By BLAKE NICHOLSON | Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota hunters will not be able to go after mule deer does in the western badlands for a fourth straight year, as officials continue work to boost numbers of the animals that have been impacted by severe winters and the region's energy boom.

Those efforts appear to be paying off, with a survey indicating a third consecutive year of population gains. The Mule Deer Foundation has been awarded nearly half a million dollars in state money to improve mule deer habitat.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department's annual spring survey found 2,376 mule deer in a 306-square-mile area of the badlands, a 24 percent rise from last year and 16 percent higher than the long-term average. The studies have been conducted for more than half a century.

A mild winter with little snow was the main reason for the big rebound, according to Game and Fish Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.

“All things were pretty favorable for critters and people alike,” he said.

It was the third consecutive year of a mule deer population increase of at least 15 percent, but biologists want the animals to recover even more before once again hunters go after females in the badlands.

“In order to maintain further population growth we need to maintain a conservative management approach,” said Bruce Stillings, big game supervisor for Game and Fish.

But another mild winter could bring a return to doe hunting.

“If we have decent conditions through next winter, I would anticipate next year we could see some antlerless licenses made available,” Williams said.

The core habitat for mule deer is in the North Dakota oil patch, where energy production is booming. The results of a study into the industry's impact on the animals are expected in early 2017, Williams said.

“Any time you have disturbance in the badlands, you're going to see some type of impact,” he said. “It's just a matter of how severe that impact will be.”

The Mule Deer Foundation is working in the oil patch region to boost habitat for the animals. Officials last year launched a pilot project to restore habitat on private lands through a cost-sharing controlled-burn program, with the help of funding from the state and the oil industry. While weather has hampered that effort, the foundation recently was awarded $480,000 in grant money through the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund for other habitat improvement projects with landowners in the region. The fund is supported by oil and gas tax revenue.

“Our momentum is really starting to build,” Foundation Regional Director Marshall Johnson said. He said the foundation supports another year of no doe hunting.

“I strongly believe in that, until we get those populations sustainable,” Johnson said. “You can't kill the baby-makers.”

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