PART I – BIOLOGICAL/ENVIRONMENT PERSPECTIVES I honestly believe that most Mountain Hunters consider taking a Boone and Crockett mule deer to be the most difficult trophy to successfully harvest in North America today! There are a myriad of complicated factors that lead me to make such a bold statement. Please note that it is not my intent in this article to discuss specific points as to why I believe this remark to be true. I’m not a wildlife biologist nor do I work for any organization conducting research on mule deer. I do, however, know that there are countless articles and theories that have been written regarding the decline of our mule deer herds. Those arguments range from urban growth and over-hunting to a labyrinth of environmental issues.  For now, I’ll leave those discussions to others. Hopefully, we may see a comprehensive article submitted to Altitude Outdoors in the near future that will discuss those specific arguments and contentions. I am convinced that Mountain Hunters share a common vision of seeing a day in our future when the restoration of our mule deer herds becomes a reality. Perhaps it is just a dream but how would it be to see our mule deer once again attain the healthy, robust populations we witnessed during the glory days that occurred in the middle of the past century?  Returning to those “good old days” where there were plenty of diverse, quality hunting opportunities available to harvest a trophy buck is a specter that many die hard “mule deer aficionado’s” would hike into hell and back for without flinching if that would solve the problem. Just like many of you, I have been a die-hard mule deer hunter most of my life, captivated and obsessed with the adrenalin rush and majesty of seeing a world-class buck! Please take a minute to visit some of the posts/videos in the Deer Hunter section here on Altitude Outdoors and you will undoubtedly catch “buck fever” as you experience symptoms of the incurable “Muley Mania” that has infected many of us. I consider myself to be well educated when it comes to understanding mule deer behavior as my knowledge base was developed and then expanded exponentially through countless hours/years spent in the field pursuing trophy caliber bucks. Growing up and living in what I view as the “heartland” of some of the greatest high desert mule deer country in the western United States, I have had the unique privilege/ opportunity to study the habits of mule deer, (“Odocileus hemionus”) out on the mountain for the past 5 decades. My respect and love for big old muleys has grown infinitely over this expanse of time as I have personally witnessed their innate intelligence and uncanny ability to survive the perils of nature, predators, hunters and the encroachment of civilization upon their winter and summer ranges. Just like the majority of you, I’m a Mountain Hunter who enjoys getting away from the mayhem of crowded hunting areas.  This personal inclination led me to the exploration of extremely isolated high desert terrain where I didn't have to contend with a lot of hunters; in country that was home to some great, genetically superior bucks.  True, the desert terrain where I spend my time hunting doesn't support large populations of mule deer like may be in found in some higher alpine regions of the west, but these locations have given me the opportunity to hunt what I consider to be massive antlered, trophy bucks. As hunters, each one of us appreciates different antler characteristics in mule deer. Personally, I get my “adrenalin rush” from hunting big bucks that pack thick, massive antlers. It’s my opinion that the “burly bucks” that live in high desert climates such as the Arizona Strip and Henry Mountains tend to promote and aggregate more density in their antler growth than in other geographic mule deer inhabited regions. I realize that there are exceptions to every rule and “my hypothesis” may not always hold true. In fact, I’m sure there are those who will disagree with me in regards to this statement. With this said please allow me to explain and discuss specific criteria that may give validity to biological and environmental elements that I believe influence the phenomenal antler growth exhibited by many desert mule deer bucks. I would ask you to remember that as I express my thoughts regarding these premises that although biologists have made tremendous advances in their understanding of wildlife science they may still not always have definitive answers as to why particular events occur with wild animals interacting in nature. Thus, we must sometimes formulate an opinion based on personal speculation. Perhaps that is just Mother Nature’s way of continuing to challenge man’s intellect. To back up my “personal hypothesis” I've collected hundreds of shed antlers over the years from various high desert regions and compared them with mule deer antlers from higher alpine locations. What I have noticed is that there is generally more mass associated with the antlers that were shed by high desert bucks. Genetically speaking, certain characteristics exhibited in antlers are common to a specific geographic location. Pile of Sheds from High Desert Mule Deer
Massive Antlers Shed by High Desert Bucks!
It’s my belief that the relatively mild, temperate high desert climates are more conducive to the survival of big mule deer bucks. Why? Because without extremes in weather characterized by harsh winters I’m convinced that the body of a high desert buck is able to concentrate on generating greater antler growth. The deep snow and weeks of below zero temperatures found in most mule deer regions during the long winter months take a huge physical toll on a big buck. However, desert mule deer don’t have to contend with such devastating weather conditions that may prevent them from obtaining prime health. Instead, these big bucks live in an ideal environment that enables them to feed and browse more often as they obtain the essential nutrients to keep their bodies in elite physical condition. In other words, these bucks are not forced to deplete their energy reserves while struggling for survival on harsh winter ranges after the rigorous demands of the rut!


Thousands of acres of high desert mule deer terrain are located in extremely isolated, rugged and uncivilized regions so these areas do not receive as much pressure from hunters. Therefore, the big bucks that live there don’t have to contend with as many external disturbances from man or predators that are commonly associated and found in other mule deer country. Since there are not large populations of mule deer located in these desert regions then these animals seldom attract the number of predators that may be found elsewhere. With the absence of an abundance of disruptive environmental factors mule deer in high desert country can live the early years of their lives relatively stress free as they concentrate on what might be referred to as “foraging success.” This in return, generates a rapid amount of growth in body size, antler mass, and prime physical condition. Upon reaching age six and older these “genetically empowered” bucks are able to focus solely upon the growth of their antlers.


With mild climates and outstanding mule deer habitat I believe that many high desert bucks don’t have to worry about moving large distances to “earn a living” like other muleys do in different regions of the western U.S.  In fact, a desert buck’s “home territory” may consist of just several square miles. Feeling comfortable with the nature of their environment they are content to live where they are. Their survival is not dependent upon migrating hundreds of miles as is the case with many of our mule deer herds. This factor alone benefits big bucks tremendously as they are not forced to diminish energy reserves in covering long migratory miles or in battling a large number of competitors during the biological induced rage of the rut. In the temperate climates characteristic of high desert regions forage conditions on the summer and winter ranges generally remain remarkably stable throughout the year. When these regions get lucky and receive wetter than normal climate patterns vegetative growth begins earlier in the growing season and will last longer into the fall. Again, it is my opinion that this factor contributes positively to the physical condition of high desert bucks as they begin their antler rejuvenation earlier in the spring than is normal for most mule deer. This in return provides them with longer periods of time to sustain an incredible cycle of “antler growth.”  I may be wrong but through my personal observations I don’t believe high desert bucks experience the same time lines or restraints relative to antler growth as is normal with other mule deer.

Randy Johnson with a big Desert Mule Deer buckHUNTING HIGH DESERT BUCKS CAN BE VERY CHALLENGING

We know, substantiated through scientific data, that the habitat and feed available to mule deer as well as genetics are huge contributors in their antler growth. The quality and quantity of prime deer vegetation must be highly accessible for a buck to produce the mass and growth that constitutes a giant set of trophy antlers. In the high desert terrain and biomes I speak of there are large quantities of serviceberry, snowberry, bitterbrush, oak, and big sagebrush that are well documented as being prime habitat for mule deer. These regions are also very highly mineralized. I say this because many of the available water sources have a strong mineralized taste and smell that indicates to me higher concentrations of sulfate, phosphate and calcium, all of which play vital roles in the development and production of abnormal antler growth in mule deer. I have also noticed that in some years the oak and pinion trees in these areas are heavy with acorns and pine nuts. This unique combination of factors with an abundance of different grasses and forbes provides the perfect formula for a high desert buck to achieve unbelievable antler growth, regeneration, repair, and the storage of fat reserves necessary for optimum health.


High Country Desert Mule Deer!


In Part I of this article I have addressed my thoughts in regards to the biological and environmental factors that I believe contribute to the generation of more mass and growth in the antlers of high desert bucks. I know there will be those who don’t agree with the perspectives I’ve presented. Please know that I do respect the views of each one of you as I recognize that I definitely don’t have all the answers. I admire so much the dedication, relentless desire and ever evolving hunting skills that many of you possess to pursue and harvest world-class mule deer, one of the most exhilarating challenges I can think of.  There are indeed some incredible mule deer hunters out there, dedicated male and female Mountain Hunters who work tirelessly to hone their skills but have helped to revolutionize the knowledge base that is now available in reference to trophy mule deer. In Part II of this article I will offer a few of my personal perspectives and tactics on how to successfully hunt a high desert buck. It’s my hope that sharing thoughts with one another will benefit all of us.  

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