North Dakota mule deer on rise: Aerial survey shows 19 percent increase from last season
After several harsh winters that decimated the state’s mule deer, the animals are experiencing a short-term comeback, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
There are 19 percent more mule deer from the same time last year, researchers reported during a recent aerial survey.
Wildlife analysts covered approximately 300 square miles of land for the survey. They counted mule deer from fixed-wing airplanes, which provides an estimate of how many are proliferating, Game and Fish big game supervisor Bruce Stillings said.
“This is one of our prized big game species that hunters have a real interest in,” he said. “People here really appreciate the presence of the mule deer in the Badlands.”
Stillings credited less severe winters and improved mating for the mule deer uptick.
Mule deer can be identified by their large, mule-like ears, along with a white rump patch and a small white tail with a black tip.
When hunting season begins, Game and Fish will not allow female mule deer to be killed for the third straight year, in order to boost numbers.
The mule deer population peaked in the 2000s from 2005 to 2008, Stillings said.
After “horrific” winters for two consecutive years, Game and Fish workers saw a 50 percent drop in population when they conducted a survey in 2012, when mule deer counted neared only 1,000.
This year, mule deer surveyed numbered 1,944.
Biologists calculated 6.3 deer per square mile in the badlands, which is up from 5.3 deer per square mile last year.
Still, these are slightly below the long-term average of 6.8 deer per square mile.
Production of fawns has still been below average, Stillings said. Predators, like mountain lions and coyotes, proliferation of water-devouring Rocky Mountain junipers, rampant poaching and harsh winter weather can pose threats to fawn survival.
And, of course, a more industrialized North Dakota landscape, caused by oil development, has fragmented and disturbed mule deer habitats, Stillings said.
“More roads mean less habitat. It’s that simple,” he said.
Marshall Johnson, the Mule Deer Foundation regional director for North Dakota, said mule deer populations typically do not rise quickly from year to year. So, double-digit percentage gains are a step in the right direction.
The Mule Deer Foundation raises and pledges funds to mule deer conservation efforts. It has been working on controlled burns of ranches with Rocky Mountain junipers on them, which can also benefit cattle, elk, bighorn sheep and turkeys, Johnson said.
The Foundation will seek grants to help extend the effectiveness of the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal program that provides landowners with funds to preserve wildlife habitats.
Johnson said he would like to see game and fish officials pledge more resources to survey factors that allow fawns to survive within the first three months of life. He said the state does not have enough information about why fawn populations continue to stay at record lows.
“The fawn mortality rate is incredibly, incredibly high,” Johnson said. “Just how many fawns are we getting through the fall?”