It's not quite spring, but Three Rivers Park District managers are already planning the annual fall deer hunt for their regional parks, park reserves and trail systems.

Archery, shotguns and sharpshooters are among the strategies outlined by district senior manager of wildlife Larry Gillette at a commissioners' meeting Thursday.

The hunts are held every year to protect ecosystems and to reduce deer-car collisions, but how often they occur changes annually from park to park, depending on the growth rate of deer populations.

"We're trying to maintain a certain level of deer," Gillette said. "The public likes to see deer and we don't want to eradicate them from our parks, but we need to have a balance."

This year's plan includes a pair of two-day shotgun hunts in November: one in Elm Creek Park Reserve in northern Hennepin County and another in Baker Park Reserve near Lake Independence. It also includes three-day archery hunts in Cleary Lake Regional Park and Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Scott and Dakota counties, and Crow-Hassan Park Reserve in northwestern Hennepin County.

Parks are closed to the public during firearms and the larger archery hunts.

Culling the herds

Gillette estimated that the deer population is probably about 2,000 in Hennepin County west of Interstate 494, and that the total killed annually on park land ranges between 200 and 300.

One of the main reasons to keep deer populations in check is to reduce the number of deer-vehicle collisions, he said. Another is to keep the parks' greenery from being stripped clean.

"Deer eat oak trees, basswood trees and little sugar maples," Gillette said. "If the herds get too large, they have a very pronounced effect on natural vegetation, not to mention the impact they have outside the parks on agriculture or back--yard shrubbery and gardens."

Gillette said that local opposition to deer hunts has dropped considerably in recent years because those who live near the parks have learned why the hunts are necessary and how they are controlled.

Shotgun and archery hunts in the larger parks are open to the public through a lottery system held later in the year.

Elite archers

However, many smaller parks also need deer control every few years. In some of those cases, the Metro Bowhunters Resource Base is called into action because they are skilled at taking deer in park spaces that may be near homes and roads.

It's a volunteer group of specially trained archers who have conducted hunts in nearly all of the metropolitan counties.

"Our mission is to control the deer populations in those more closely urban smaller areas," said Dan Christensen, who is on the group's board.

In the Three Rivers system, plans call for the bowhunters group to hunt in Lake Minnetonka Regional Park, Noerenberg Garden and Gale Woods Farm special recreation areas, Fish Lake Regional Park, Spring Lake Regional Park in Scott County, and along the district's regional trail corridors in Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park.

Most dates and other details have not been decided, pending discussions between park district managers, bowhunters and neighboring communities.

Christensen said the archers must provide proof of their competence annually and have taken a state certification course. During hunts, he said, they take special precautions.

"Typically we require that our hunters be in elevated stands so that arrows are always being directed to ground level," Christensen said. "We also require that all of our hunters only take shots at broadside standing deer within a 20-yard range radius, so we don't have people launching arrows that are going to be possibly bad hits."

Gillette said that deer were relatively rare in the metro area 50 years ago and that herds began to form in large parks and reserves in the 1970s and 1980s.

"As it got into the late 1980s and 1990s, the deer herd grew so much in the surrounding areas that almost every municipality decided that they needed to have a deer control program," he said.

As a result, the district coordinates its deer culling programs with Eden Prairie, Maple Grove, Plymouth, Bloomington and Brooklyn Park. In Bloomington, for example, city police remove deer outside Hyland Park Reserve, and the park district uses sharpshooters to remove deer inside the park. Plymouth has a similar arrangement for periodic removals near Eagle Lake and French Regional Parks.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388