2000 with an increase in entries that peaked at 139 in 2004 and have been declining to a number of 62 in 2011.  The graph line is pretty steady up and down except for the year 2002 which showed only 49 entries.  In 2002, the Rocky Mountain West was impacted by the worst drought in decades and might possibly be the reason for this anomalous year for B&C entries.  This idea was re-enforced when I looked at both elk and pronghorn entries for 2002 and saw a noticeable decrease in entries from both species in that year.

Some dramatic stats were also seen such as Colorado accounting for 56 mule deer entries alone in 2004, the peak year for mule deer entries during that time period. Considering there were only 62 entries from all of North America last year, that really puts into perspective how off-the-charts the deer hunting was in Colorado in the last decade.  What was also interesting was Sonora Mexico having 13 entries in 2006, more than double any other year and steadily tailing off to a single entry from 2011.  Wyoming was another great historical producer of B&C mule deer and this state has also seen better days.  The three-year period of 1999, 2000 and 2001 produced 39 entries for Wyoming while there was only a single entry from last year.  Natural gas drilling and development in Western Wyoming’s winter range might have had an impact but the human population growth in the area caused by industry workers moving to Western Wyoming, and the ensuing increase in resident deer hunters who aren’t limited in number at all might have had as much or more of an impact.  Additionally the birth of the modern mule deer videos started in Western Wyoming in the late 90’s with rock-star bucks such as Morty and Popeye fueled the fires and imaginations of many ardent mule deer hunters.  Serious deer hunters came to Western Wyoming and hit the country hard and the great number of B&C class bucks taken then might evidence this.  Wyoming’s deer were loved to death.

Another area that jumped out from a statistical standpoint is New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County.  It is truly stunning how many B&C bucks came from Rio Arriba County in the 2000’s.  Most serious mule deer hunters are aware that Rio Arriba County is home to the Jicarilla Indian Reservation.  Aggressive predator control and seriously limited deer hunting has produced the best quality deer hunting of the West during the decade. Mule Deer hunting is not cheap on the Jicarilla and even at the high cost there is still much more demand than supply.   In a ten-year period starting in 2000, Rio Arriba County produced 48 typical and 8 non-typical mule deer entries.  An truly unbelievable number relative to the size of the area but keeping in mind that the Jicarilla Indian reservation has some of the most tightly controlled and managed mule deer hunting in the West.

Rio Arriba County produced more than double the number of B&C bucks as the next closest county, Eagle County Colorado with 27 total entries in the same time period.  That is even more impressive when you consider Eagle County blows away most other counties in the West for mule deer entries.  Shockingly, there was not a single entry from Eagle County last year, which was the first time that has not occurred in 17 years!  This is further evidence in my mind that the winter of 2007/2008 has had a devastating impact on some mule deer herds in the West.  Colorado’s unit 44 has been widely touted as one of the top units in Colorado for years but for those of you sitting on a dozen or more points and applying here, the trend shows that you might be setting yourself up for a disappointment.  Numbers don’t lie.

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Some assumptions were confirmed with the research like the famous Arizona Strip and Kiabab being consistent producers.  Utah has decent entry representation from those units with quality management and Lincoln County, Nevada is still producing B&C bucks.  Another stunning number was the sheer dominance of Saskatchewan, Canada in total B&C entries.  Consistent production of monster mule deer is a hallmark of this Canadian province with 67 typical and 31 non-typical entries during the 2000’s.  A relatively low human population and no non-resident mule deer hunting means Saskatchewan bucks are getting OLD!  An almost 2-1 ration of typical to non-typical entries is also an incredible stat and is unmatched in any other state, or county.  This is double the rate of Colorado where B&C deer have a 4-1 ration typical to non-typical.  All this means nothing other than eye candy photos in magazines if you aren’t a Saskatchewan resident other than one key fact; mule deer get really big if you let them get old and keep the hunting pressure down.

Along with deer getting old and a relatively conservative management plan that is required to achieve this, we must consider this.  We are living in an information age where there aren’t any secrets in hunting big mule deer.  There seems to be a 2-5 year lag from when an area gets hot and the pressure that is put on big bucks by us as hunters.  We saw it in Wyoming. We saw it in Mexico and in Colorado.  There are many driven big buck hunters who play the points game in every western state and aren’t afraid to put out the time and money that it takes to kill B&C class bucks.  Optics are flawless and guns are built to give hunters advantages that 20 years ago only belonged to a very small handloading, benchrest crowd.  There are better clothes, packs, boots and every piece of gear that a hunter might want or need is available at high quality.  25 years ago the optics I used were better than average but don’t hold a candle to my Swarovski tripod mounted 10x42s and my Swarovski HD spotting scope.  We are better hunters when we pay attention to others success and there is plenty of good hunters who are ready and willing to share tips and advice.  In today’s day and age, I wouldn’t want to be a mule deer buck hoping to get old.

One thing that is apparent right now is that there aren’t any dominant hotspots for big mule deer other than Saskatchewan.  Colorado is still out producing other western states for B&C mule deer but the latest edition of Fair Chase magazine shows a changed face of mule deer hunting from the last decade.  Entries from Eagle and Gunnison counties dominated the record book 6-8 years ago and now there are single entries from different units all over the state.  The Henry Mountains of Utah have kicked out numbers of great bucks the last few years but drawing a tag there is more difficult than drawing a sheep tag in most states.  There is no doubt that the most conservatively managed units in the West are producing the best bucks.  While game managers should not manage to try and produce B&C class bucks, the simple fact of there being B&C class bucks as a result of good age class representation is encouraging to hunters.

Let us hope that the last couple years are just an anomaly and that the future holds more and better deer hunting opportunities.  This sounds good on the surface but without a concerted effort by state wildlife agencies to manage for good age class representation, mule deer herds and buck numbers will probably continue to drop.  Anyone with common sense can look at the graph chart for B&C entries in the West and probably predict within a reasonable degree of accuracy what the next 3 years hold for us.   Looking at the trends and best counties you can see your best chance at a B&C buck is one of the tightly managed units in the West or by simply getting lucky through hard hunting in traditionally great buck areas.  Good luck and good hunting.

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17 comments

  1. lovetohunt
    5 years ago

    Mike, I live in Northwest Montana. Montana is not noen for large mule deer bucks. In Northwest Mt. the problem I see now is the wolfs, and the taking of three and four year old bucks,before they reach maturity. We had a very large fire in 2002 and it opened up large areas of winter range. What is happening now is younger hunters that shooot every buck they see, and the new range finding scopes that make long shots make it much easyier. I would like to see a four point buck put into place, but I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. I hunt the Northfork of the Flathead,next to Glacier Park,and the wolf quata is 2. The wolfs are killing mule deer in late winter at a staggering rate. I bivy hunt up to ten miles from the closet road. Sometimes I don’t even see a mule doe in three or four days. The fish and game in Mt. are into numbers not quality. I don’t now all of the answers, but what I’ve I seen in the the last 20 years is alarming.

  2. mikeduplan
    5 years ago

    The only way to have quality deer hunting is to limit hunter pressure through tag numbers.

  3. stevehuhtala
    5 years ago

    Hey Mike,
    I have a spot I hunt in Colorado that has produced some great bucks consistently. My wife and I took a 28″ and 32″ buck there two years ago. Another I killed in this area was just under 190 B&C. That same year I met a fellow packing out a 34 ” 7×6 giant.
    When we draw this unit it has always produced , until last year.I took a good friend into the same spot on the third rifle hunt this last fall. He’s the only person I have ever shared this spot with , and I felt awful ! In 4 days of hunting, we saw one forked horn! I saw one hunter with a small 22″ four pointer. Not the caliber of buck I told my hunting buddy to expect. I’ve heard and read since, that a lot of hunters had a poor year last fall on the 3rd rifle hunt. I don’t know if the 4th season was much better, but there was a distinct lack of snow in western Colorado prior to the hunt last year. Do you think this was common around the area? I wonder if the weather may have affected the rut.

  4. BJH
    5 years ago

    All of this information,and it is very good information,does does not account for the fact that a lot B&C caliber bucks are simply not entered into the book. For many hunters it is simply not important. The book may show a trend but more and more these days, serious DIY hunters are more apt to keep spots to themselves and draw more attention to certain areas by entering bucks into the book. Trophy hunting just for the sake of a name and a number in a book is an individual choice but advertising a consistent hunting location by doing so is becoming less common. Trust me-I live in one of the areas discussed in detail above and have taken two book bucks in the last four years and have a couple friends who have also scored on book bucks recently and none of those deer were entered into the book and all were taken very near a much more sought after trophy unit. The notoriety of entering a buck into the book is much more likely to occur when someone pays a lot of money to kill that buck. When they are killed by knowledgeable hardworking DIY hunters that want to keep their areas from being overrun by trophy chasers, entering them into the book is not going to happen.

  5. Joe
    5 years ago

    Hi
    I live in MN and my hunting partner and I have each built up 14 points for a CO mule deer hunt.
    Your article does not sound very positive for us to put a buck of a life time on the wall. If you had 14 points, where would you hunt for a trophy mule deer.

    Thanks,

    Joe

  6. John Morningstar
    5 years ago

    I now have 20PP for deer in Colorado. Not sure where to go with the numbers being way down.

    • Dan Leffelman
      1 year ago

      44 4th season in my opinion. Takes 17pp

    • Dan Leffelman
      1 year ago

      44 4th season in a few years or look at 55 3rd season both should take a few more points and you shouldn’t worry about current deer numbers. With that long of a wait, I’d hire a guide personally

    • Dan Leffelman
      1 year ago

      44 4th season in a few years or look at 55 3rd season both should take a few more points and you shouldn’t worry about current deer numbers. With that long of a wait, I’d hire a guide personally

  7. ray liden
    4 years ago

    good afternoon mr. d:

    long time no see and definitely my loss. how have you been? looks like you’r still wandering around chasing things with big horns…lol.
    I am about to apply for Colorado and would love your thougths. any ideas as you advice and enthusiastic help were rewarded with a great deer. he is one of the few months in the house….

    trust the family is well and I am back hunting in the states after great hunts in Bolivia.

    most cordially,

    ray

  8. bonkersoverbucks
    4 years ago

    I have outfitted in Sonora with a Mexican partner and know the situation down there well. Outfitters aren’t the ones who were responsible for overhunting in Sonora; it was the ranchers and the biologists.

    Ranchers want more buck tags, and biologists sometimes give ranchers what they want. I suspect that a lot of money was paid under the table so that ranchers could get more tags. I know in our case we wanted fewer tags per ranch, and yet our main rancher kept getting more tags. We eventually had to move onto other ranches and we told those owners if they started getting more tags, we would consider their land worthless to us.

    I’ve been told that in the last four or five years most ranchers realize they almost killed the goose that laid the golden egg, and now they have voluntarily cut back on tag numbers and are seeing an increase in the number of big bucks.

    It’s not just the danger of hunting in Mexico (which is very low; you’re in much more danger of getting killed in a car crash while driving to the airport in the U.S. than you are of getting shot by a terrorist or drug runner in Mexico). The economy has had a huge impact on hunting demand in Mexico. As the prices went up, the economy suffered in the U.S., and many people who used to consider hunting in Mexico for $7,500 to $12,000 are out of the game.

    Also, many hunters noticed that they could buy quality landowner vouchers in Colorado or Nevada and get a lot more hunting in than spending more money in Sonora.

    As for four-point or better regulations, hunters who propose those need to realize that the result is the exact opposite of what they want. If you force hunters to selectively kill bucks that have superior genetics, you have a negative impact on the gene pool. I saw this in the Henry Mountains in the ’80s. After eight or nine years of four-point-or-better restrictions, more and more older bucks were 3x3s and 3x4s. It got so bad that most mature bucks eventually were less than 4x4s (not counting eyeguards). The state then went to a three-point-or-better restriction, but that was quickly canned after biologists realized hunters were shooting the better yearling bucks.

    It’s not just the serious trophy hunters who have an impact on genetics. Almost any hunter will shoot the bigger of two bucks standing in front of him. If there’s a spike and a forkhorn, he’ll take the forkhorn. Some game managers realize that hunters have had a negative influence on antler genetics and have called for and even instituted antler regulations that are designed to get rid of bad genetics. In the Henry Mountains today, for example, the state holds a management hunt, and tag holders may shoot bucks that have no more than three main points on one antler. The other antler can have more points. This has helped affect genetics in the opposite direction from what the regular tag holders are doing.

    Age is important, but I’ve come to realize that nutrition and genetics are equally important, and possibly more important. Look at the giant whitetails that are being raised behind high fences. I talked with some experts in raising big whitetails, and they tell me that some bucks are scoring more than 300 points at only 2 1/2 years old. They say the genetics is No. 1. Some 3 1/2 year olds are getting to 500 points. Some people have been releasing into the wild some of these genetic freaks, which are the result of selective breeding in the same way that bug-eyed goldfish are the result of selective breeding of carp, hoping to improve antler growth on their farms or ranches. This is illegal in most states.

    Nutrition is vitally important. Drought has a huge impact on deer antler growth, not because bucks aren’t getting enough to drink but because the browse they eat is lower in nutritional value. In Sonora I would guess that we kill bucks that are 15 to 20 percent smaller in drought years. Instead of bucks that score 180 to 200 or more, which isn’t all that impressive in Sonora in a good year, you’ll find bucks that score 150 to 165 or so. Sonoran bucks grow wide antlers, partly because the antlers bend downward and outward just after the eyeguard. Almost any healthy buck that’s 4 1/2 years old will be pushing 30 inches in good browse years. But in bad drought years it’s rare to see a buck over 30 inches, and most mature bucks will be 24 to 27 inches. Keep in mind that drought coincided with some of the years that the bad economy and overhunting also were blamed for hurting things in Sonora.

    In Colorado, as in other western states, bad winters have a huge impact, much more than people think. Not only do you lose your older bucks, which are worn out from the rut, almost all the fawns, half of which are bucks, and almost all your yearling bucks, which have little fat to get through a difficult winter. In especially tough winters, does die in droves, particularly yearlings and older does, and the does that are normally productive abort their young. So you’re missing several age classes of bucks in future years. I’ve decided that when I hear a winter kill is 50 percent, it’s probably much higher, especially if there are reports of dozens of dead deer near haystacks. My guess is that the severe winters kill as many as 90 percent of deer in an area. When you lose 90 percent, you lose most bucks in every age class and virtually every buck in the most affected age classes. The deer that would have been born the spring after a tough winter are not born at all, so you won’t have any yearlings in two years or 2 1/2 year olds in three years or 3 1/2 year olds in four years or 4 1/2 year olds in five years or 5 1/2 year olds in six years. On top of that, you lose almost all fawns in a tough winter. So you won’t have any yearlings (forkhorns and spikes mostly) the following year, hardly any 2 1/2 year olds in two years, etc. Then you lose almost all your yearling bucks, which means you won’t have any 2 1/2 year olds to speak of the following year, 3 1/2 year olds in two years, and so forth. And since total numbers of does are also down, it is years and years before you again have a good number of bucks reaching older age classes.

    A few mature bucks, 3 1/2 to 6 1/2 years old, will survive tough winters (although most die). These bucks sometimes escape death by wintering up high, where the snow is swept by the wind off ridges or where the south-facing and west-facing slopes are so steep that most of the snow melts, and temperatures can be fairly warm (for a deer) all through the winter. But since there are virtually no bucks in the younger age classes, those surviving mature bucks eventually are shot or die of other causes (killed by coyotes, eaten by cougars, run over by motor vehicles, poached, caught in fences, etc.), and there is nothing to replace them for years.

    Some hunters refuse to accept that it takes years and years to rebuild a herd. So they continue to apply for areas that were good in the past, thinking they are such superior game spotters that they will be able to glass up the big bucks that remain. When there’s one mature buck where a few years ago there might have been two dozen or more, it’s harder to find a trophy-size animal than one might think.

  9. Terry
    4 years ago

    The biggest and most abundant mulies are coming out of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Hands down the best hunting on the planet

  10. Roberta moose
    4 years ago

    I am a native of Nevada archery hunter and I have seen a dramatic decrease in he size of bucks in area 10, the largest migrating mule deer heard in Nevada. The problem is the protection of our public lands from corporate predators. The Bald mountain mine has taken out acres and acres of sagebrush eco system and water for stop over migration routes south. There is a report from NVDOW online about the migration routes from radio transmitted collars. The report was paid for by Barrick Mines, which makes me highly suspect of the report. The report tries to justify the further expansion of the mine while protecting the deer. The problem is the damage has already been done. They say, in the report, that there is no previous studies done about the deer before the mine, but what are the harvest intake reports for? The harvest questionaires are a longitudinal study of the size and number of deer harvested every year. The BLM are currently handing out mining and energy leases for public land like candy. I fear for the wildlife in Nevada every year I hunt as I see the number of mature bucks decline. I know my best hunting days are behind me, but what will be left for the next generation

    • Altitude Staff
      3 years ago

      I always worry about the next generation as well. We need to be as active as possible to share hunting with youth, and help our decision makers make the best decisions for wildlife. Thanks for your comment!

  11. Mark
    3 years ago

    I’m hoping I did good this year. .. El Nino predictions, good spring and summer rain and a 4th season gunnison tag in my pocket! I’m due for some good luck hunting! I hope I can be picky enough and get to look at a lot of nice bucks…

    • Altitude Staff
      3 years ago

      Good Luck Mark! I think we’ll see tremendous antler growth through most of the rocky mountain states this year. Mild winters and lots of precip help the animals put on the antler and horn! Let us know how you do!

  12. Griz Hunter
    2 years ago

    I started mule deer hunting in Colorado in the 1960s. Have also hunted mule deer in New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. I’m hunting Montrose County Colorado for the first time this fall. Have previously hunted Routt, Moffat, and Rio Blanco counties, with my best typical muleys coming from Routt County. But that was many years ago. Looking forward to hunting Montrose County this year. Canada looks interesting, but I don’t like their draconian gun laws, and having to buy a $75 permit to take a rifle there (no handguns allowed). Mexico also looks very interesting, but also has draconian gun laws, and the price for a mule deer hunt, if you can find one, is exorbitant! And most outfitters will only sell you a mule deer hunt if you first book a $40,000 desert sheep hunt with them.
    Good luck.

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