As Vicki Britt approached the closed gates Saturday at William O'Brien State Park, she broke ranks with hundreds of other motorists who were being turned away.
Pulling up in a black pickup truck, she parked outside the ranger's office and strolled in with a smile on her face.
"Did you get one?'' the park attendant asked.
"I did,'' Britt said. "A nice 6-pointer.''
Britt, of New Richland, Minn., is one of more than 1,000 deer hunters this year who have permission to hunt inside a state park during opening weekend of the gun season. She arrived at William O'Brien with coolers full of ice and was lucky enough to be stuffing the cubes into a good-sized carcass by midmorning.
"We wanted a new adventure,'' Britt said. "This is something different, and it's very well organized.''
Ed Quinn, natural resource program supervisor for the DNR's division of parks and trails, said nearly half of Minnesota's 76 state parks and recreation areas are hosting special whitetail hunts this year, primarily to protect valuable trees and shrubs from heavy browsing by wintering deer. The chosen locations are closed to the customary stream of hikers, campers, cyclists, boaters and bird watchers and instead turned over to orange-clad, gun-toting permit holders. Quinn said this year's special hunts are being conducted as far north as Lake Bronson State Park near Manitoba and as far south as Blue Mounds State Park in the tri-state corner with Iowa and South Dakota.
"For the most part we get really good participation,'' Quinn said. "Our goal is to reduce the number of overwintering deer.''
William O'Brien, a 1,753-acre tract of hardwoods, white pine and grasses nestled along the St. Croix River, requires a deer harvest every year. But many other locations host special deer hunts less often, depending on need. The hunts also address unacceptable levels of deer-vehicle crashes, damage to neighboring farm crops or "significant negative impact'' to gardens, flowers and other vegetation on adjacent private land.
"It's a terrific program because it helps us meet a resource management mandate at the same time letting people enjoy an activity in our parks that they normally can't,'' Quinn said.
Dow Fredrickson of Scandia, the first hunter on Saturday morning to bag a deer at William O'Brien, said some park users "get a little upset'' about the closure. But the overall vibe inside the park among hunters is friendly and fun, he said.
"We get the park for two days a year, and it's a very nice place,'' Fredrickson said.
In the 1990s, some state parks stretched their deer hunts over two weekends, but DNR officials learned that hunters could be just as effective at reducing local deer populations in a single weekend.
"Generally our visitors don't want expansion'' of hunting, Quinn said. "If there's not a resource management need we are not opening the unit for hunting.''
Across the board, state park special permit hunts take 1,000 to 1,500 deer per year, a small number in relation to a statewide harvest that can surpass 200,000 animals.
At William O'Brien, 15 miles north of Stillwater, a typical two-day hunt brings in 30 to 35 deer, park manager Wayne Boerner said. In recent years, that's been accomplished with about 50 hunters drawn each season from applicant pools of up to 250. Boerner said the hunting success rate is around 40 percent.
"We enjoy putting on the hunt,'' Boerner said. "You build relationships with the hunters and you see the father-daughter or father-son interactions.''
At William O'Brien, the spirited atmosphere builds a week before opening day. That's when winning permit holders line up for first-come dibs on hunting spots. They've scouted the park in advance and arrive with a variety of sites in mind.
"You get here early in the morning and the cars are lined up out to the highway,'' Boerner said.
Not many years ago, state park deer hunters had to fumble in the morning darkness to set up their stands. Now, at William O'Brien and other parks, participants have a week to get ready. By Monday night, all stands must be removed.
Known for its history as the oldest logging settlement in the state, the earliest landscape descriptions pegged William O'Brien as a collection of white pine trees, brushy hardwoods and prairie. Deer, too, inhabited the space, but their browsing of grasses, shrubs and young trees now disrupts regeneration and replanting of historic flora, Boerner said.
He said the hunt also is welcomed by surrounding farmers and other landowners who lose crops, flowers, gardens and other plantings to deer. Reducing deer-vehicle crashes on Hwy. 95 is another benefit.
To ensure the safety of the general public, every conceivable visitor entrance to the park is marked CLOSED during the two days of shooting. All buildings and private parcels in and around the park are protected by no-shooting zones.
Quinn said the deer hunting program inside state parks is entrenched and still evolving. This year, 14 youth hunts have been added to give youngsters a chance to hunt with an adult. Part of the required training teaches kids the ecological benefits of nontoxic ammunition.
At William O'Brien, natural landscape management is still the biggest reason why Boerner welcomes hunters back year after year. Reducing the local herd is far more cost-effective than spending big money on fencing projects to keep deer out, he said.
"I'm very much in favor of the hunt,'' Boerner said.