The Western US and Canada is one of the best places in the world for hunting thanks to the wide range of large species. Two of the most common species and frequently hunted are elk and mule deer. However, as closely related members of the deer family, it can sometimes be confusing which is which.
Luckily, with a little bit of knowledge, they aren’t hard to identify. This ensures you’re hunting what you want to hunt and in the right way.
Table of Contents
You don’t need a full college course on deer biology, but it’s always fun to learn a little taxonomy, right? Let’s briefly go into the scientific relationship between mule deer and elk.
Both mule deer and elk are in the cervidae family, ie, the true deer. Along with mule deer and elk, this family includes whitetail deer, reindeer, the European red deer and even moose. The deer are notable in that, except for one species, the water deer, males grow and shed new antlers every year. The cervidae family is part of the artiodactyla order of even-toed hoofed mammals, and it diverged from the bovidae family, which includes cows and goats, about 28 million years ago.
While mule deer and elk are both in the deer family, that’s as close as their relationship gets. Their lineages immediately diverged, and elk are actually a species of “old world deer” more closely related to European red deer. Mule deer, however, are “new world deer” that are close cousins of the whitetail deer and also closely related to reindeer and moose.
Mule Deer vs Elk: Side by Side
|Weight||Male: 120-330 lbs (55-150 kg)|
Female: 90-200 (40-90 kg)
|Male: 700-730 lbs (320-330 kg)|
Female: 485-530 lbs (220-240 kg)
|Height (at shoulder)||Male: 3 ft 6 in (1 m)|
Female: 2 ft 7 in (0.8 m)
|Male: 5 ft (1.5 m)|
Female: 4 ft 3 in (1.3 m)
|Length (nose to tail)||Male: 5 ft (1.5 m)|
Female: 3 ft 7 in (1.1 m)
|Male: 7 ft 10 in (2.4 m)|
Female: 6 ft 11 in (2.1 m)
|Appearance||Slender, agile body; |
Light brown hair that turns gray in winter;
|Stockier, more bovine frame with reddish brown hair;|
Males have darker shaggy mane;
White rump and tail
|Antlers||Width: Up to 6 ft (1.8 m)|
Growth: Late February-Late August
Shed: Late December-Early February
|Width: Up to 3 ft 6 in (1 m)|
Growth: Early April-Mid August
Shed: Late March
|Habitat||Arid, rocky environments with lots of shrub growth||Rainy forests, prairies and mountains|
|Distribution||Western Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Pacific Coast; |
From Alaska and Saskatchewan in the north to central Mexico in the south
|In North America: Rocky Mountains and Pacific Coast in US and Canada; pockets in central US and Canada|
Worldwide: Mongolia, Siberia, pockets in central China
|Diet||Shrubs, herbaceous plants, berries and fruit, sometimes cactuses||Grasses, shrubs, wildflowers, twigs and tree bark|
|Herd behavior||Small herds of 1-7 individuals||Large herds up to 400 individuals, especially when migrating|
How to Spot the Difference Between a Mule Deer and Elk
If you’re in the western US or Canada, you’re likely to find elk and mule deer in the same places. Nevertheless, it’s fairly easy to tell them apart. If you look at the above chart, you’ll notice that the most obvious difference is size. Everything’s bigger when it comes to elk, and dominant bull elk can be twice the size of their mule elk counterparts.
Elk herds are bigger as well. Of course, elk are famous for the massive herds of hundreds of animals that form during migration, but even standard herds are larger with dominant bulls leading harems of many cows. Mule deer, on the other hand, usually only gather in herds of a handful of deer, even during the rut.
If you take a look at photos side by side, though, you’ll see that the easiest way to tell mule deer from elk is just their general appearance. Mule deer have a more characteristic deer-like frame, similar to whitetail deer. They have narrower necks and snouts while elk are stockier with a frame more similar to that of a cow or bison.
You can also tell a bull elk by his characteristic reddish mane, something the mule deer buck lacks. Bull elk also make their famous bugling sound while mule deer bucks grunt like whitetail deer.
Hunting Mule Deer vs Elk
While mule deer like browsing for all types of food, especially herbaceous plants, elk like grazing on grass. As a result, it’s easier to hunt mule deer with a tree stand in the woods while you’ll probably have to still hunt in a large valley or meadow. Elk hunting requires considerable stalking and tracking skills so that you can sneak up on your quarry.
Additionally, tracking elk and mule deer is quite different. For one thing, elk make larger and rounder hoof prints. More importantly, you’ll need to pay more attention to tracking since elk hunting usually requires stalking them over long distances.
What About Other Related Deer Species?
In certain parts of their ranges, mule deer and elk may also share their habitat with other members of the deer family like moose, reindeer (or caribou) and whitetail deer. These are also pretty easy to tell apart.
Moose, while also members of the deer family, are rarely confused with other species like elk and mule deer due to their distinctive appearance. With bulls weighing upwards of 1,500 lbs (700 kg), they are certainly the largest species of deer. Additionally, the bulls have unique broad, palm-shaped antlers, and both males and females have particularly long snouts.
In North America, moose are mostly isolated to Alaska and Canada, but they do sometimes roam into the mountainous parts of the western continental US.
Reindeer, or caribou as they’re often called in North America, can appear similar to other new world deer species like mule deer, and they’re a similar size. Nonetheless, they do have a few notable characteristics.
Most significantly, reindeer have the largest antlers relative to body size of any deer species, and they’re also unique in that females grow antlers. The bulls’ antlers can reach 51 inches, or about 1.3 meters, in length and distinctively curve forward instead of outward like on many other species.
Reindeer live throughout Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Russia.
Whitetail deer and mule deer are very closely related, so they can be hard to tell apart. Usually this isn’t an issue because they live in different areas, but their ranges sometimes cross in places like west Texas. Where they share a habitat, they can even interbreed, though these hybrids usually don’t survive.
There’s a pretty simple trick, though: the tail. Whitetail deer, of course, have their definitive white tails while mule deer have black tails. In fact, they’re even called blacktail deer in some places.