By Blake Nicholson | Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A fall survey indicates that the mule deer population in the North Dakota Badlands appears poised to grow for a fifth straight year, which could lead to all hunting restrictions being lifted next year.

State Game and Fish Department biologists in October counted 3,003 mule deer during the annual fall aerial survey, which is 39 percent more than they counted last year. The population is continuing to recover from a string of devastating winters, with a third consecutive year of fawn production near or above the long-term average, according to Bruce Stillings, the agency’s big game management supervisor.

“This year’s good fawn production has the potential to result in a nice population increase next spring, depending on the severity of the winter,” he said.

The survey covered 306 square miles of western North Dakota. Biologists will survey the same areas next spring. Last spring’s survey showed an increase of at least 15 percent for the fourth straight year, which state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams attributes mainly to the recent mild winters.

“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,” he said.

Hunting of mule deer does has been banned in North Dakota for four straight seasons, but due to the rebounding population Game and Fish is allowing limited hunting this fall of mule deer females in five western hunting units. Females will remain off-limits in three other units.

Should the upcoming winter cooperate and next spring’s survey show another population increase, “I would think it’s likely to see remaining units open to doe hunting” during the 2017 season, Williams said.

North Dakota’s deer gun season opened at noon Friday and runs through Nov. 20.