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  • Writer's pictureJared Oakleaf

Mule Deer Nutrition Files: Forbs of Gold

Updated: Jun 19, 2018

I inched closer to where the big buck lay. In his haste for shade, he bedded below a small piece of rimrock, screening my approach from above. I was coming in tight, his antler tips stuck up above the rimrock, but the rest of his face was screened. 70 yards and closing.

The wind rustled and blew into my face. He is in deep trouble, I thought. At 30 yards, I began to ease down to my knees. In my mind he was dead, and I was pondering how I was going to manage the meat in the 90 degree prairie heat. Suddenly… chaos!

As I kneeled in my distracted state, I put a knee into an arrowleaf balsamroot. It broke the silence with a report reminiscent of a roll of Black Cats on the 4th of July. The buck blew from his bed and never looked back.

You know it as: “that damn plant that makes all the noise when I step on it.” If you hunt mule deer you have likely had a stalk blown by Balsamorhiza sagittata.

Arrowleaf balsamroot produces the showy yellow flowers. Its namesake comes from the big arrowhead shaped leaves that surround the plant. The leaf then becomes the hunters sworn enemy as it dries in the fall. As with many things in the west, that which thwarts the hunter supports the hunted.

Arrowleaf balsamroot in Central Wyoming

A member of the sunflower family, balsamroot provides year-round forage for mule deer [1]. The plant contains nearly 30% protein when immature and 10% protein when mature [1]. In comparison, late cut alfalfa will contain upwards of 15% and grass hay 8.4%[2] . The beauty of balsamroot, other than that which we see, is that it occurs throughout mule deer range.

As is the case with most forbs, the productivity of balsamroot is dependent on moisture. The plant grows in drier sites which makes spring moisture essential. Early and rapid snowmelt, as well as drought, can dramatically reduce balsamroot production. In contrast, a slow snowmelt followed by moisture events is ideal for production.

Research has found this plant to be “one of the most important” mule deer forage species [4], with use occurring throughout the year. The plant is especially important in late spring and summer. During this time, the mule deer’s diet is primarily (almost 2/3) forbs [3]. For simplicity sake, we will define forbs as: flowering plants that are not grasses.

Spring and summer are key periods for mule deer. The deer are coming off their winter range in the worse shape they will be all year. At the same time, the does are carrying a fawn or two, and will soon be placing lactation demands on the body. The bucks are going through antler production. These processes increase the bodies demands for energy and protein.

Enter the bumper crop of arrowleaf balsamroot that welcomes deer onto their summer range.

While on their summer range, mule deer begin a long build for the upcoming winter. Think squirrels caching nuts, but for mule deer, the cache is fat storage. Energy and protein are converted to fat when intake levels exceed body demands. Remember, while living is easy in the summer, demands remain high.

Fat reserves built in the summer and fall will carry the deer through the winter. During winter energy demands continue. Does are gestating and all animals are using energy to stay warm. Snow and freezing temperatures limit the availability of food. A mule deer's winter range cannot keep up with the energy demands. So begins a long period of fat burning.

A healthy mule deer herd is an expression of the collective fat reserves of the individuals. A mule deer’s health portfolio rest in its fat reserves. The color of arrowleaf balsamroot is symbolic to its role in the diet of mule deer. It is nutritional gold.

The next time you find yourself cursing one of these plants for blowing your stalk, reframe. The mule deer exist but for the balsamroot.

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