Make Room For Blacktails

If you go hunting mule deer this season, be prepared to hunt hybrids because the blacktails are definitely moving in. (November 2006)

An avid hunter at one time, Steve Guill of Shasta County has photographed thousands of mule deer and blacktail deer, revealing an unofficial record of what appears to be an increasing range for blacktails along the interior mountainlands of California and adjacent states.
Photo by John Higley.

When you stop and think about it, most of us are sometimes guilty of expressing opinions about things without having the facts necessary to prove our point.

For example, how many hunters sitting around a campfire telling tales of the so-called "good old days" know, without question, why deer numbers in California have declined over the past 30 years or so?

And how many of those well-meaning individuals base their beliefs on hearsay? Maybe they form their belief on just a brief week or two in the field each fall.

Actually, with a few exceptions, the real deer experts are the schooled biologists employed by the California Department of Fish and Game. They're the ones who get paid to study various situations and to come up with logical solutions to wildlife management problems.

THE FINAL WORD?

Ordinarily, the trained scientists have the final word. That's how it should be -- right? However, there's no denying that a few enlightened private individuals are almost on a par with the professionals.

One of them is Steve Guill, 54, a supermarket employee in Shasta County who has spent an extraordinary amount of time over the last quarter-century unofficially observing, studying and photographing deer.

Even DFG biologists marvel at Guill's accomplishments and the exceptional amount of information he's gathered on deer herds in the northeast part of the Golden State.

Guill's interest in deer developed early on. He was still in high school when he started spending his extra time on weekends watching deer with a couple of pals. Their goal was to count at least a hundred animals before quitting. Eventually, Guill started filming the animals with an 8mm movie camera so he could show doubters what he'd seen. In the 1970s, he graduated to 35mm SLR cameras with telephoto lenses and started snapping still pictures by the hundreds.

As Guill said, "I can't believe how many photographs I've taken over the years. I think it's around 60,000 to date, give or take a thousand or so. I try to edit my stuff critically, but I confess: I rarely throw any of them away!"

With his interest in deer, and his photo stockpile, you'd think Guill would want to turn professional at some level and start selling his photos -- for extra gas money, if nothing else. Actually, his work has appeared occasionally in various publications in both California and Nevada, including some articles in California Game & Fish. But he says he doesn't need the income and refuses to turn his avocation into a business.

"When it's all said and done, everyone's got to have a hobby, and I've probably taken mine to the extreme," Guill admits with a grin. "I used to hunt deer a lot in Northern California and Nevada." (He has several nice sets of antlers hanging in his home.) "But today I'd rather shoot a buck with a camera than with a rifle. That way, I can hang its picture on the wall, and leave it for someone else to see or hunt. Of course, there's no closed season on photography, so I can spend as much time in the field as I want. My self-imposed season is generous. It usually starts in June and goes until the middle of February."

PUTTING IT ON RECORD

But Guill's interest in deer goes beyond simply taking photographs of them. He keeps meticulous records of his sightings of bucks, does and fawns, the time of year, and weather conditions during each outing. And he's so accurate that once, when the CA DFG compared his records with theirs, one biologist cracked, "Why do we bother? He's already done all the work for us!"

The region where Guill takes most of his photos covers a roughly triangular area in Siskiyou and Modoc counties that's bordered on the west by State Route 97, on the south by SR 299 and on the east by SR139. The area contains migratory and resident deer and a wealth of other wildlife, much of which congregates on refuges like Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Butte Valley Wildlife Area and Lava Beds National Monument. Popular deer-hunt zones in the region are Zone C1, Zone X1 and Zone X2.

How much time does Guill spend in the field anyway? Plenty, and as you might guess, he's got it all written down. Since 1989, he's visited his primary photo areas 316 times on road trips covering 127,500 miles. It's not unusual for him to drive 400 miles round-trip on a one-day tour.

Considering his time away from home, it's probably a good thing that he's a confirmed bachelor.

Of course, no one's saying that Guill's findings are true scientific studies, but that's not the gist of this story. Our focus is on an interesting development that one day may actually change the behavior, looks and the size of deer in the region we're concerned with here.

THE SPREAD -- DEER, THAT IS

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of Guill's observations, let's look briefly at California's compliment of deer.

According to the CA DFG, six subspecies of mule deer make their homes in this state: Columbian blacktail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus), Rocky Mountain mule deer (O.h. hemionus), California mule deer (O.h. californicus), Inyo mule deer (O.h. inyoensis), burro mule deer (O.h. eremicus), and southern mule deer (O.h. fuliginatus).

Each subspecies is found primarily in a specific geographic region, but obviously, there are no defined borders. Crossbreeding is common where these deer ranges overlap; thus in many parts of the state, the buck you harvest may well be a hybrid. It's all very confusing. The best way to tell various subspecies apart, should you be curious, is to note the place where a particular buck was killed and compare the tail pattern to illustrations furnished by the CA DFG.

Rocky Mountain mule deer generally carry the biggest antlers and weigh more than the other subspecies. Pure-strain blacktails are supposedly the smallest of the lot. However, exceptions are found to the rule. Within the genetic makeup of each subspecies, an individual animal's body and antler size are determined ultimately by the quality of the habitat it lives in -- and its longevity.

For the purposes of classifying and

measuring trophies for the Boone and Crockett Club's Records of North American Big Game, and the Pope and Young Club's bowhunting records, five of California's subspecies are lumped together in the mule-deer category. In other words, Rocky Mountain mule deer, Inyo mule deer, and the rest must compete with each other to be listed in the mule-deer category. Not surprisingly, it is filled with Rocky Mountain mulies from Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and other Western states. With a total of only five B&C mule deer entries (four in the non-typical category and one on the typical list), California sits at the bottom of the pile.

Not so with Columbian blacktail deer. They have a division all to themselves; and roughly half of the bucks listed in those prestigious record books hail from California, the others coming from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. But to qualify for record-book recognition in the blacktail category, a buck must come from a specific region designated by Boone and Crockett.

Therein lies the rub.

Deer that display typical blacktail characteristics exist in high numbers outside the designated range. But due to the possibility of hybridizations, they must compete with mule deer to be entered in the record book. Chances of that, if not impossible, are slim indeed.

Of California's mule-deer sub-species, blacktails are the most numerous -- which, according to recently retired wildlife biologist Dave Smith, one of the most respected deer researchers with the CA DFG, is no surprise.

"Blacktails are survivors," Smith pointed out. "They get along practically everywhere, from sea level to the highest mountain meadows. A lot of their preferred habitat is low-visibility stuff, and they know how to use it to their advantage, especially when the hunting seasons are open."

Smith then told of a field trip he went on with folks from the National Forest Service. They found themselves in one of those places where Steve Guill photographs deer. Among other things, they found a section corner from which timber cruisers described the area in 1850. According to that 19th-century report, the nearest conifer was about 40 chains away. A chain is 66 feet long, so -- doing the math -- that was more than 850 yards. In contrast, Smith's group was literally surrounded by ponderosa pines and junipers.

"Not only have the conifer forests gotten thicker, they're encroaching into areas that were never before conifer habitat," Smith explained. "So, you've got mule deer habitat disappearing and becoming more suitable for blacktails. One of the main reasons for this, I suppose, is modern fire suppression in areas that used to burn frequently. Regardless, blacktails can get along fairly well in the thick stuff. But mule deer definitely prefer more open space."

HABITAT . . . AND BEHAVIOR

So changing habitat may be working to expand the range of blacktails, and their personality may be another determining factor. According to a controlled study at a local college, blacktails were decidedly more aggressive than mule deer in the same environment.

"The blacktails weren't as big as the mule deer, but they really held their own in the flail kicking battles I witnessed," Smith said. "It was quite an impressive display, and I can see where blacktails might out-compete some mule deer bucks for does."

That last statement seems to fit well with Steve Guill's observation that blacktails are gradually pushing into what was originally -- at least in our perception of time -- Rocky Mountain mule deer range.

"Oh, there was always some blending, I suppose," Guill said recently. "But it's more pronounced now than I've ever seen it. I noticed the trend back in 1989, but it really got going after the hard winter of 1992-93. The snow was so deep for two months that the deer couldn't find enough food, and many of them died. On one trip, I found more than 60 mule deer carcasses and saw several other deer on their last legs. It was sickening, but there was nothing you could do about it. Anyway, the die-off may have opened the door even wider for blacktails to move in."

Steve went on to say that he wasn't looking for anything in particular when the idea of blacktail encroachment suddenly occurred to him.

"I was just going through some photos in my albums when I noticed that tail patterns in the mid-1980s didn't seem to have as much variation as they do today. For several years now, I've deliberately photographed groups of deer from behind to try and determine if something unusual is going on. From my figures, it appears there is. As near as I can tell, back in the 1980s, tail patterns that leaned toward blacktail deer occurred only 16 percent of the time. But now, the ratio is between 50 and 60 percent.

"One day last fall, I counted 105 deer east of SR 97. And 56 of them had tail patterns indicating some degree of blacktail blood, while 49 still appeared to be mule deer. To me, that's a significant change."

The bad winter really knocked the mule deer numbers down, Guill noted. And it wasn't just in California, but across many parts of the West. In Northern California, deer numbers haven't increased much since then, but the situation isn't necessarily bleak. According to Guill's figures, and semi-annual surveys conducted by the CA DFG, deer numbers throughout the region have remained stable for several years.

"I wonder if the number of deer has actually increased a little recently," Guill mused. "Obviously, mule deer and blacktails gravitate to somewhat different habitat, and blacktails aren't as visible in the first place because of that. I mean, you just don't see those critters standing out in the open sage like you do mulies."

Guill photographs bucks whenever he can. He takes a few photo trips in the summer, while their antlers are in velvet, but he'd rather take shots of them when their antlers are hard. Accordingly, one of his favorite times to photograph bucks is during the rut when they're chasing does.

Another good time is a few weeks later in January, when they start to form their bachelor groups again.

"I see lots of blacktails mingling with the mule deer while the rut is on," Guill said. "But for the most part, they disappear afterwards. Oh, there are a few hybrids here and there, mostly does and fawns. But blacktail bucks get scarce again. I suspect they're still close by, but brushed up somewhere."

MULE DEER HUNTING THE BLACKTAIL WAY

Okay, what do Guill's observations mean to hunters?

"Well, if you get a tag for this region, and come here expecting to have a mule-deer hunting experience, you may find the local bucks acting more like blacktails than mulies," he pointed out. "In other words, you'll have to hunt them differently for the best chance for success. Blacktails will be in the chaparral and timber, ghosting around, and when they're on the edges, they won't be far from cover."

Craig Stowers, the CA DFG's Deer Program Coordinator

, agreed with what Guill said about the blacktail expansion.

"We (the CA DFG) don't keep his kind of figures on the individuals in various deer herds," he said. "But we've talked about blacktail encroachment among ourselves, and we all agree it's happening fairly quickly. What Guill's seeing may not be that unusual, except perhaps for the pace of the apparent change. Even so, the evolutionary process may not be resolved for many years -- or in our lifetimes, for that matter.

"Things like this have been going on for thousands of years. Some scientists think that Rocky Mountain mule deer actually evolved from blacktail deer at the end of the last ice age. And now, changing habitat may favor blacktails over mule deer in certain areas, especially where there's always been some intergrading."

Not surprisingly, Steve Guill's theory about blacktail deer expansion raises more questions than it answers. Though his journals document the steady flow of blacktails into a geographic region formerly known as a haven for mule deer, all the whys and wherefores are not yet in. Some reasons for the shift have been put forth, but certainly there are other factors yet to be uncovered.

The long-term ramifications of the rising tide of blacktails are open to discussion. Will the bucks diminish in size as the years pass? Will they act more like blacktails than mule deer? Will the final result be almost all blacktails in northeastern parts of the state? Only time will tell.

WATCH AND LEARN

Meanwhile, it's always fascinating to watch wildlife and to learn from it. In the case of deer, Steve Guill has taken the practice to a level most of us will never attain. As a hunter, I find his observations interesting, refreshing and useful. In the late 1980s, I killed one of my biggest mule deer bucks ever, in a place where we've both photographed deer in the past.

Since then, Guill has visited the spot frequently. And he advises me that if I go back, I should be prepared to hunt hybrids -- because the blacktails are definitely moving in.

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