Two shots rang out just as dawn broke. In the view from his draw, Ralph Wilde saw three does run past. He fired but missed. At 7:15 a.m., four more does ran into view, two paused, and Wilde dropped them both.
“It ain’t supposed to be this easy,” Wilde said about the kills as he returned to the check-in station at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
This is the third year for the Rock Bridge-managed deer hunt to thin its overpopulation of deer. Hunts in the park have reduced skyrocketing numbers of deer. Under normal circumstances, hunting in a state park is illegal.
This year, hunters will be allowed to take an antlered deer. Each hunter will have to check two does before a buck can be shot.
Lonnie Hanson, a scientist with the Department of Conservation, thinks the policy change will increase the number of does shot. The Department of Natural Resources calls it the “earn a buck system.”
Even with cold feet and soaked by the heavy snow, Wilde, who is from Koeltztown, was excited about getting the first kills of the day. Wilde returned to the park Saturday afternoon to hunt for his third kill, which he hoped would be a trophy buck.
This is the first year for Wilde to take part in the Rock Bridge hunt. He says he plans to return in the future.
“We’ve had good success in state parks with managed hunts,” Hanson said.
Of the 304 people who applied for the hunt, 71 were selected to participate in the Rock Bridge section of the hunt. In a separate drawing, 30 hunters were chosen for the Gans Creek Wildlife Area.
Only 50 had shown up at Rock Bridge and 24 at Gans Greek by mid-morning Saturday. The hunt will continue today. The hunt is restricted to muzzle loading or cap-and-ball firearms.
Ken McCarty, of the Department of Natural Resources, said the deer population has been significantly reduced since the hunt’s inception in the deer season of 2001. The density of deer in the park during 1998-1999 were 50 per square mile, which is more than double the target limit.
The annual helicopter census, conducted in the winter before the reproduction season, placed the density for 2002 at 26 deer per square mile. Roxie Campbell, a naturalist at the park, estimates the current population at about 45 deer per square mile. Campbell’s estimate includes last spring’s reproduction cycle.
McCarty said the ideal population for the park is at or below 25 deer per square mile.
To determine if the state park hunts will continue, McCarty compares helicopter census information with winter browse studies to complete his estimate. The browse studies look at available winter vegetation and the impact deer have on that vegetation.
Campbell said it’s not uncommon for deer in the park to have twins or even triplets each reproduction cycle, which can quickly put deer density numbers well above target limits. The Department of Natural Resources intends to hold managed deer hunts at the park until the deer population is in the teens.
The special hunt coincided with the beginning of the deer season outside the park, which allows modern rifles and is limited to deer without antlers. Hanson said holding hunts inside and outside the park on the same days helps keep deer from hiding outside boundary lines.