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MN - 75% of hunters hunting illegally

Deer hunting: A close look reveals lots of cheating

Doug Smith, Star Tribune

November 13, 2005

The hunter sat with his young son in their deer stand, scanning the woods near Aitkin last Saturday morning.

But it wasn't a deer they spotted approaching. It was Bob Mlynar.

Mlynar, the local Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, wanted an explanation for the pile of yellow corn dumped nearby - a clear violation of the state's no-baiting law.

"He said he thought it was legal as long as the corn was put out before the start of the season," Mlynar said. "I told him that wasn't the case."

Mlynar gave the hunter a $177 citation -- one of five tickets he issued for baiting in just a couple of hours Saturday morning.

He wasn't alone.

Illegal deer baiting has become rampant, many officers say. And, given their other responsibilities, they fear they are seeing just the tip of the iceberg. More than 20 conservation officers investigated baiting violations on opening weekend of the deer season. An unknown number of citations were issued. In some cases, deer and guns were confiscated.

At Tower, Minn., officer Dan Starr said about 75 percent of the deer stands he checked had bait nearby. At Hibbing, officer Don Bozovsky said he checked eight to 10 stands over the weekend. "Four of them were baited," he said. "It's a significant problem."

Officer Mark Fredin of Aurora checked three deer stands Thursday; two were baited. On the deer opener Fredin checked a group of four hunters hunting from three stands -- each with a pile of oats nearby.

Perhaps the most disturbing factor: Three of the hunters were juveniles hunting with the adult, who acknowledged placing the bait. He was given a $172 citation.

"If we focused just on baiting, the amount that would be uncovered would be amazing," said conservation officer and pilot Tom Pfingsten of Brainerd. "It's all over. I think it's much more prevalent than the public realizes."

Corn, oats, apples, sugar beets, pumpkins and grain mixed with molasses are among the baits being used illegally to attract deer to within shooting range.

Pfingsten said he has worked eight to 12 deer baiting cases this fall. He often sees the bait from the air. "It's so easy to spot," he said.

Said officer Tyler Quandt of Red Wing: "In some areas up north, they're dumping truckloads of bait."

Baiting deer has been illegal in Minnesota since 1991. Besides fines of less than $200, officers can seize weapons and deer taken illegally. There is a $500 restitution fee per deer.

Quandt has been working with other DNR wildlife and enforcement officials to tighten the no-baiting regulations and clear up some gray areas. Those stricter regulations won't go into effect until next year.

Still, many are flouting a law that states clearly: "No person may place or use bait for the purpose of taking deer."

Conservation officers said violators span all ages and socioeconomic statuses, including sometimes well-known and respected members of their communities.

Officers have difficulty explaining why hunters are resorting to bait, especially when the deer herd, estimated at 1.2 million, is at a record high. And they say violators themselves offer few explanations.

Officers say some might be prompted by outdoor TV shows that depict such practices, competition with other hunters or societal changes that have inspired impatience and instant gratification.

"I think we're in a generation where folks want instant results," said Starr, the Tower officer. "They don't want to sit out there all day; they want action. They want to get a deer now."

And it's not just younger hunters. "I had an 82-year-old guy sitting over a pile of apples," Starr said.

Conservation officer Paul Kuske of Pierz handled four baiting cases on opening weekend and is investigating six others.

"It seems like it's getting more and more popular. And I'm trying to figure out why. The only thing I can come up with is that hunters spend less and less time in the woods and they're trying to give themselves a better chance."

Said Bozovsky, the Hibbing conservation officer: "They don't have a whole lot to say in their defense. They know they're wrong."

Dumping corn

Officials have no sympathy. They say baiting deer violates the hunters' code of "fair chase" and is neither legal nor ethical.

"If you hunt in a way that's illegal or unethical, you don't have much to brag about if you harvest an animal," said Maj. Al Heidebrink, DNR enforcement operations manager.

Said Lloyd Steen, conservation officer in Ray: "It just taints the whole thing.

Another irony, officials say, is that hunters often are resorting to bait even in prime deer areas. Mlynar, the Aitkin officer, said much of his area is prime deer country.

"It's all excellent deer habitat. It's not like they need to do that to pull deer in," he said.

Ed Boggess, DNR fish and wildlife section policy chief, said there are some deer management issues, too. Baiting tends to concentrate deer, which can help spread diseases in a herd.

While some states allow baiting for deer, Minnesota has chosen not to, Boggess said.

Meanwhile, the deer baiters make it difficult for the majority of hunters who are hunting legally, officers say. Hunters sometimes said they put bait out because neighbors had.

"It's just not fair for the guy trying to do it right," Bozovsky said.

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