When a helicopter crew surveyed deer in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park in December 2001, the count was 53 deer per square mile — more than twice the target population. An overpopulation of deer in the park, which has historically been off-limits to hunting, led the state to sponsor special hunts in the park for the first time in 2001.
After three years of managed hunts in the park, an aerial survey in January 2004 put the number of deer at 16 per square mile, the lowest ever counted. The decline was enough for state officials to recently decide that another hunt won’t be needed this winter.
Roxie Campbell, park naturalist at Rock Bridge State Park, credits the population decrease to the managed hunts in the park as well as hunting on land surrounding the park.
“Deer don’t know boundaries,” Campbell said.
She said neighboring residents around the park have invited hunters onto their land in an effort to prevent further damage to vegetation.
“The hunters have provided a service to the park,” Campbell said, noting that it would be “quite expensive” for the park to control the deer population on its own.
While the number of deer is expected to rebound this spring after does give birth, park officials have decided there will not be another special hunt next winter.
Of Missouri’s 83 state parks and historical sites, eight to 13 participate in controlled hunts each year, according to Sue Holst, information officer for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Holst said hunters have been allowed in selected state parks, in an effort to manage the deer population, for about 10 years. She said the participation of parks is based on need.
Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, which also includes the Gans Creek Wild Area, has been temporarily closed one weekend for the past three winters for a managed hunt.
Each hunt was limited to a set number of hunters, based on the target population goal and restrictions of the area. The hunts have been popular, with almost 450 hunters requesting to participate in the Rock Bridge hunt last year. Due to limitations, only 86 hunters were selected at random to participate.
Hunts began in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park after deer counts and a study of how much damage was being caused by deer browsing for food. Jim Gast, assistant park superintendent, said the study found damage from deer chewing on bark of trees and plants.
The deer count is done by a crew in a helicopter, a method used around the country, Campbell said. This method requires at least 4 inches of snow on the ground and involves flying back and forth across the 3.5-square-mile park in a west-to-east and then north-to-south direction. Campbell said the pilot flies low enough to flush out deer hiding under trees. Although there is a slight error factor, Campbell said this method provides accurate data.