North American Deer: Mule, Whitetail and Coastal Blacktail Deer

Guide to North American deer and their habits and habitat, including information on whitetail, blacktail and mule deer.

| November/December 1985

Learn about our North American deer in our continent, including whitetail, blacktail and mule deer and information on the antlers and racks of deer. (See the photos of North American deer in the image gallery.)

Deer are mysterious and ancient creatures, their ancestors having first appeared in Mongolia during the Miocene and Pliocene geological epochs, some 10 to 20 million years ago. From there they spread to populate most of Asia and Europe, eventually crossing the Alaskan land bridge to North America. Once here, North American deer continued evolving until—a mere million years or so ago, during the Pleistocene epoch—they attained the form we're familiar with today.

Just two species of deer are native to North America (they do occasionally interbreed): whitetail (Odocoileus virginianus) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). A third group, the Pacific coastal (or Columbia) blacktail (O. h. columbianus), is simply a regional variation of the mule deer with enough individuality to be considered a legitimate subspecies. Other offshoots of the two primary species include the Sitka deer of Alaska (O. h. sitkensis), a close relative of the blacktail (and consequently of the muley), and two diminutive cousins to the whitetail: the Coues deer (O. v. covesi) of the American Southwest and the Florida Key deer (O. v. clavium).

Scientists have estimated that, before the arrival of Europeans, North America supported some 40 million whitetail and 10 million mule deer. But by 1908—because of unregulated hunting with modern firearms and the mass slaughter, especially in the West, of millions of deer for their hides alone (which were valued at as little as a dollar each)—North America's deer population had plummeted to a scant half million, and that figure represented the total of all species.  

However, through the last-minute implementation of laws limiting the annual deer kill, the encroaching extinction was checked. During the past half century, as a result of the establishment of wildlife control programs that favor game species, our deer population has increased to the point where—according to the latest estimates of the Wildlife Management Institute of Washington, D.C.—the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) now supports from 12.5 to 14 million whitetail, and 4.5 to 7 million mule deer.

Whitetail deer are most abundant in the eastern U.S., though none of the contiguous 48 states are totally devoid of the animal, and the only states lacking viable populations are California, Nevada, and Utah. In conjunction with its abundance, the whitetail's ability and willingness to live near human population centers make it the most commonly sighted (and photographed, and hunted, and run over) large wild mammal we have.

7/30/2009 11:28:37 AM

Where are the recipes?

11/5/2007 11:38:09 AM

this is a false statement the whitetail deer population has increased scene Europeans came to the U.S.

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