Powerful spotlights illuminate dark fields and woods around Minnesota each fall, searching for deer. ¶ Some of the lights are held by people hoping to spot whitetails just for fun. Others are shined by hunters scouting an area for a future hunt. ¶ But too many, critics say, are shined by poachers looking for a big buck to freeze in the beam of light, then shoot illegally.

"We've been losing some really good deer,'' said Kent Holen, 62, who lives in Houston County in southeastern Minnesota. "We don't know how good most of the time, because the heads are gone.''

Poachers cut off the heads or antlers and leave the bodies behind.

"It's more common than people would like to think,'' said Tyler Quandt, a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer in Red Wing.

In Minnesota, recreational deer shining is legal year-round, with some restrictions. But some hunters, conservation groups and law enforcement officers say the law is frequently abused by poachers, gives hunters a bad reputation and upsets landowners whose property and livestock is shined.

They say it's time to tighten the law. And bills have been introduced at the Minnesota Legislature this session to do that.

"We just don't see any merit to shining at all and never have,'' said Holen, a member of Bluffland Whitetails Association, a deer hunting group in southeastern Minnesota that supports tougher shining laws. "Shining has nothing to do with hunting whatsoever. It's primarily a poaching technique.''

Others -- including the Minnesota Conservation Federation and Turn In Poachers (TIP) Inc. -- support tougher regulations and say the problem is widespread in Minnesota. The Conservation Federation supports a statewide shining ban.

Not so fast, says Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA).

"We support legal recreational shining,'' he said. "We understand the concerns of landowners. Our chapters and members in the southeast are dramatically in favor of ramping up regulations. But it's very much a southeast Minnesota issue. It's not an issue in the wooded reaches of the state.''

Tighter rules proposed

Johnson said some people enjoy seeing deer, and he doesn't want a law turning recreational shiners into criminals.

Jim Gordon of Deer River, a deer hunter and member of the MDHA, agrees. He said he's not a regular recreational deer shiner, but if a buck crosses the road at night, he'd like to be able to aim his headlights into a field to see what it looks like.

"If they're going to do something that says that's illegal, I think that's a real intrusion on our rights,'' he said.

The state's current shining regulations allow people to shine until 10 p.m. between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31. They can shine all night the rest of the year. Shiners can possess a cased, unloaded firearm or bow in the trunk or "rear-most" portion of their vehicle.

They can't shine on homes or buildings, or on fenced agricultural land containing livestock or poultry that is posted with signs prohibiting shining. There are some exceptions.

Bills introduced by Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, and Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, would restrict legal shining to one hour after sunset, year-round. People still couldn't shine on homes or buildings and couldn't possess a gun or bow while shining. Again, there are some exceptions.

(Wisconsin also has a 10 p.m. shining deadline during hunting season but forbids shiners to possess firearms or bows.)

Hurting hunter access?

Quandt, the DNR conservation officer, said he gets lots of complaints from landowners about shining, especially in the fall when farmers are busy harvesting crops.

"They're getting woken up by dogs barking or cattle going through the fence,'' he said, or lights shining in their windows.

And that can mean problems for hunters who later come knocking on doors seeking a place to hunt, said Quandt and Holen.

"It's definitely hurting hunter access and hunter image,'' Holen said. "It frustrates and upsets landowners. It's fodder for people who say hunters are slobs. I don't know anyone who has a positive image of shining.''

"We're supportive of tightening the regulations,'' said Al Thomas, executive director of TIP, a nonprofit group that fights poaching.

"In November, we had a record number of calls to our TIP hotline -- over 500,'' he said. "It's shooting from roadway, baiting and also shining. If we can toughen up the regs, it will be easier for the officers to do their jobs.''

Though the DNR offered input to a citizens committee that discussed changing the law, the department has taken a neutral position. Tightening the laws might make conservation officers' jobs a bit easier, but Quandt said reducing complaints from landowners -- and reducing poaching -- are the main goals.

"They'll still be able to shine, but we think we'll get fewer complaints,'' he said.

Johnson said he's hopeful that some compromise can be reached. He'd like to see deer poaching fines increased.

Meanwhile, Bill Farrell, 52, a deer hunter who lives in rural Houston County, said his two Labs bark and wake him whenever drivers come down his road shining deer.

His solution: "I keep a spotlight upstairs in the bedroom. I shine it right on their windshield. It pretty much blinds them.'' Still, said Farrell, "I wish they'd just do away with it.''