Mule Deer Browsing on Leaves

Hunting Mule Deer

A good deer hunter needs to understand what deer actually eat.  For mule deer in the mountains, ranging 1,500 miles from central New Mexico all the way to northern British Columbia, and over 1,000 miles from the Great Plains on the east to the Cascades on the west, there are about 800 different forms of food for deer.  This is made up mostly of forbs (weeds), mast (acorns and other nuts or fruits), and browse (the leaves and branches of shrubs and trees).

While forbs are the first choice for deer, the changing weather and harsh conditions in the mountains mean that deer are often relegated to browse to carry them through the hard times of winter.  Of course the more palatable and digestible plants are the deer’s first choice.  Palatability refers to how the plant tastes, and digestibility refers to how easily the deer can break down the plant material and extract its nutrients.


Mule Deer Eating an Apple

The growth stage of a plant and the season will change both the palatability and digestibility of a plant; therefore certain plants will be more appealing at certain times of the year.  As a plant matures, a chemical called lignin builds up in the cell walls of the plant, making it almost indigestible.  Therefore a plant that may be of high value early in its growth stage may become useless to a deer as the plant reaches maturity.

Obviously the deer will seek plants that rate high in palatability and digestibility, as well as nutritional value, and this can vary throughout the wide range of habitat noted above.   Juniper is one


Mule Deer Buck Browsing

of the few evergreens that appeal to deer, so that is a good option to look for.  During the archery and muzzle loader seasons in the mountains, if you find open meadows with dandelions, these are good areas to hunt.  The yellow flowers will likely be gone, but the green leafy parts of the plants are what the deer want.  In general, look for green foliage and leafy plants.  Of course this changes in the later seasons, and I will discuss that in later articles.