Dana Holm first saw the huge buck last year -- right in his back yard in Brooklyn Park. It was an eye-popping 10-pointer.

Then last month, he spotted it again.

"I had to do a double-take when I saw his rack,'' he said. It had grown considerably.

Holm, 51, a professional nature photographer, grabbed his camera and slipped into a portable blind he leaves set up in his yard. After sitting there for most of the day waiting for the deer to offer a clear shot, the monstrous buck finally drew closer, following a doe.

"He lifted his head up, and I thought 'Oh, my God.' He was even bigger than I thought he was,'' said Holm. "He is truly a 'dream' buck.''

That Holm can photograph a world-class whitetail in his back yard, just minutes from downtown Minneapolis, is a testament to the Twin Cities urban deer population. Despite decades-long efforts to reduce their numbers through liberal hunting, trapping and sharpshooting, the area remains home to thousands of them.

The Department of Natural Resources doesn't track the overall metro deer population, though some municipalities and park systems monitor numbers in their areas. The DNR does tally hunter harvest, however, which offers an indicator of the population.

Last year, hunters killed 3,600 deer in the metro area -- the highest in the past seven years. Hunters have already exceeded that number this year, and the hunting season doesn't end until Dec. 31. Another 800 to 1,000 deer are removed annually by sharpshooters or by other means.

The bottom line: The metro deer population is probably down from a peak in the 1990s, but remains healthy and in need of constant control.

That deer are roaming an urban area with 3 million people is good and bad.

"People like seeing deer, but they also don't like to hit them with cars,'' said Bryan Lueth, DNR metro area wildlife manager.

They do both, of course.

Deer-car collisions

Ramsey County does an annual aerial deer survey, and John Moriarty, natural resources manager, figures there are 1,200 to 1,500 deer in his county.

"The population is steady; it's not growing. But I think it's still too high,'' he said. "Unfortunately, cars are the main management tool for deer in Ramsey County.''

Each year, 300 to 400 deer killed by vehicles are picked up from roads in the county. "That doesn't include ones that are taken by people or that crawl off and die,'' Moriarty said. (Statewide, insurance companies estimate there are 30,000 vehicle-deer collisions annually.)

In comparison, hunters in Ramsey County have harvested about 120 deer so far this season, he said. Other municipal deer-removal programs will kill a few hundred more deer.

"We can only put so many people in our parks to hunt deer,'' he said.

Too much hunting pressure just forces deer out into residential areas -- a recipe for more car-deer collisions.

Liberalized hunting

The DNR has taken an aggressive approach to managing metro deer, and that probably has helped reduce the herd.

In 2005, the DNR created a metro deer management zone, liberalizing the bag limit and extending the hunting season. Since 2006, there has been no limit on the number of does a hunter can shoot. And since 2007, there's been an early antlerless season, offering hunters even more opportunity to bag a whitetail.

That seems to have increased harvest. From 2002 to 2004, hunters averaged about 2,500 deer in the metro. Since 2005, hunters have averaged about 3,200 per season. This year, they likely will exceed 3,700.

"Essentially we're giving people as much opportunity as we can,'' Lueth said.

More municipalities have opened up parks to restricted archery hunts, too, which has helped boost harvest numbers.

Deer in the parks

The Three Rivers Park District manages nearly 27,000 acres in 20 parks in the Twin Cities metro area, and has been holding deer hunts for 30 years. The increased hunting opportunities, and efforts to reduce deer numbers by more metro cities, have helped stabilize the deer population there, said Larry Gillette, Three Rivers wildlife manager.

"We've been able to keep the populations down in almost all of our parks,'' he said. "I'm much more satisfied with the populations levels we have today than what we had 15 years ago.''

Hunters using shotguns killed 84 deer at Elm Creek Park Reserve this fall, and overall, hunters have taken about 170 deer from district parks.

The goal, he said, isn't to eradicate deer.

"It's a balancing act,'' Gillette said. "You want some out there for people to see and enjoy; they're part of the natural fauna.''

He said he believes the reduced deer population has also cut down the number of deer-car collisions, though no one has accurate figures because many collisions go unreported.

Will he reappear?

Meanwhile, Holm, a longtime hunter, is hoping the big buck he photographed lives at least another year. Hunting isn't allowed in his area, so if the buck can avoid vehicles, that impressive rack could be even more stunning in 2011.

Said Holm: "Next year might be his biggest year, and I'd like to get a photo of him three years in a row.''

Doug Smith • doug.smith@startribune.com