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Mule deer continue rebound, but 1 hunting unit still behind

November 9, 2018

FILE - In this April 2013, file photo, mule deer graze in Yosemite National Park in California. The mule deer population in the western North Dakota Badlands continued its rebound this year. Big game biologist Bruce Stillings says fawn production was up and that's encouraging news. But unit 4A in the Watford City area remains closed to doe hunting for a seventh straight year. State Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams says there likely are several reasons for the slower mule deer recovery in that area, including harsher winters, energy development and mountain lions. (AP Photo/Kathy Matheson, File)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A fall survey indicates the mule deer population in the western North Dakota Badlands continued its rebound this year, though doe hunting remained off-limits in one northwestern unit for a seventh straight year as the gun season began Friday.

The aerial survey by the Game and Fish Department counted 2,446 mule deer. That was down only slightly from last year, and fawn reproduction was up. The fawn-to-doe ratio of 84 fawns per 100 does was up from 76 per 100 in 2017, and only slightly lower than the long-term average of 89 per 100.

Fawn production has been improving since 2013, following a record low after a string of three straight harsh winters ending in 2011, according to big game biologist Bruce Stillings.

“This is encouraging news for continued growth of mule deer in the Badlands,” he said.

Hunting of mule deer females was banned four straight seasons beginning in 2012, to help the population recover following the tough winters. Game and Fish in 2016 lifted the restriction in five of eight hunting units, and last year doe hunting was allowed in all but one unit, 4A in the Watford City area.

That restriction remains in place for this year’s season. State Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said there are likely several reasons for the slower mule deer recovery in that area.

“The farther north you go in North Dakota, the winter conditions get a little bit tougher,” he said. “And it’s an awfully busy part of the Badlands as far as oil and gas development goes. Mule deer, generally speaking, they’re sensitive.”

Another factor might be that the unit overlaps with mountain lion range.

“While we don’t have a large lion population, they do eat deer and can have a localized impact on deer numbers,” Williams said.

North Dakota’s 16 ½-day gun season for mule deer and white-tailed deer opened at noon Friday. Game and Fish approved 55,150 licenses for the 2018 season, 1 percent more than last year but up 27 percent from the recent low of 43,275 in 2015, when they bottomed out after seven straight years of decline.

The harsh winters, an oil boom and habitat loss all have cut into the state’s deer population. There is still reason for optimism this fall, however, according to Williams.

“It definitely appears deer numbers are pretty good in most parts of the state. Some parts of the state, the farther east you get, the numbers are lower, but the tags are lower too,” he said. “For those who did draw a deer license, they’re going to have a good opportunity regardless of where they’re at.”

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