If your eyes light up at the sight of a buck or fawn, the best Anoka County regional park to visit is Bunker Hills, with an estimated 170 deer roaming over about three square miles.

But the dark side of those numbers is the potential for deer-vehicle collisions, which soon will rise as the fall rutting season brings increased white tail activity. Collisions also will rise in coming months as rush hours coincide more closely with dawn and dusk, when deer often look for food, county officials warn.

“We are just getting to the busy time for car-deer accidents from now until the end of November,” said Sheriff’s Patrol Commander Kevin Halweg. He said deputies see deer almost nightly while patrolling Bunker Lake Boulevard along the north edge of the park in Andover. Patrol Division records show that 2.5-mile stretch had 19 reported deer hits in 2011, 17 last year and six so far this year, before rutting season began.

To reduce the potentially fatal encounters, Anoka County is holding its 18th annual bow hunt in Bunker Hills and two other regional parks that have more deer than a sustainable 15 to 20 per square mile, said Jeff Perry, parks planning and natural resources manager. Bunker now has 54 deer per square mile, an aerial count determined in February.

Public-safety hazard

In the past three years, reported deer collisions caused one fatality, 40 injury crashes and 221 property-damage-only crashes on all roadways in Anoka County, state Public Safety Department records show.

The county also tracks the number of dead deer picked up by highway workers on county roads. The peak was 1,031 in 2006, and the tally has been well over 700 a year since 2007, said Transportation Division Manager Doug Fischer. He said total deer hits are probably much higher because the county’s numbers don’t cover city or state roadways or the many deer that flee into woods and marshes after being struck.

“Deer collisions in Anoka County have gone from being just a nuisance to being a real public-safety hazard,” Fischer said. “They are not just fender benders or smashed windshields. It is affecting lives all over our county. Wherever the Mississippi River is, we have a problem, from Columbia Heights all the way up to the city of Ramsey.” The river and its tributaries and other natural areas are deer corridors, he noted.

“Anoka County has a perfect combination of wildlife and vehicle miles driven, and it is a deadly combination right now,” he said.

Fischer said hits have gone up partly because Anoka County has fewer hunters to cull deer herds than in past decades plus more miles of roads and more drivers.

“The automobile is the only predator for the deer,” Perry said.

Aerial counts

Perry said he counted deer from a helicopter above Bunker Hills and four other regional parks in late February, when snow cover made them easy to see. Aerial counts have detected acceptable levels of deer in three large county parks in the county’s northern half, likely because gun hunters can shoot deer in that more rural, northern section.

The flyover also found acceptable deer levels in Coon Rapids Dam Park, Perry said. He said archers shot 18 deer, including many breeding does, in that park last fall. Only six deer were counted in February, well below the desired 10 to 14 level for the park, which covers about 0.7 of a square mile. Perry said it would take up to three years for deer to regain desired numbers.

Besides Bunker, the bow hunts will be held this year at Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Park in Lino Lakes and, for the first time, in Mississippi West Park, the county’s newest regional park in Ramsey. The park, tucked between Hwy. 10 and the river, covers only about 0.4 of a square mile.

Only six bow hunters received permits to hunt in Mississippi West from Oct. 5 to Dec. 31 this year. They will need boats because the hunt will happen on a secluded island in the river where most of the park’s 20 deer live. The deer have been seen swimming the channel to Ramsey and have been hit by vehicles on nearby Hwy. 10, Perry said.

Bow hunters won Anoka County parks deer permits in a computerized lottery that was conducted earlier this year. The archers must have a bow-hunter safety certificate, attend a county session on hunting safety and rules and report to the county how many deer they kill, Perry said.

Paul Thies is one of 100 archers (50 in each of two sessions) who won permits to take up to 50 of the 110 deer in the Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Park, which covers four square miles, mostly in Lino Lakes. He said bow hunters shoot arrows from portable deer stands set in trees away from park trails. He has enjoyed hunting with his 83-year-old father, who also is hunting the Chain of Lakes this year. “A lot of memories have been made,” Thies said. “You get together with other hunters and build friendships and camaraderie.”

Fischer said that it’s hard to discern what effect the archers have on car-deer hits near parks where hunts take place, but that the culling helps. “It absolutely would be much worse without bow hunts,” he said.

County officials said they haven’t heard complaints about the bow hunts, and note that homeowners near parks are happy to have fewer deer munching on their hostas or vegetable gardens. Perry said reducing herds also protects park saplings and plants from over-grazing by deer.

County Commissioner Jim Kordiak, chairman of the County Board’s parks and recreation committee, said that during his more than 25 years on the board, nobody has ever complained to him about the hunts. “At the end of the day, there are ample deer out there,” Kordiak said.

He lives near Totino Grace High School in a wooded, residential part of Fridley, where all hunting is banned. He said that deer twice ate the Kordiaks’ hydrangea bush flowers last summer. And last winter, he said, his wife took a picture of “18 deer trotting in a row down Kristin Court on a cold wintry day.”