Deer harvest to be held in Lake Elmo parks

For a select few Minnesota hunters, deer season will begin slightly early this year. Although the actual shooting will not start until the usual opening month of November, almost 60 sportsmen and women — at least six of which are guaranteed to be Lake Elmo residents — will have the opportunity to assist both Washington County and the city of Lake Elmo in reducing the deer population in Sunfish Lake Park and the county-owned Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is now accepting name submissions from Washington County residents licensed to kill white-tailed deer for a harvest hunt on Nov. 5-6 and 12-13. The parks will be closed to the public during those weekends.

Having gained approval from the Lake Elmo City Council on July 5 and the County Board on June 7, parks officials plan to draw the names of at least six Lake Elmo residents to thin the herd in Sunfish Park, just north of Highway 5 and the park reserve, where the county will have as many as 50 hunters assisting with the population management effort.

The drawings are expected to take place in early September and the only requirements for participation are residency in the county (or city, for the Sunfish lottery) and a DNR-approved hunting license.

County Parks Manager Mike Polehna estimates that the deer population in the two park areas has grown to at least 112, tallied from a recent aerial survey. That figure could be 30 percent lower than the actual population, however, meaning the number of animals could be nearly 100 more than the DNR recommended goal of 15 to 25 deer per square mile.

“The problem is that (overpopulated deer) can damage the habitat,” said Polehna, who has helped conduct the harvest efforts since 1993. “We start having a lot of road-kill and a lot of problems with the vegetation and them eating up the shrubs (in the parks).”

According to Lake Elmo Parks and Recreation Director Mike Bouthilet, however, the overpopulation in Sunfish Lake Park is not as severe as in the county’s park reserve, nor are its consequences.

“They have more of a deer problem than we do,” Bouthilet said. “It comes into play for the city because of the highway (road-kill) side of it, but their park is actually more overrun with them.

“They have flowers and trees and shrubs that the deer eat. With what we have in our park, we really don’t care what the deer eat.”

Nevertheless, the city has agreed to participate for the third time with the effort, called for by the county every two to three years (depending on the excess of the deer, which are counted every year, Polehna explained). For another reason, Bouthilet pointed out that many of the sought-after deer occasionally migrate from the park reserve to Sunfish during the hunt.

Despite its cooperation with the county, the city’s hunt will differ slightly in policy: the City Council voted to allow the shooting of only antlerless deer, under Bouthilet’s recommendation, while the county permits the killing of bucks (males), though only after a hunter has first claimed a doe (female). Bouthilet’s intent is to target only the female population in order to best reduce the entire overgrowth.

“Our point isn’t to have a hunt, it’s to provide a harvest,” he said. “I think it’s better for the overall population to have some nice bucks in there.”

Bouthilet said he believed Polehna allowed the buck stipulation in order to attract the necessary amount of applicants and added that Lake Elmo’s policy may have to adjust if not enough hunters submit their names. But Polehna also emphasized the importance of focusing on females.

“We don’t want someone coming in just to trophy hunt,” he said.

This will be the first year that the harvest has taken place over two weekends instead of just one, after disappointing kill-totals from previous years, according to Bouthilet. The randomly-selected hunters will attend a mandatory orientation meeting prior to the hunt and will select a quadrant of the parks in which to hunt, at least 300 yards from the nearest residential development.

The parks’ closure during the hunt is something Bouthilet lists as the most common issue in the few past complaints he has received regarding the harvesting efforts.

Polehna said hunters will be granted a special permit allowing them to kill up to five deer per person. Both he and Bouthilet reported no incidents of any kind in past years and anticipate a variety of participants.

“We’ve had men and women and young people,” Polehna said. “You see a lot of dads bringing their sons out there.”

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