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Mule deer up despite harsh weather

Press Photo by Dustin Monke Mule deer were spotted Jan. 27 at the entrance of Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit in Medora on Sunday.

The 2012-13 winter in western North Dakota may have been one of the most severe, in terms of temperature and snowfall, in decades.

Despite the conditions, a mule deer survey conducted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department has indicated that the number of mule deer in western North Dakota has increased by 15 percent.

"It's an annual survey that we do each year in the spring after the snow has melted from the Badlands to assess the abundance of mule deer in the Badlands," NDGF big game supervisor Bruce Stillings said. "(The count) was up over five mule deer per square mile."

The numbers seem like an anomaly because of the weather and the increased traffic and construction as a result of the oil boom on the western side of the state.

Stillings, on the other hand, said there was obvious reasons as to why the mule deer population increased.

For the first time ever, there was a rule put in place that allowed no antlerless mule deer to be harvested. And despite the bitter winter that most North Dakotans experienced, the Badlands experienced a relatively mild winter. Those two circumstances gave the mule deer an ample chance to populate.

"Those two factors combined would be good explanation of why we saw the increase as we did in 2013," Stillings said.

The regions that saw the biggest mule deer population growth were hunting units 4B and 4C, which are located in the Badlands north of Medora. Units 4D and 4E saw a "healthy increase" as well, according to the NDGF Department website. Hunting unit 4F, the southernmost part of the Badlands, was the only area that didn't see much change in mule deer population.

The only stretch of land that decreased in mule deer count was hunting region 4A -- located in the Killdeer Mountains, where there is increased traffic due to the oil boom. This gives reason to worry that the Oil Patch could have an effect on the habitat and nourishment for the mule deer, including the Rocky Mountain Juniper, which is a good sources of nutrients for most animals and that "mammals, both large and small, make these fruits an important part of their diet," according to the United State Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service.

The mountain lion population present in the Killdeer Mountains area is another threat for mule deer of 4A.

"That was an area in the Badlands that experienced more severe weather conditions," Stillings said.

Right now, biologists are unsure of the level of impact, if any, that the oil boom has on mule deer.

The NDGF Department has been working on a large project to determine the repercussions of oil companies' growth on the mule deer. After all of their information is gathered, they will be able to determine how much impact, if any at all, will be brought on to the mule deer because of increased road transportation and increased infrastructure.

"At this time, we're not even one year into the project, so we certainly don't have data to support response (information) of mule deer to oil development at this time," Stillings said. "But certainly that is one concern that we have for future recovery for mule deer populations in the future."

Despite the increased mule deer count this winter, the 2013 mule deer index that is used to assess mule deer abundance in the Badlands is down 22 percent than the long-term average. Nevertheless, Stillings has seen good signs of further increase of mule deer for the future.

"Good moisture and good rainfall that we've had recently should play very well for the mule deer and promote better long survival," Stillings said. "Increased recruitment (of mule deer) is what we're hopeful for with all the good moisture and increased vegetative growth that we're going to see from the moisture we've been receiving this May."