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Drought hurts mule deer fawn production in North Dakota; bucks show nutritional distress

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A mule deer doe and two fawns scoot away through the sagebrush in Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit.

An optimistic spring survey of western North Dakota's mule deer population following a mild winter has given way to a discouraging fall survey after a summer of drought.

State Game and Fish Department biologists counted 2,671 mule deer during the spring survey in April, indicating a population 21% above the long-term average. They counted 2,163 deer during the fall survey in October, though snow and wind limited them to 20 of the 24 study areas tracked annually.

The ratio of 60 fawns per 100 does this fall was significantly lower than last year’s 82 per 100 and the long-term average of 88 per 100.

“This year’s count was the lowest fawn-to-doe ratio since 2011 and 2012, following the severe winters of 2008 through 2010,” said Bruce Stillings, big game management supervisor for Game and Fish. “Nutritional stress related to the drought was also apparent with considerably more yearling bucks observed as spikes rather than forked bucks.”

A forked buck has branched antlers; a spike buck has unbranched antlers. Nutrition, age and genetics are factors in antler development.

Severe, extreme and even exceptional drought has blanketed North Dakota's mule deer habitat this year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Drought Mitigation Center.

"In the Dakotas, where long-term drought is still ongoing, livestock water quality and (mule deer) fawn production were both reported to be suffering as a result of the drought," Center Climatologist Curtis Riganti said.

Good news from the fall survey was that the ratio of 38 bucks per 100 does was similar to last year’s 36 per 100 and the long-term average of 43 per 100. A healthy ratio of bucks helps ensure a quality offspring class.

Mule deer have been rebounding since the string of bad winters from 2008-10 that led to record-low fawn production. Hunting of mule deer females was banned in North Dakota four straight seasons beginning in 2012. Restrictions were lifted in phases beginning in 2016.

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or


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