Minnesota foresters say deer stands getting too elaborate
DULUTH, Minn. - It used to be that a deer stand was a couple of aspen saplings nailed between two trees, just a place for a hunter to see above the brush for a better shot at a trophy buck.
But increasingly across St. Louis County forests, including on public lands, permanent deer stands have become a whole lot more elaborate -- some far too elaborate for county land managers. And hunters are cutting more trees near those stands so they can see deeper into the woods.
Some hunters are even planting crops on public land to attract deer to their stands.
"We're getting over-built. We're seeing mansions out there -- basically hunting shacks on stilts," Bob Krepps, St. Louis County land commissioner, told the News Tribune.
It's not just a couple of boards slapped into a tree, but tree houses with stairways, decks, shingled roofs, commercial windows, insulation, propane heaters, carpeting, lounge chairs, tables and "even some with generators so they have electricity," Krepps said.
One deer "stand" discovered on county land was a cabin 18 feet wide and 20 feet long. And, increasingly, some hunters are buying elaborate manufactured stands and leaving them in the woods all year.
When a stand is abandoned, much of it is left to rot in the forest. But plastic, metal, shingles and other materials aren't biodegradable "and really leave a mess in the woods," said Jason Meyer, who manages forests in the southern half of St. Louis County.
All of this may or may not be appropriate on private land, depending on a hunter's personal ethics, Krepps said. But the tax-forfeited land that makes up nearly 1 million acres of St. Louis County Forests is public land, supposedly open to anyone to hunt.
"What they are doing by building these palaces is claiming a piece of public land as their own. That's not right," Krepps said. "A lot of these cross the line of what's appropriate. ... If I'm out walking and come across one of these buildings on posts, am I going to feel welcome to hunt there? Probably not. And if I do, there's likely to be a fight. That shouldn't happen on land that belongs to everyone."
There's a range of what people might agree is acceptable, said Mark Kailanen, who manages county forests in the northern half of St. Louis County. No one would argue with someone standing on a rock and few would protest a few 2-by-4s in a tree. But deer hunting should involve at least a chance of the deer hearing, seeing and smelling the hunter to keep it a fair chase hunt, Kailanen said.
The hunter, Kailanen said, should be outdoors, not indoors.
Technically, because they are on public land, the stand should be available to anyone who wants to use them. Realistically, that doesn't happen.
"They lock the doors when they leave," Krepps said.
Last month in Eveleth, St. Louis County commissioners got an earful from Krepps and his staff at a County Board workshop, and some commissioners appeared genuinely shocked at what they saw -- including cabins on stilts and aerial photographs that showed massive "shooting lanes" where hunters had cut trees and brush to better see deer on public lands.
Multiply hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deer stands with the hundreds of feet of cleared forest for shooting lanes, and the total is adding up. Some of those shooting lanes are more than 30 feet wide and up to 700 feet long. In one area of county land near state land, it's estimated that a group of hunters had cleared more than six acres of forest combined for their 47 shooting lanes.
"They are taking public land out of timber production and it's adding up across the county," Kailanen said. "The real impact of this may not be realized until 40 or 50 or 60 years from now, when those trees would have been harvested."
Several counties, national forests and state wildlife management areas already ban all permanent deer stands. And Blandin Paper Co. in Grand Rapids has staff in the woods physically removing all permanent stands from its land -- anything that could harm tree growth into the future.
So far, Krepps is just making the County Board aware of the problem. But he hopes to come up with new county land regulations that will place some sort of limit on deer stands while banning any timber cutting for shooting lanes.
"Right now we have nothing in the books regarding deer stands. I'm thinking we should get something in place in time to get it into the" 2013 state deer hunting regulations booklet, Krepps said.
"We may need to come back and ask for additional authority to do what we need to do," Krepps told the County Board.
County Commissioner Peg Sweeney of Proctor said she wants to see an ordinance allowing the land department to remove the worst violators. Every tree cut simply to allow one hunter to see deeper into the woods is fewer trees sold to mills and less revenue for county taxpayers.
"This has gone too far," Sweeney said. "I really think we need to develop a policy to let you remove these abuses."
Commissioner Steve O'Neil of Duluth agreed.
"If you need more tools you should definitely come back" to the County Board for action, O'Neil told Krepps.
Commissioners Steve Raukar of Hibbing and Keith Nelson of Fayal Township said they would rather see more education against the large stands and shooting lanes on county land, directing Krepps to work with the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association to get the word out.
In some areas, hunters have taken to clearing the forestland and planting clover and other farm crops to attract deer. While the ethics of food plots is hotly debated in the hunting community -- some say it's akin to baiting deer, which is illegal in Minnesota -- county foresters say the plots are taking even more forestland out of production.
Moreover, the seeds planted may not be just one crop, but may bring in invasive, non-native species that could damage the native forest and spread.
"We're just not going to tolerate these at all. We're going to rip them out," Krepps said.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said his group stands ready to help educate hunters on public land hunting rules, especially against cutting trees. But Johnson said rules, and personal ethics, vary greatly on how elaborate stands should be. The association has no formal stance on the issue, he said.
"We really want people to know that cutting trees on public land is not acceptable," Johnson said. "I don't think a lot of our members are out doing that. But we want to help educate everyone out there that our ability to continue to use these public lands depends on our actions out there.
"It seems like we are seeing a lot of these public land managers forced to take increasing action because of the bad apples out there who just go too far."