The Coues Whitetail
by Darren Choate, Editor In Chief
In the desert mountains of the Southwest lives a unique sub-species of the whitetail deer family, the Coues White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus couesi). The deer received its name from noted naturalist and frontier historian, Elliott Coues, even though he never collected a specimen himself. By trade, Coues was an Ornithologist, but also doubled as an Army surgeon, serving in the Southwest during his career. Although Coues, the scientist, pronounced his name “cows;” today, the deer’s given name is more commonly pronounced, “koos.”
The Coues whitetail is much smaller than its eastern cousin is. On average, a mature Coues buck measures approximately 31inches tall at the shoulder and weighs approximately 100 pounds on the hoof. Does are considerably lighter. Similarly, the antlers of Coues bucks grow proportionally to their smaller body size. A mature, record-book whitetail buck taken in other reaches of the West, may score 170-inches and above. In contrast, the minimum requirement for a trophy Coues buck entry is 110-inches.
Although the Coues whitetail is small, the deer is hearty and well adapted to its environment in the harsh deserts. The diminutive deer thrives in arid conditions throughout its diverse range. Its small physique, ability to blend in to its surroundings, and propensity to evade both predators and hunters has earned it the nickname of “The Grey Ghost.”
The Coues whitetail inhabits the states of Arizona and New Mexico, and Mexico. In Arizona, the majority of Coues populations occur in the southeastern region of the state. However, a sizeable population also exists in and around the Mogollon Rim. Smaller, isolated populations of deer reside above the rim at higher elevations. In New Mexico, the majority of Coues whitetail occurs along the Arizona border in the southwestern region of the state. The Coues whitetail also inhabits northern Mexico.
A highly adaptable deer, the Coues whitetail over time has taken root across a diverse set of habitats, ranging from cactus-covered desert foothills to mixed-conifer forests. The majority of Coues habitat rugged, and is best described as “desert islands” or “sky islands;” mountain ranges that rise above the “sea” of the desert floor beneath, and that vary in elevation from 2,500 feet to 9,500 feet.
The Coues whitetail thrives in the deserts of the Southwest, which range in elevation from sea level to approximately 4,000 feet. Here, the deer prefers the highest elevations. Common vegetation types in the life zones that make up this biome, and that Coues deer reside include saguaro, ocotillo, barrel cactus, and prickly pear. On average, these areas receive less than 10-inches of precipitation on an annual basis. Temperatures often exceed the 100-degree mark in the summer months, and dip to below freezing during the winter months.
The majority of Coues deer inhabit the high desert or Woodland & Chaparral biome, which ranges in elevation from approximately 4,000 feet to 7,000 feet. Here, prominent vegetation includes evergreen oak, juniper, manzanita, and mountain mahogany. The high desert receives more snowfall than the desert, and total precipitation is approximately 20-inches on an annual basis. Summer temperatures extend into the low 100s and winter temperatures dip well below freezing.
Above the Rim
Small, isolated pockets of Coues whitetail inhabit the Boreal Forest biome, which ranges in elevation from 6,000 feet to over 9,500 feet. In the high country, Coues deer inhabit the ponderosa pine forest predominantly, but also inhabit mixed-conifer forests as well. The bulk of precipitation in this zone is from winter and late-spring snowfall, and from late-summer monsoon showers. Annual precipitation averages between 20–30-inches. Here, summer temperatures average 80-degrees, and winter temperatures can dip into negative numbers on occasion.
Predation and Threats
Although the Coues whitetail is vulnerable to predation from a wide variety of predators, it is most vulnerable to fatal attacks by the mountain lion. Mountain lions occur across the West, and throughout the range of the Coues deer. The diet of an adult mountain lion relies on the intake of ungulate species; approximately 60-80 percent of its total consumption. That said, a wide variety of big game animals exist in the territory shared by mountain lions and Coues deer, including mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. An adult mountain lion requires the equivalent biomass of one deer per week to survive. Some misinterpret this to mean that the mountain lion literally consumes one deer per week; however, this is not the case. The mountain lion is a generalist, and consumes whatever prey it can catch easily and that is readily available.
Diseases can adversely affect deer populations. The Coues whitetail is susceptible to a wide variety of diseases including viral and bacterial infections. Since most infections can spread across ungulate species, it is important to note that the Coues whitetail shares its entire range with either mule deer, elk or both. One of the most severe diseases found in ungulate species is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). To date, documentation of CWD infections occurred in elk and mule deer only; both infection types occurred in central New Mexico. Both the New Mexico Game and Fish Department and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have implemented guidelines for hunters to follow to keep CWD out of their states; and thus, out of Coues habitats.
As with all species, two secondary threats are of concern for the Coues whitetail: 1) poaching, and 2) habitat loss. Poaching of Coues whitetail does occur throughout their habitat, but is probably has the most negative impact on deer populations in Mexico, where the enforcement of game laws is more difficult. Although the Southwest has seen a lull in human growth over the last few years, more than likely it is just that, a lull. When populations continue to grow, all species, the Coues whitetail included, will see a detrimental loss of habitat as expansion of the human population occurs.
The management of the Coues whitetail is complex. The Coues whitetail shares its territories with other big game species: mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, javelina, bear, and mountain lion. Each species has its own economic factors, which game managers have to consider when making management decisions. Second, the deer’s range comprises mostly public land with several different management authorities. It requires collaboration among agencies to ensure the management of the Coues whitetail, as well as other species.
In the US, Coues deer inhabit mostly public land, which the management of is shared across state governments, Bureau of Land Management, and the US Forest Service. The majority of Coues whitetail habitat in the US is national forest land. In Mexico, the opposite is true, the majority of Coues habitat occurs on private lands. In the US, each agency manages their lands for multiple uses, which includes wildlife watching, hunting, camping, off-highway vehicle use, and general-purpose recreation. These agencies interact with respective game department(s) on wildlife issues.
Famed outdoor writer, Jack O’Connor put Coues deer hunting on the map. O’Connor was born in southern Arizona, and was one of the first outdoor writers to write about hunting the tiny deer referred to as the “Grey Ghost” because of its elusiveness and ability to inhabit rough country. One of his many descriptions of the Coues Whitetail is found in his book, The Big Game Animals of North America, where O’Connor wrote, “The whitetails in southern Arizona and northern Mexico are found in country rough enough for mountain sheep.”
Today, the Coues whitetail deer has a cult-like following from hard-core hunters that rivals any group of hunters. Because the Coues deer resides in steep, rugged country, and blends in to its surroundings so well, Coues hunters have adapted over time. Coues hunters have an old adage, “A good hunter will wear out the seat of his pants long before the soles of his boots.” Translation, finding and taking Coues deer consistently, means sitting behind a set of quality, high-powered optics.
Spot & Stalk
The majority of Coues whitetail hunters use some form of spot-and-stalk method to do so; most commonly behind quality, high-powered binoculars mounted on a tripod. Expert hunters use a theoretic grid to cover large areas systematically. Once an animal is spotted, most hunters will switch from binoculars to a higher-powered spotting scope to determine the sex of the deer and to field judge the antlers. If a buck is spotted, and it’s the right size for the hunter, the hunter will either prepare for the shot or move closer for a closer shot opportunity. It is common for hunters to take shots at Coues deer at long range, over 300 yards. In some cases, there is just no way to get closer, and a hunter may shoot from 500-plus-yards.
Coues deer hunting lends itself to stand hunting in at least two cases, both occur more commonly as bowhunting strategies: 1) hunting water, and 2) hunting in the highest elevations of its range. Coues deer inhabit the arid Southwest, and hunting over a water source is pragmatic for the bowhunter. In the desert, hunting water means setting up a pop-up blind or constructing a makeshift blind from items found in the local environment. When hunting deer at elevations over 6,000 feet, in areas that have trees tall enough to do so, hunters frequently use tree-stands to their advantage. WW