By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
At the St. Paul headquarters of the Department of Natural Resources, Major Rodmen Smith walked into a press conference at a determined clip, carrying an enormous set of antlers. Eight pristine points spread across 28 inches, so symmetrical one might suspect they were manufactured. The group of assembled journalists and cameramen let out an audible gasp.
"It's perfect," mumbled the group, almost in unison. "Perfect."
Someone had finally bagged "Fred," the legendary whitetail buck of Goodhue County. He was an animal whispered about for years, a cunning ghost that traveled at night and had somehow managed to avoid even Minnesota's most experienced hunters.
The group continued to gaze as Major Smith stood behind a podium and provided an update on the antlers. While they are undeniably a wonder, and the envy of any hunter who looked upon them, they also represent the worst of Minnesota hunting. Troy Allan Reinke, a bow hunter from Cannon Falls, stands accused of poaching the buck without a tag. He faces 13 misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor counts, potential jail time, and the endless scorn of fellow outdoorsmen.
"Everybody in the three neighboring counties hunted that buck, then this kid shows up and evidently poaches it," says state Sen. John Murphy (DFL-Redwing). "It doesn't matter if it's hunting, fishing, or Tiddlywinks, there are always going to be a few slobs that mess it up for everybody else."
WHILE FRED'S DEMISE CAST a spotlight on poaching, another gaming violation is quietly on the rise in Minnesota: deer baiting.
The seemingly innocuous act of putting food out for animals is as old as the Bible. In Minnesota, it's been illegal since 1991.
The Minnesota state Legislature made a preemptive strike to thwart problems other states were facing with deer baiting. They wanted to protect the state's herds from the bovine tuberculosis that plagued Michigan deer and has been connected to baiting.
"It was pretty forward-thinking for the state," says Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's big-game coordinator. "The legislators were smart to prohibit it early and ban it before it became popular."
Increasingly, hunters were carrying buckets of apples, sugar beets, and carrots into the woods with them to cut down on wait time. Others took the baiting further and would dump entire truckloads of pumpkins on a field.
Hunting stores also made it easy, selling various baiting merchandise, from electronically timed feeders to premixed bags of deer food. At Sam's Club, a hunter can buy the Wild Game Innovations Deer Feeder for $95.
"We had people stringing up 50-gallon drums 10 feet in the air," says Colonel Jim Konrad of Minnesota DNR's wildlife enforcement division. "They called them 'bird feeders' to get around the law. And they claimed they wanted to look at chickadees while they hunted. Right. But there was nothing we could do about it."
Konrad has the fit build of a hiker and carries a Glock semi-automatic pistol on his hip. All conservation officers have the same qualifications as police and sheriffs, and many are former cops. Hanging directly over his head are stuffed long-tailed ducks, formerly referred to as Oldsquaws.
Already in the 2009 season, DNR conservation officers have looked into 393 potential baiting violations, issuing 92 citations and 34 warnings, and seizing 59 firearms.
Deer baiting is becoming to hunting what steroids was to baseball. Hunters believe the only way to succeed is to bait, putting those who follow the law at a competitive disadvantage.
"And with a force of only 145 to cover the entire state, there is no possibility we can stop all of it."
DNR CONSERVATION OFFICER Brad Johnson starts his day on the east side of St. Paul, down near the river on a wetland area that's home to the state's fish hatchery. Johnson is as big as the custom Ford F-250 he drives. In the jump seat is a blaze-orange jacket covered in dog hair.
He drives east, out of St. Paul, past suburban sprawl and the corporate offices of 3M, into open farmland and toward a hundred-plus-acre swath of publicly owned wilderness. As subdivisions give way to barns and Kubota tractors begin to outnumber Honda Prius hybrids, Johnson points out landmarks. There's the field he almost got his truck stuck in last week, the home where he busted a guy for baiting last year. He points to a farmhouse set back from the road.
"How would I ever know if someone walked out their back door and shot a deer off their deck?" he asks. "The chances of us stopping all gaming violations are small. One time, I was asked what we needed in order to stop it...I replied that we need more officers."
Johnson has enforced gaming laws for the last 15 years and has seen annual citations for baiting steadily increase. When Johnson started in 1994, the state issued a meager 16 citations. It continued on a gradual ascent for the next 10 years, reaching 51 in 2004.
Then the number began to spike. In 2006, the state issued 82. By 2008, it was up to 141 citations.
With an average fine of $385, baiting brought close to $55,000 into the DNR's coffers, more than a third of the total gaming fines collected between 2007 and 2008. Along with these fines comes the confiscation of equipment. At a statewide auction in May 2009, the DNR sold 290 weapons, netting another $106,000.