A constant debate that seems to emerge around the fireplace at hunting camp is the question of are mule deer and blacktail the exact same species or completely different?
Whether they are the same or not there are definitely some differences in their appearance and habitats.
Range & habitat
An important point to mention is that there are two recognized “types” of blacktail deer, the Columbia blacktail and the Sitka blacktail. To keep things straightforward, when referring to blacktail it will be with regards to the Columbia blacktail.
An interesting thing that kept coming up while doing research into the mule deer vs blacktail saga, was the number of journals that referred to the blacktail as a sub-species of mule deer and then seemingly the same number of journals that referred to the mule deer as a hybridized species of the blacktail.
Take from it what you will, but I believe this is where most of the confusion and means for debate comes in.
Dr. Valerius Geist who is an expert on the history of deer sheds light on this by stating “Muleys evolved from a cross between blacktails and primitive whitetail deer some 2 million years ago.”
The Columbia blacktail (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) ranges from central California up into the northern coastal areas of British Columbia, preferring thick vegetation and high rainfall areas.
While the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) covers a much larger area and varied terrain as it is found across much of the western U.S., Canada, and northern parts of Mexico.
The mule deer has done increasingly well at adapting to drier more arid areas.
Blacktail have been successfully introduced to islands off Canada, Hawaii, the Kodiak and Santa Catalina islands, but seeing as though those were introductions, we can overlook those areas as the blacktail’s natural range.
Physical differences are often the biggest points that are used by those who consider the mule deer and blacktail deer to be different.
Yes, we get it body size within a species can vary according to diet and habitat but for the most part, the figures below are general sizes.
Body size & weight
Mule deer are on average larger than the blacktail deer. With a shoulder height of 31 – 42” and a nose-to-tail length of 3.9 – 6.9 ft. A mature mule deer buck will tip the scales from 160 to 330 lbs.
Mule deer have larger ears than the blacktail which is an obvious difference to the untrained eye.
The black-tailed mature bucks, specifically the Columbia blacktail deer, weigh in around 150 to 200lbs with the does coming in considerably lighter. Bucks are 32 – 38” high at the shoulder with a total length of around 3.2 feet.
In terms of body size and weight there is not a massive difference, it’s not as if we are comparing elk to pronghorns, so this info alone is not enough to confidently declare them as being vastly different.
Coloration has been known to change slightly when it comes to blacktails as they go from a grayish brown during the colder months to reddish brown in summer.
Yet, the obvious difference between the two deer is that the blacktail has less white on the rump and a blacker, thicker tail than the mule deer.
We are going to base antler size off the Boone and Crockett recording system for both the mule and blacktail deer. The antlers of the mule deer and blacktail are bifurcated, which means they fork as they grow.
Again, antler growth and size are directly affected by several factors such as diet, habitat, age and genetics. Yet there is a clear difference between the antler scores of both deer.
Tips on hunting the mule deer vs blacktail
With muleys being available to hunt across 16 states, it is obvious they can be found across all types of terrain. So, hunting them one specific way is not always feasible.
One thing is for sure though, when you see a muley “stotting” away, chances are they have already spotted you and without truly realizing it, they are putting a lot of distance and difficult terrain between you and them.
Spot and stalk are always the best option, with a large amount of time meticulously spent glassing the area. Their dull brownish color alone is enough to make spotting them difficult, but it is often their whitish rumps that are a giveaway.
Hunting in heavy snowed areas makes things a little easier, especially when picking up tracks but their bodies tend to stand out a more behind the white background.
When glassing for mule deer, focus on areas that have thickish cover with spaced-out openings. Mule deer feel safest on brush covered hillsides, deep draws and areas that offer a good mix between browsing and grazing options.
Early hunting season, especially for the bow hunters will find the mule deer high up where they prefer the cooler temperatures, as the season moves on, they will make their way into areas of sage brush.
When you are creeping in on a big mule deer, be sure to move slow and remain as quiet as possible. Those big old ears are there for a reason and a muley knows how to use them.
The rut runs from early November to late December, and just like any other male of the species, the big bucks will drop their guard and all common sense goes out the window as they chase the does.
Find a group of does and wait for the buck, he won’t be far behind.
Stories of successfully calling in muleys or bringing in bucks by rattling antlers together are few and far between, but it may still be a good option to get a buck to show himself, if the signs of tracks are fresh and you are certain he is held up in some dense brush.
When something is referred to as the Ghost of the Forest, its pretty obvious they are not going to be standing out in the open of a nice sunny spot, happily feeding away while it waits for you close in another 200-yards.
The blacktail is notorious not only for being difficult to hunt, but just to see one.
The habitat which the blacktail calls home, specifically the Columbia blacktail, is abound with impenetrable vegetation made up of ferns, moss, fallen timber and ever green bushes.
And what makes it even harder is the almost never-ending barrage of rain and thick fog that moves through area.
Walk and stalk if you please, but remember that blacktail knows every trail, leaf, branch, clearing and mud pile in that area and so while you stumble along, kicking rocks, stepping on dry branches and making your presence known to every animal on the Pacific coast, that blacktail has slipped further into the dark forest without you even knowing it was there.
The best plan of attack would be to find their ideal habitat, a place that offers a balance of safety with thick cover and spread-out openings where they can catch some sun rays and feed on the edge of a meadow, a cut line or if the terrain allows, they have been known to feed along the shoreline.
Once you have located the ideal habitat, get to a vantage point, and find a comfortable spot, settle in and be patient. Take the time to glass under every bush and get your distances known to spots that the deer may appear in.
Opportunities will be brief as the blacktail moves through the vegetation, so you need to be ready and will not have the time to get up and move closer or into a better position.
Calls have been used with good success at luring bucks out from hiding and into a position where you can get a clean shot. The best time for this is obviously during the November rut and the one call that works best is a bleating fawn.
For the rifle hunters, a flat shooting caliber such as .270, .243 or .30-06 would be ideal for blacktail and achieve the desired result.
Ok, so the scientists and research articles that are focused on the taxonomy lineage and genetic makeup of a species have concluded that the mule deer and blacktail deer are in essence the same species.
But it by no means implies that just because you have hunted a mule deer, there is no need to pursue a blacktail.
Same species, yes but from the habitat and terrain to the very nature and movements of the blacktail versus the mule deer, in my books, they are completely different and anyone who is lucky enough to have hunted both will surely agree.