Time for hunting groups to recognize California’s other deer sub-species
By JIM MATTHEWS
There are six different subspecies of mule deer in California. In spite of that, most hunters – especially outside of California – believe we only have two – blacktail deer and Rocky Mountain Mule deer. Avid hunters here know four of the subspecies as smaller, different versions of the mule deer that inhabit the rest of the Western states.
Sadly, those four subspecies are lumped together with Rocky Mountain mule deer throughout their range in spite of the fact that true Rocky Mountain mule deer only live in the far northeast part of the state. Blacktails are only recognized as living in the northwest part of the state in the coastal mountains west of Mt. Shasta.
The Boone and Crockett Club and Pope and Young Club are the official keepers of hunter’s records of big game, using elaborate measurement systems of horns and antlers to compare and rate various big game animals. While they embrace the Coues whitetail deer subspecies with its own record category, both groups ignore the four California subspecies of mule deer.
So what are those other subspecies and why are they treated like hated stepchildren by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and hunting organizations that are supposed to keep records on the biggest big game animals taken by sportsmen?
Inyo Mule Deer: This is the largest in body and horn size of the four other species. It inhabits the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada from the Tahoe region south. From a deer zone perspective, these bucks would live in X8, all the X9s, X12, and probably parts of D9 and X10.
California Mule Deer: This is a smaller bodied and horned mule deer that lives on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada and throughout the intercoastal mountains that ring the Los Angeles basin. Deer zones housing these deer are D5, D6, D7, D8, D10, D11, D13, D14, D15, and parts of southern A zone, X10, D19, and D9.
Southern Mule Deer: Very similar in size to the California mule deer, this subspecies lives from San Diego’s coastal and inland mountains south into Baja California. D16 is the zone where they live.
Burro Mule Deer: These are the bucks that live in the Colorado River desert in the D12 hunting zone. While body size is similar to our other “smaller” mule deer, it can produce some outsize antlers.
The interesting thing about mule deer and blacktail deer (and even whitetails where ranges overlap) is that they will breed and produce hybrids between the different deer. For example, the DFW had radio-collared deer that summer in the Monache Meadows area of X10 that have migrated downslope on the west side one year, which would make them California mule deer. However, the same deer migrated down the east side of the Sierra the following year, which would make them Inyo mule deer. A massive Coues deer was taken this past season in southern Arizona that genetic test proved was a desert mule deer-Coues deer cross. Our desert D17 zone had native deer (probably burro deer), but Rocky Mountain mule deer from northeastern California and animals from Catalina Island were relocated here and probably mixed with the natives making the subspecies in the zone hard to classify today.
Drawing boundaries where the different subspecies exist is an inexact science at best. But that doesn’t mean the deer should be ignored as somehow lesser animals by hunters.
Southern California hunters who hunt in D10, D11, D13, and D14 are hunting the purest strain of California mule deer in the state and the bucks from these areas should get independent recognition. Hunters who have chased bucks in these zones know two things: First, killing mature bucks in this habitat is probably more difficult than any other hunting. Part of that is from unrelenting human pressure on the deer makes them hyper wary. Part of that is from the chaparral habitat where they live. And part of that is from decades of poor management by the DFW and land-use agencies where these animals live. Second, a trophy on par with a 28-inch, four-by-four Rocky Mountain mule deer is a 22-inch, three-by-three. A 25-inch, four-by-four California mule deer the equivalent of a 33- or 34-inch Rocky Mountain buck.
Recent fires in D11 and D14 have done wonders for the deer herd in both of these zones, with more deer produced and surviving, and better antler growth in the bucks because of the great forage, but deer numbers and quality are still not on par with what hunters saw in the 1960s and again in the late 1970s and early 80s.
It would be nice if the California Deer Association and the record-keeping organizations would show an interest in recognizing the other subspecies of deer here. It might produce better management and more interest in hunting these deer. Nothing bad can come from that.
HELP COLLECT HISTORICAL DEED DATA: The photo above is of Larry Kay of San Bernardino with one of the biggest bucks ever taken from the D14 hunting zone. The buck was shot in 1982. Have you seen bucks that measure up or surpass this one from local hunting areas?
Outdoor reporter Jim Matthews is trying to pull together some other historical and contemporary photos of big bucks from Southern California deer zones, and he is interested in talking to the hunters (or their family descendants, in the case of old trophies) who bagged big bucks. Photos or contact information can be emailed to Matthews at firstname.lastname@example.org, and he can be reached by calling 909-887-3444.
HARPER DRY LAKE DUCK HUNTINGMatthews is also seeking information on waterfowl hunting in the Mojave Desert, two terms usually not used in the same sentence. Matthews is seeking to get historical waterfowl hunting information specifically about Harper Dry Lake, where there were once two duck hunting clubs, but also other historic desert waterfowl hunting locations.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.