Source: St. Paul Pioneer Press
Where there are urban deer, there is deer poaching.
That's true even if the deer is standing along the shoulder of one of the Twin Cities' busiest freeway intersections at interstates 35E and eastbound 694 in Little Canada.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officers say the Nov. 6 shooting of a 15-point trophy buck with a crossbow just a stone's throw from morning traffic highlights a growing problem: Deer are being shot illegally in urbanized areas, often dangerously, right under the public's nose.
The case involving Robert Mereness, 59, gets more bizarre. The Little Canada man told a DNR officer he shot the deer and pleaded guilty on Christmas Eve before Ramsey County District Judge Michael Fetsch.
But Fetsch dismissed the charges for lack of facts and wished Mereness a "Merry Christmas," said attorney Kevin Beck, who prosecuted the case for the city of Little Canada.
"We're considering re-filing the case," Beck said Tuesday. "We weren't happy with (the decision), but I wasn't going to get into an argument with a judge on Christmas Eve."
A hunter who has followed the case said she wasn't happy with the judge's decision, either.
"I'm glad to hear they're looking at (the case) again," said Deb Luzinski, of Woodbury, a director for the Metro Bowhunters Resource Base, a nonprofit group that culls deer for municipalities.
"He (Mereness) may not understand what the consequences are of shooting a crossbow and hitting someone driving on
the freeway that morning."
According to the DNR complaint, Mereness was letting his dog out when he saw the buck standing near a stop sign at Big Circle Drive and County Road D, a few hundred feet west of I-35E.
It was 9:30 a.m. when Mereness, who has a disability permit to hunt deer with a crossbow, went back inside his home for his crossbow. By the time he walked across County Road D, the buck had jumped the freeway fence and was walking uphill near the southbound ramp of 35E from eastbound 694.
The deer was 25 feet from the 35E shoulder when Mereness shot it, according to his statement to DNR conservation officer Greg Salo. The buck jumped back over the fence and died in a nearby parking lot. A passer-by helped Mereness load it into the trunk of his car.
A tip and subsequent investigation led Salo to Mereness. The Little Canada man told the DNR officer he thought he had killed the deer legally because it was standing in the freeway right of way, which is state property.
Salo cited Mereness for firing a weapon across a road right of way. The misdemeanor carries a $300 fine and $500 civil restitution penalty for the deer.
When I called Mereness for his side of the story, he refused to comment.
Salo could have charged Mereness $1,000 because under state statute the deer qualifies as a trophy buck and carries a higher fine. But Salo said he did not because Mereness lives on a fixed income and was cooperative.
And here is where empathy comes into the story: Knowing Mereness wanted some venison, Salo later gave him several packages of processed venison from a confiscated deer from a different poaching case.
"He lives in a trailer, has had a couple of strokes and doesn't have a lot of money," Salo said. "He's a decent guy, and he made a dumb mistake. I gave him the biggest break I could give him on the ticket.
"But when he got to court, he got a better deal than I thought."
Mereness promised Salo he would plead guilty, and he did when he appeared before Fetsch. But according to attorney Beck, Fetsch didn't have the full investigation report and wanted more facts before accepting the plea. Without the additional facts, Fetsch dismissed the case.
On Tuesday, Salo returned Mereness' confiscated crossbow and arrow, but he won't return the deer. Someday, it may be displayed in the DNR's traveling Hall of Shame poaching display.
When Little Canada Mayor Bill Blesener learned about the case Monday, he said he, too, was disappointed the charges were dismissed. Blesener said he sent an e-mail to the city attorney to find out why. Hunting is prohibited in Little Canada, and despite some complaints about the city's growing deer herd, the City Council is reluctant to issue any hunting permits, Blesener said.
"He (Mereness) certainly didn't have a permit to hunt," Blesener said. "You can't hunt in residential areas."
Salo said shooting a crossbow near freeway traffic posed a huge safety issue. Luzinski, a bowhunting expert, said a crossbow arrow easily could pierce a windshield.
Safety aside, urban deer poaching is a problem and easier to get away with than one might think, authorities say. Poachers sneak into woodlots under the cloak of darkness or shoot tame deer near feeders in back yards. And desirable trophy deer are more common in urban areas because of the lack of hunting.
"It happens a lot more than people think," Salo said. "The temptation is huge."
Luzinski said she sometimes finds hidden deer stands and poachers' arrows during organized bow hunts sanctioned by local communities. She has spotted camouflaged poachers stalking deer in no-hunting areas of Woodbury
"Nothing surprises me anymore," she said.
Outdoors editor Chris Niskanen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org