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  • Writer's pictureJared Oakleaf

An Interloper, a Captivity Journal, and an Irruption: a mule deer memoir

Updated: Dec 11, 2018

Part 1, of a 3.5 part series on the history of the "youngest" member of the deer family.

Mule Deer in Central Wyoming, Photo by the Author

One of the quirkiest members of the deer family has an equally unusual history. It is this history that elevates the mule deer to the status of: "icon of the west". I find this title a gross simplification. Rather the mule deer is a living barometer of societal and biological wellness.

An Interloper:

A constant thread that runs through mule deer is controversy and tension.

Scientific controversy, and tension between mule deer and mankind. Naturally, the story of how they came to be is debated.

Some 10,000 years ago a mass extinction of North American megafauna occurred. A phd feeding frenzy swirls around unconfirmable causality determinations. Many hypothesize that spear chucking humans had a hand in this extinction [1]. For the mule deer, this extinction is significant because it created a void. Think the cult classic line from the movie Dumb and Dumber: “So your saying there’s a chance.”

In his book Mule Deer Country, Valerius Geist (1990) provides a compelling argument that mule deer are a hybrid. A product of a cross between whitetail deer and blacktail deer. One cannot exaggerate the competitive disadvantage and fragility of a hybrid. In fact, most mule deer-whitetail hybrids of today do not live long. But the mule deer came to be during the exit of North Americas megafauna. Gone are mega predators like the dire wolf and American lion, along with mega grazers like the wooly mammoth. As such, the mule deer likely enjoyed a roomy and welcoming niche.

What doesn’t make sense to me is that this “new” hybrid survived the onslaught of hominins. The very aggravator that some believe hunted the wooly mammoth into extinction.

I have not found much information about the role of the mule deer in Native American lifestyles. Prehistoric rock art is one of the few clues. It seems elk, bighorn sheep, and bison dominate the hunting stories of these cultures. This makes sense, because these species were more prevalent.

Depictions of deer do show up in rock art. A rope tail, bifurcated antlers, and the namesake ears separates mule deer from the others. These items are easy to depict in simple silhouettes, even if the medium is rock.

Newspaper rock near Monticello, UT, believed to be 2000 years old, has something that looks like a mule deer [2]. The antler configuration, and the location, a desert void of whitetail deer, lead me to believe that this one is the real deal.

I found a clearer depiction of mule deer at Whoopup Canyon in Northeastern Wyoming [3]. In fact, there are different deer next to the work in question. The one I suspect to be a mule deer contains a rope tail, bifurcated antlers, and long ears. The other deer depicted are different, and do not contain any of these items. The rock art here dates back 12,000 years, placing it pre-Pleistocene extinction.

A further dive into the prevalence of mule deer in rock art is in my future. If you know of some rock art locations with mule deer, please message me or leave them in the comments section of this blog.

The speculation associated with the age and origin of the mule deer species does not swirl around prevalence or lack thereof in rock art. Although, I think these depictions serve as an important part of the collective evidence. Instead, the debate lies in the DNA analysis techniques utilized. People far smarter than me can debate those items. For now, I am going with the best story.

Generally, it seems accepted that mule deer are newcomers. In contrast the whitetail deer has been on the planet four million years [4]. At some point the interloping mule deer became an equally nuanced and fragile occupier.

Continued in part 2, available at:

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