EAGLE COUNTY — Mule deer got their name because of their large mule-like ears. They are also characterized by the antlers sported by the males (bucks). Mule deer antlers are dichotomous or bifurcated, the main beam branches into two and each of those branch again. The other deer in Colorado is the white tail. Their antlers have a single beam and tines erupt along the main beam.
Antlers are composed of bone, and they are shed each year in February or March. They immediately begin growing again from the pedicle on the frontal bone or forehead of the skull. Antlers grow at an incredible rate in healthy bucks, up to a quarter of an inch per day.
During the summer and fall, the antlers are soft and covered with a velvet-like fur. They continue to grow through late August. At that time, the velvet dries up and the bone hardens. The velvet probably itches, and the bucks rub their antlers on smaller trees or bushes to remove it. During the mating season (the rut), the antlers are highly polished and most prized by hunters.
Yearling bucks will often sport a spike or just two-points for the first year of their life. As an animal matures, each year’s antler growth can be larger and more varied. A number of factors may improve the size and impressive nature of antlers. Those factors may be the weather and the quality of food on summer ranges. In addition, the age of the animal, their genetics, nutrition and overall health improve the growth. An injury, insects, parasites, disease and poor health may cause smaller antlers or antlers with different shapes and abnormalities.
After a buck gets to the age of 3, other tines may begin to appear. They are called kicker points, sticker points and drop tines. Velvet injuries can also cause deformations in the antler. Burrs and other rough spots may also appear.
Beginning around 5-8 years, a mule deer buck will be in his prime or healthiest years. This is when the best antler growth will occur and the year he becomes a prime target for trophy hunters. A typical mule deer buck has a rack that grows with all the points turning up. They are also symmetrical in appearance. When any tine points out to the side (kickers) or down (drops), they are considered atypical. You might say these are abnormal rather than normal.
Hunters who are after trophy animals use rating systems from scoring clubs. These include “Boone and Crocket” and “Pope and Young.” These organizations created the terms and a means of scoring antlers used for records. Records are kept for antlers that are symmetrical or typical in shape as well as for non-typical antlers. A strict and complex set of measurements are taken, and calculators are used for arriving at a final score for the trophy.
The typical antler or rack has symmetry with all tines facing upward off the main beam and the same size on both sides. A typical mule deer has five points on each side, the four branches and a small point (brow tine) near the base of the main beam. Typical antlers consider the number of points on each side that are at least 1 inch long. Measurements are taken of the tip-to-tip spread, the inside spread at the widest point between main beams, the total length of all points, the length of the main beam and the distance between burr and first point. Deductions may be calculated for any abnormal features.
Non-typical antlers lack symmetry and have points that can face any direction. Scores for nontypical bucks include a typical score for the normal parts of the antler frame and a score for any nontypical aspects.
The Boone and Crocket world-record typical mule deer is from Dolores County and was taken in 1972. The Boone and Crocket world-record atypical mule deer is from Chip Lake, Canada, and was taken in 1926. It had a total of 43 points and tines!
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes,” published by Westcliffe Publishers and available at The Bookworm of Edwards, City Market, Amazon and many stores across the state. The book provides photos and text about the history, lore, wildlife, and scenery around the passes of Colorado.