- Associated Press - Friday, April 28, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota wildlife officials are lifting nearly all restrictions on mule deer hunting in the Badlands after a fifth straight year of significant gains in deer numbers.

A spring survey indicated the mule deer population has increased 16 percent from last year, according to the state Game and Fish Department. The numbers have increased by at least 15 percent in each of the past five years, mainly due to recent mild winters and hunting restrictions on mule deer females, according to big game management supervisor Bruce Stillings.

That has contributed to good fawn production since 2013 and more adults, as well. Biologists this month counted 3,349 mule deer in a 306-square-mile area. That works out to 10.9 deer per square mile, up markedly from the record low of 4.6 in 2012.

“Also, we have been very conservative with the harvest of mule deer does, which also plays a role as mule deer are not as prolific as whitetail deer and can struggle to rebound,” Stillings said.

Hunting of mule deer females was banned in North Dakota for four straight seasons beginning in 2012, to help the population recover following a string of harsh winters in the late-2000s. Last year, it was allowed in five of eight western hunting units. This year, doe hunting will be allowed in all but one of the eight units, in the Watford City area.

“That area was part of the state that did get hit hard” last winter, state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said. “The farther south you worked, it got much milder and not hit as hard.”

If there is another mild winter and the population rebound continues, it’s likely that restrictions will be lifted in all units next year.

“However, the long-term health of the population will depend on maintaining high-quality habitat,” Stillings said.

The prime territory of mule deer in North Dakota is in oil country, and the recent oil boom has impacted habitat. Williams said Game and Fish has taken steps such as working with oil companies to try to consolidate oil well pads and reduce the need for road-building.

The Mule Deer Foundation also has been working to boost habitat in western North Dakota. Working with several private landowners and state government outdoors programs, the conservation nonprofit in the past two years has helped create or improve about 30,000 acres of mule deer habitat. At the end of the year, the figure will be 56,000 acres, according to foundation Regional Director Marshall Johnson.

About $134,000 in foundation and state money has been invested in the effort, along with an unknown amount of landowner contributions.

“Anytime that you improve habitat, you just increase the chances of sustainable herds, for all wildlife,” Johnson said. “Without habitat, there’s no game. Without game, there’s no hunt.”

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