Mule Deer inhabit the greatest variety of terrain in the West. Their habitats can range from badlands, river bottoms, prairies, mountains, canyons, farm fields and dang near anything in between. They exist in huntable populations in all 11 western states, plus the 6 neighboring states in the Great Plains. The states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are frequently overlooked when talking about mule deer hunting, but when examining your opportunities, it helps to keep all of your options in mind. I’m going to try to lay out what sets each state apart in terms of hunting opportunities with this article, and why I’d choose one over another.
For starters, let’s look at how to get tags. Most of the western states require a drawing of some sort in the spring or early summer. Those same states usually have a few leftovers after the drawing, especially in some of the less desirable units. Units can be undesirable due to many factors, but most notably difficult public land access. Sometimes it’s not so much that the unit is unpopular, it’s just that there are a lot of tags issued. Where supply exceeds demand, usually due to a combination of high density populations and low success rates, there will frequently be leftover tags.
If you aren’t willing to get into a draw, or it’s too late, and you don’t want to get a leftover tag due to the feeling that you aren’t getting your choice of the better areas, what’s left for you? Much of Washington has over the counter tags, even in the east where the mule deer are. Idaho also operates under a general license for nonresidents. California and Nebraska have first come-first served quota limited units that don’t draw out very early. Other options include Oklahoma and Texas that, where you’d really be better off hunting the private lands for mule deer. Their licenses are unlimited, but the only significant public lands with mule deer on them are by drawing only.
Deer densities vary widely based mostly on habitat factors. Good mule deer densities start at around 10 per square mile. It’s difficult to get good numbers, but it’s probably a fair guess that South Dakota’s Black Hills and Nebraska’s Pine Ridge has about the same mule deer density as Wyoming’s portion of the Black Hills. If that’s the case, then something on the order of 12-15 mule deer per square mile is a reasonable assumption. Don’t forget that there are at least as many whitetails as mule deer in those areas and total deer density is closer to 30 deer per square mile. That’s getting closer to what eastern hunters are used to seeing, and actually better than much of the Northeast.
Few places can do much better than about 15 mule deer per square mile. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Oregon have a few units that can reach or exceed 15 mule deer per square mile. Given the location of some of Wyoming’s top deer densities, it’s also fair to assume Montana has some units that will come close to those deer densities too.
Most states average far less than the 10-15 deer per square mile that I consider “good." 3 to 4 deer is about normal for the Great Basin country. 8 to 10 is pretty normal for mountain foothill country. 1 to 2 deer per square mile is typical of the Great Plains, though those densities get much higher near irrigated farmlands that also have good topographic or vegetative cover. Less than 1 deer per square mile is not uncommon at all in some of the rugged southwestern deserts.
The highest density mule country all has one thing in common. The elevations are not particularly extreme. There is very little black timber. They are slightly arid at the lower elevations, usually on the upslope or downslope of a rain shadow. They usually have some access to crop lands, but also good public land winter ranges with lots of shrubs. Parts of Western Colorado, Central Wyoming, Central Utah, Northeast Oregon, Central Montana, Northwest Nebraska, Western South Dakota all typify this kind of country.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s tough to beat Colorado’s deer management on a statewide basis. Nearly every unit is managed for at least 25 bucks per 100 does, and the biologists often allow the sex ratios to get much higher than that. Nevada is just as closely managed, but they just don’t have the deer numbers and habitat outside of a few units to produce excellent hunting across the state. Wyoming would be my next choice, as numerous units are over 35 bucks per 100 does. Wyoming has unlimited general tags for residents, so I’m not a huge fan of hunting outside of the limited quota areas. Arizona generally has some tight management and most units have sex ratios in the 25-35 range, even the units without a trophy reputation. New Mexico doesn’t publish much deer population information, but their deer program manager gave me a few populations and sex ratios a few years ago that made it look comparable to these more tightly managed states.
Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah are all somewhat similar in that they manage a few areas well, but the rest of their units are managed for sex ratios in the teens. A trophy managed unit in Oregon or Washington would be somewhere on the order of 25 bucks per 100 does, whereas Utah manages their top units for over 40 bucks per 100 does. Those top units in Utah give the state its great reputation, but most units are still managed for closer to 15 bucks.
Montana publishes no numbers to back this up, but they probably fall closer to the Idaho style management, where most units are in the teens for sex ratios, but a handful of private land dominated areas or draw only units have sex ratios closer to 30.
As for the Great Plains States, their management is much less of a state or unit wide management issue. These states don’t really survey their populations and adjust harvests based on success rates, landowner tolerance, hunter demand and satisfaction. So, if you’re considering these states, and are concerned with trophy quality, your best bet is going to be in private ranch setting that has more than just a casual management program. I know for a fact that Texas Parks and Wildlife pays close attention to the trophy quality on their public land hunts in the Big Bend area, but I don’t know how Oklahoma manages their public land mule deer hunts.
So, what’s the best state? All around, I’d say Colorado as they have the deer numbers and tight management that most of the other states lack. But of course you’ll have to draw, and deer numbers are still recovering from the 2007 and 2008 winters. Some excellent units can be had with just one preference point, but when these populations recover and the Division of Wildlife starts issuing more tags, expect to find a great selection of leftovers like you could just a few years ago.
I like Wyoming a lot too, but Colorado tends to have more units with both a high sex ratio and high deer density. Many of Wyoming’s best deer units have lower deer densities.
Strictly as a trophy hunt, if you had the time to put in, it’s tough to beat the Arizona Strip or Utah’s Paunsaugunt Plateau. But good luck drawing. This should be part of a 20 year plan, not a 5 year plan. Also, expect to pay a lot of money for hunting licenses you won’t otherwise use.
I’m intrigued by the high mule deer numbers that Oregon claims in the Imnaha, Pine Creek, Wenaha, Keating and surrounding units. But the mediocre success rates and sex ratios are discouraging. Sex ratios are all in the teens and none of those units offer much better than 50% success.
For those who want to forgo any kind of drawing, but still insist on hunting on public lands, Nebraska’s Pine Ridge is your best bet. There’s the Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska National Forest, Ft. Robinson State Park and some large State Widlife Areas, most of which hold a mix of mule deer and whitetailed deer. This is also the cheapest option, as tags are less than $200. Don’t expect to kill a booner by going this route, as Nebraska only had one mule deer entered into Boone and Crockett last time I looked.
If you’re looking for trophy quality, and no drawing, my bet would be on West Texas. Legitimate Boone and Crockett deer are possible if you’re willing to pay to get onto trophy managed ranches.
So there you have it a rundown of most of what’s available in mule deer hunting. Unfortunately, there’s just no free lunches. I wish there was someplace to go with a great combination of guaranteed tags, excellent trophy quality, high deer numbers, and fantastic public land access. It’s all a compromise, but there’s something for everyone if you’re willing to forgo one of the above factors.