One morning in October 2009, Scott O’Konek sat in a tree in Camp Ripley, the military training base near Little Falls, Minn.
In one hand he held a bow with an arrow nocked, prepared to shoot a doe, if it came to that.
A buck would be better, to be sure.
But the trophy O’Konek primarily sought was the peace that accompanied his perch high in a tree, the autumn air chilled, leaves falling.
“Bow hunting is important to me,” he would say later. “It makes me calm. If I see a red squirrel or a bird fly by, it makes my day.”
About 9 a.m., O’Konek, of South Haven, Minn., saw something grander still: a 32-point buck.
Standing about 44 yards away, beneath a dark sky, the big whitetail shook snow from its back.
The animal didn’t know it was being watched.
It stepped away.
As it did, a carbon arrow carrying a razor-sharp stainless steel broadhead sluiced it from behind, piercing its heart.
Death followed instantly.
• • •
A great tale, yes.
More important to Minnesota bow hunters — until recently at Camp Ripley — it was just one of many similar stories about monster bucks taken during special archery hunts held each fall since 1954 on the 53,000-acre military training facility.
The hunts are administered by the Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs.
What is a “monster” buck?
Consider: In 1981 and again in 2001, animals weighing 272 pounds were killed at Ripley by archers.
Consider also these bruisers, measured in pounds, taken at Ripley hunts between 2003 and 2010: 252, 235, 245, 244, 255, 234, 265, 253.
So unusual is this tally of big deer that archers from throughout the Midwest and beyond — as far away as Florida — have sought to win the annual DNR lottery that assigns Ripley hunting permits to applicants.
Until this year.
This year, for the first time in memory, the Ripley hunt didn’t sell out. Too few deer at the military site, some archers say. And too little chance to kill a big buck.
Last year, in fact, fewer than 5 percent of the nearly 3,000 archers who hunted at Ripley took any kind of deer, buck or doe. And the biggest buck that fell to an arrow in 2014 weighed not 272 pounds, nor even 250, but 207 — the smallest “big buck” at Ripley since 1981.
Complaining archers point their collective finger at the DNR, saying the agency allowed too many does to be killed beginning in 2004, under a intentional plan to reduce the camp herd.
The numbers tell the story: In 2003, 157 antlerless deer were killed by archers at Ripley, a tally that was high even by historical standards.
In 2004, the antlerless kill jumped to 266, followed by a 291-animal antlerless harvest in 2005, and 349, 326, 333, 287, 320, 269 and 255 through 2012.
Those harvests were too big, archers say, and their adverse effect on the camp’s herd was made worse by recent back-to-back killer winters.
Summing up a common complaint:
Camp Ripley was one place in the state where big deer still lived — where they weren’t gunned down as yearlings by firearms hunters like most Minnesota bucks are — and the DNR messed it up.
• • •
The truth is more complicated, say Beau Liddell, DNR area wildlife manager who oversees the Ripley hunt, and the camp’s environmental supervisor, Jay Brezinka.
“Trophy deer management is not the goal of the Ripley hunt,” Liddell said. “We’ve made no bones about that. And the bottom hasn’t dropped out of the camp’s herd. It’s true we don’t have as many deer as we once did. But that’s by design.”
Brezinka said when the Ripley herd jumped in size beginning in the early 2000s the increase was caused largely by consecutive mild winters. As a result, too many deer were on site, and in some cases the camp’s flora suffered.
“We had trouble growing trees,” Brezinka said.
A particular rub between hunters and the DNR is the issuance of “bonus” permits to Ripley archers.
Using such a permit, an archer can kill a deer at Ripley, while retaining the option of killing another deer by bow after returning home, so long as only one buck is killed. Some Ripley hunters even killed two deer.
Bonus permits might have been necessary when the camp’s herd was big, some archers say. But they increase Ripley’s antlerless kill, and now that the herd is smaller, the permits should be eliminated.
Counters Liddell: “There’s no reason to get rid of the permits. We’re not talking a lot of harvested animals they account for — perhaps only a 5 or 10 percent increase in the total kill.”
Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations program manager in St. Paul, notes that Camp Ripley is a state game refuge by law and that as such, deer management strategies are more restrictive than elsewhere in Minnesota.
“Technically, deer hunts on game refuges are intended to manage populations, not to offer recreation,” Merchant said, adding:
“If bow hunters want the camp managed as a world-class opportunity to harvest big bucks, I can appreciate that. And I think we could do it, if a decision was reached that that’s what most people want. But we can’t do it on our own, as the DNR. It’s a military base, and those decisions are made with wildlife managers on the base.”
Brezinka, the camp environmental supervisor, said deer management is only one of many resource considerations at Ripley. On site, he noted, more than 560 types of plants, 202 bird species, 41 species of fish, 107 types of aquatic invertebrates, 65 species of butterflies, 51 mammal species, 23 reptiles and amphibians, and eight mussel species have been inventoried.
But to archers far and wide, it’s the camp’s big deer that are of special concern.
“I’ll do whatever I’m told to do managing the herd,” Liddell said. “Traditionally, we’ve used the hunt to manage the deer population. That’s the point of a refuge hunt. But if that changes, and offering trophy deer is the goal, OK.
“But it might require a change in state law. And it couldn’t be done without the consent and cooperation of the camp natural resources staff.”