Although the two species are not visually similar, there are other characteristics that elk and mule deer have in common. After whitetail deer, they are both the most commonly hunted big game animals in the US.
Mule Deer vs. Elk
There are ten mule deer subspecies and six (two extinct) elk subspecies in North America. They don’t resemble each other, but they overlap territories, and hunting them can be equally challenging.
Body and Antler Size
As one of the largest game species in North America, elk takes the lead in the size comparison with mule deer.
Male Roosevelt elk can reach 4’11” in shoulder height and weigh up to 1300 lbs. Females are smaller but still quite imposing, with their 4’6″ and weight reaching 644 lbs.
Other subspecies aren’t far behind, with Manitoban elk females weighing 606 lbs, males 1054 lbs, and Rocky Mountain elk females weighing 500 lbs and males 700 lbs.
Even the smallest of the elk subspecies in North America, the Tule elk is bigger than any mule deer. Female Tule elk weighs up to 421 lbs and male up to 701 lbs.
Some trophy mule deer can weigh up to 460 lbs on hooves, but the average size for a buck is 120 – 330 lbs, and a doe is even smaller, usually between 90 and 200 lbs. Mule deer can reach 3’6″ in the shoulder.
This is a handy pocket guide you can bring with you to the field. It will take you step by step on how to field dress big game animals
The smallest of the mule deer, the Sitka black-tailed deer, can only reach 200 lbs for bucks and 100 lbs for does, which one can compare to a six-month-old elk calf.
There is also a significant difference in the antler size and shape between elk and mule deer. Elk antlers sweep back and raise about 4 ft above the head, and they are based on one beam from which tines spurt up.
Usually, there could be from one to eight tines, and elk with six is called Royal, with seven an Imperial, and eight a Monarch.
The length of elk antlers can reach 6 ft, and their spread about 47 inches.
Mule deer also has an impressive rack, however smaller than the elk. The outside spread of mule deer antlers can reach almost 40 inches, although the most common would be 24.
As opposed to elk antlers, the mule deer ones fork out. The tines grow from the main beam and grow their own tines (the third one grows out of the second one).
Usually, there can be from one to six tines, although trophy racks can reach more.
Habitat and Diet
The mule deer range reaches from the deserts of Mexico in the south to the southern forests of Alaska and Yukon in the north.
They are confined by the Pacific on the west side, but on the east, mule deer only reaches as far as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, and Saskatchewan.
The subspecies of mule deer, the Columbian blacktail, was also introduced in Argentina and on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Mule deer inhabits a wide range of vegetative ecosystems. They are highly adaptable species and can live in open grassland, wood- and shrublands, mountain forests, and rocky deserts.
Some of the mule deer ranges cross with elk habitats, mostly in the Rockies and the coastal regions of Oregon and Washington states. However, elk don’t inhabit deserts, boreal forests, or shrublands.
Both species are considered migratory (although not all mule deer species migrate), and they change their ranges from winter in higher altitudes to summer in flatlands.
Elk’s diet consists chiefly of grasses, supplemented by tree bark in winter, and forbs and sprouts in summer.
They are mostly grazers, as opposed to mule deer, which prefer to browse, feeding mostly on shrubs and trees, with forbs and grasses supplementing the diet.
Mule deer would also feed on mast and agricultural plants wherever they can, whereas elk prefer to stay away from farmland, favoring wild meadows.
Hunting and Meat
Hunting mule deer and hunting elk have many of the same steps.
One needs to scout the area and glass for animals, and although not many hunters realize it, both animals can be hunted the same way: by calling.
Every elk hunter knows that before the stalk, one can pick a good glassing point and call the elk to see whether there are any around that respond to the call with a bugle of their own and if they want to come closer saving you the trip.
Calling elk is the most popular way of hunting these large animals and few elk hunters would venture out without a handful of calls in their pack.
Although calling a mule deer is an option, most hunters prefer to stalk the deer rather than call. Calling mule deer is not as popular as calling elk, and there are not as many calls for mule deer available.
However, hunters that use this hunting technique use whitetail deer calls with success.
Many people who use calls for mule deer could swear that calling the deer was the only option during many of their hunts, making deer come rushing right at them or stop deer’s escape, making them look twice.
Once harvested, elk meat is believed to be much better tasting than mule deer, especially considering what both species eat.
Mule deer grown up eating shrubs like sage will taste stronger than grass-fed elk. Many hunters believe that elk meat is one of the best tasting while saying mule deer is not appetizing at all in comparison.
The elk meat is also leaner, and there is way more of it, considering the animal’s size on the hoof.
Although mule deer and elk can share habitats, they are two different species, and frankly, you cannot mistake one for another. The size, shape, and color will let you recognize them on the spot.
Both species are ruminants with four-chambered stomachs, but their diets are slightly different, making it easy to tell their meat apart with ease as well.
The hunting techniques are usually different, but for the more experienced hunters, calling in elk and mule deer can be as successful as the other.