Do deer stay in the same area? It’s a question that hunters often ask, the answer is yes, but also no.
Some deer do remain within a few miles of where they are born their entire life, but others wander a long way from their birthplace, and still, others migrate back and forth from home to locations far away.
What Types of Deer?
Deer can be as fickle as people in their version of a mobile society. Before we look into the patterns that they follow we need to recognize that when we say “deer” in North America we are discussing two distinct, very different species in whitetail and mule deer.
Mule deer get their name from the prominent, “mule-like” ears that protrude high above their heads. Whitetails in contrast are named for their oversize whitetails that flap like a flag when they are disturbed and take flight.
Aside from those two physical differences, mule deer are larger, inhabit dry western deserts, foothills and are often found on the slopes of western mountain ranges to altitudes of 10,000 feet.
Whitetails were once relegated largely to the area east of the Mississippi River, but have now moved to locations in every region of the continental United States. They are a very aggressive species that often force mule deer, elk, and even moose out of their traditional habitat.
Do Mule Deer Stay in the Same Area?
Mule deer are an interesting species, they migrate with the seasons, sometimes up to 200 miles, but they’ll also spend their entire lives hanging out in a single hayfield if left undisturbed.
In the midst of these two extremes, you’ll find other mule deer that trek the same trail, traveling various distances from just a few hundred yards to 50 miles, and then returning to their original spot with no regard for seasons, predation, or weather.
Why Do Mule Deer Migrate?
Studies conducted on deer migration by the University of Wyoming found some fascinating information.
Mule deer in the arid southwest portion of Wyoming routinely migrate 150 miles from their summer desert habitat to winter quarters on the western slopes of the Wind River Mountains.
It doesn’t seem logical that deer would inhabit an arid, open area during the hotter summer months, then retreat to the mountains when winter arrives, but that’s what several studies indicated.
Mule deer don’t have fickle, irrational drives like humans, when they move it is for a reason. Small bands of summer-dwelling muleys will begin migrating in early autumn, eventually joining other bands to form large herds of thousands of deer that will spend the winter on the slopes.
Food is plentiful in the desert in early summer. Seasonal grass sprouted by late spring snowstorms makes the arid desert bloom for a few months.
By late August the grass is brown again, and if there is a heavy population of deer, feral horse, pronghorn, or the area is grazed by cattle, the grass is gone by September.
In contrast, the grass on the high sub-alpine slopes of the mountains remains through the year, dried as winter approaches, but still a good source of food.
The wind keeps most of these slopes open throughout the winter, so grazing is easier for even huge concentrations of mule deer.
Why Do Muleys Stay at Home?
The other extreme, the localized herd is content with their surroundings. You’ll find these mule deer near humans. They find a farm with plenty of grass, alfalfa, and sometimes the telltale morsels of harvested oats, barley, and corn, along with a water source and they won’t move.
These localized deer leave their trademark each spring when the bucks drop their antlers.
One of our hayfields is a 30-acre section of grass and alfalfa bordered on the north and south by willow thickets, with pockets of Russian olives on the west, and a barren, sagebrush-covered hill to the east. There is a year-round supply of water flowing from a spring just across the road.
I’ve picked up unique atypical antlers many times while irrigating. Those unique antlers often match the bucks I spot the following winter.
These bucks come out often during the summer months, and even in velvet, their antlers match the dropped sets they’ve left behind earlier in the year.
In a testament to their intelligence, the only time I don’t see these bucks is during hunting season.
The boundary to the Wind River Indian Reservation is nearby, and they’ll make the short mile or two-mile trek to the reservation during the Wyoming season. You’ll find them back in the hayfield when the reservation season is open.
Why Do Muleys Roam and Return?
Studies indicate that mule deer migrate short distances due to three causes, the first is food supply, they’ll move if there isn’t enough grass.
The second is water. The arid west is pocketed with water holes, but they’ll dry up as the summer moves on, forcing mule deer to relocate near another water source.
The third is pressure. If humans or predators move into an area disturbing the herd, primarily fawns with does, the herd will move away from the threat.
These semi-nomadic deer don’t move far, just enough to take the pressure of food, water, and harassment away.
In the Bison Basin along the Sweetwater River east of South Pass in Wyoming, you’ll find well-worn game trails leading from the lush spring grass along the Sweetwater, to more stable feeding areas a few thousand feet higher near South Pass.
These deer will return to fawn in the spring, and the bucks are identifiable if they have atypical antlers from their drops just as farm centered deer are.
Do Whitetails Migrate?
Whitetails in their traditional habitat along the Great Lakes, the Northeast, and into the South don’t move much. Whitetails can spend their entire lives on a few thousand acres of land.
Once they’re established in a well-watered section of wilderness in the Ohio and Mississippi watershed, whitetails don’t move.
If you’re hunting whitetails, spook one and it disappears, odds are if you return a day or two later that same buck will be feeding near the same meadow.
Whitetails are territorial, they may be small, but they’re very aggressive against each other. Established habitat isn’t surrendered easily.
Whitetail drops almost always match a buck within a few hundred yards of where you found the shed antler earlier in the year.
As indicated earlier, whitetails are now extending well beyond their original range. They are a big problem in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks where they are pushing pronghorn, elk, deer, and even bison out of their traditional habitat.
Do Some Whitetails Migrate?
A study conducted by the University of Washington indicates that recently arrived whitetail deer are exhibiting migratory patterns.
They don’t move as far as mule deer traditional travel, but whitetail populations in Washington state indicate they’ll move up to 20 miles seasonally, and do the same if they’re pressured.
Washington with its humid, agriculturally friendly climate provides a perfect habitat for whitetails. They are moving into suburban areas, orchards, and into the foothills across the western region of the state.
Deer don’t like to exert any unnecessary force. If they find peace, food, and water that’s where they’ll stay. Sometimes they find it after a seasonal migration, other times they just stay at home.
Lander, Wyoming sits at the foothills of the Wind River Range, adjacent to Sinks Canyon State Park and thousands of miles of national forest.
Mule deer in Lander hang out at the city park and surrounding agricultural areas, but in the winter, they move to town.
It’s a migration of fewer than five miles, but you’ll find them in backyards, especially under crab apple trees through the winter months. They graze on lawns, protected from the wind by fences and groves of trees.
Deer are an enigma when it comes to traveling, some do, and some don’t.