By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
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.
Johnson recalls that on opening day this season he stopped two men for not immediately tagging their deer. They were already at their place, sitting in the backyard with their kills, sipping whiskey and Cokes. When they went for the tags in their truck, apples fell out of the door. One of the hunters looked back at Johnson and told him they were for eating.
"I went over and picked one up. It was rotten, and I asked him if they were any good for eating," Johnson recalls, laughing. "'Sure, guy, whatever you say.' I stuck them with a warning and told them their firearms would be gone if I caught them baiting again."
One of the biggest complaints Johnson receives from hunters is how baiting affects the feeding patterns. That's what really angers people in his area.
"That's one reason for people calling into the TIP line," Johnson says.
Created in 1984, the DNR's Turn In Poachers (TIP) hotline is way to anonymously snitch without neighbors knowing. The folks monitoring the calls don't even take down names, leaving the smallest possible paper trail.
The extra eyes aid Johnson, although not all of the leads come from people with the best motives. As he puts it, sometimes people call in to report a poaching if their neighbor shoots the buck they've been after, or use it as a way to settle domestic disputes.
Even with a timely tip, it's rare to catch a poacher in the act.
"If I get a call about poaching going on in Afton, I might have to drive 60 miles to get there," Johnson says. "By that time, the bad guys are gone."
ONE OF THOSE "BAD GUYS" IS Nick Muhar of Chisholm. He lives about an eighth of a mile from where he hunts, and he admits he's been baiting for the last five to six years. Last year, when he threw a bucket of apples down near his bow stand, he knew it was illegal.
"The reason I did it?" he asks rhetorically. "To tell you the truth...it cuts down on the time you have to stay in the stand."
A DNR officer tagged Muhar with a $375 ticket and seized his compound bow and several arrows, their value estimated at $700.
"I liked that bow," he says wistfully. "It worked excellent."
It stills puzzles Muhar why Minnesotans can't bait. All the hunting shops sell baiting gear. It's okay to put out salt for deer. And it's fine for hunters to shoot over food plots filled with alfalfa and clover.
"It's just a bunch of bullshit, especially for a bucket of apples," says Muhar. "And those DNR guys are assholes."
A hunter from Duluth who asked to be called "Rick" says he's done with supporting the DNR. "It's kind of a crappy subject," he says. "It's just embarrassing to have this over your head."
Rick and his wife were hunting 2.5 miles deep in the wilderness north of Duluth in a deer stand owned by one of their friends. The two uncased their weapons, a 30-ought-6 Remington and a scoped-up .30-.30 heirloom. They lounged for a while in the stand, waiting for the deer.
Then the DNR came rolling up.
"They told me there was bait there," recalls Rick. "I asked, 'Where?'"
The DNR informed him that bait had been photographed on the ground 10 days before they came to hunt. Under state laws, the ground must be clear of bait for 10 days prior to hunting over it.
Rick explained that it wasn't his bait. He had no clue there was ever anything on the ground.
"I told them the stand was a friend's of mine," says Rick. "The guy thought I was lying to his face."
The DNR officer fined him and his wife $380 each and took their guns, even the case off his four-wheeler.
Rick swears he never baited the land, and will never bait any spots in the future, but only because the state made it illegal. What irks him is that he doesn't believe baiting is wrong.
"Old guys can't move like 20-year-olds anymore," he says. "Baiting helps out."
And feeding is legal in Minnesota, so he doesn't get why tossing a bucket of apples out once or twice a year can decimate a deer herd.
"It might make them several thousands of dollars, but it's doing damage," he says of the DNR's fines. "It totally turned me off to helping the DNR in any way, shape, size, or form. I've helped them in the past, but never again. It soured me and everyone I know."
Up north in International Falls, Don Carey also felt the sting of the baiting law. The 70-year-old hunter was out with his granddaughter when a DNR officer entered the scene. Carey wasn't that surprised, as the two were only 150 yards from a DNR forestry station.
Like many hunters in areas where they compete with wolves, Carey regularly baits 15 days before he hunts. That gives the bait enough time to disappear. But unlike past experiences, it had rained that week, and a chunk of pumpkin remained in a small pool of water near the stand. That was the infraction.
The DNR officer cited Carey's granddaughter, too.
"I told I them I did it, and didn't go back and check before we hunted it," Carey admits. "Guess it was my fault. But a $380 fine for that? That's pretty high. I thought it was out of line.
"In a lot of states, including Wisconsin, it is not a crime to bait deer. What makes us different from Wisconsin?"
IN LATE FEBRUARY 2002, the Wisconsin DNR discovered an outbreak of chronic wasting disease. The disease turns deer's brains into spongy globs, causing emaciation and loss of bodily functions. As it spreads, the deer's behavior begins to resemble that of zombies—the deer have trouble lifting their heads, froth at the mouth, walk in circles, and blankly stare ahead. The disease inevitably results in death.
To combat the problem, the Wisconsin DNR immediately issued a statewide ban on baiting.
"From a biological perspective, there is a large amount of research behind the ban of baiting and feeding deer," says Jason Fleener, assistant big-game specialist for the Wisconsin DNR. "Baiting also creates a larger deer herd in places that can't support a large number of deer, resulting in ecosystem degradation."
Fleener points out that wasting disease spreads faster when deer live in groups. And at baiting piles, they also consume potentially infected poop and saliva.
In 2003, the Wisconsin Legislature muzzled the powers of the DNR and made it legal to bait in the majority of the state. But any county with a confirmed case of wasting disease or bovine TB would still fall under the ban. So far, that includes 26 of the state's 72 counties.
"Baiting ought to be outlawed," says Tim Van Deelen, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin's Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology and author of the 2006 study. "It's really a no-brainer in maintaining the health of deer."
Both Van Deelen and Fleener think Wisconsin's laws need to change. They say that aside from the inherent disease threat, baiting gives a black eye to hunters.
"Hunters believe what they believe, and it's often hard to change those beliefs," says Van Deelen. "But this is a public good. It's like why you don't pee in the swimming pool. The ones sharing with you are paying the costs."
LOU CORNICELLI STANDS in a parking lot in Chatfield. His camel-colored Carhartts are blotted with bloodstains. In his hand is a hardcopy of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Around him are students from various state colleges. He tells them the skull of "Fred" is sitting in his freezer at home.
Throughout the afternoon, trucks pull into the lot, driven by hunters wearing blaze orange. The hunters carry their kill in the beds of their trucks, or the back of their minivans. One steps out of his car sipping a Mountain Dew and chewing on a red licorice vine. His hands are covered in dried blood.
"Can we cut into it?" ask the students.
"If you want, you can go ahead and slice it into cutlets for me, too," the hunter jokes.
A member of the group quickly slices open the deer's throat with a scalpel, plucks out its lymph nodes, and fishes out an incisor with pliers. The whole process takes a couple of minutes.
They're monitoring the age and density of the state's herd, while also making sure chronic wasting disease hasn't made its way into the state.
When the hunter comes back out, the group has him point to the exact location of the kill on a laminated map. For their participation, the hunters earn a small patch, and enter into a raffle for a .50 caliber muzzleloader.
At dusk, extended-cab trucks roll in four at a time. The lymph nodes are popping into plastic bags.
"I just don't get why you do it," he says. "Hunting is about tracking your animal, learning their behavior and their patterns of movement. There's nothing sporting about shooting over a pile of bait."