Allegations of illegal tactics during this current deer hunting season involving land owned by Dr. Walter Palmer in western Minnesota are under investigation by state enforcement officials.
A senior conservation officer with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said Thursday that allegations have been leveled of illegal "herding" of deer by pickup trucks that is sending the animals back onto land owned near Barnesville by Palmer, the Bloomington dentist who created an international uproar when he killed the beloved lion Cecil this summer in Zimbabwe.
"We will talk to everybody involved and decide whether or not a violation has occurred," said Maj. Greg Salo, operations manager for the DNR. "It's too early to speculate on the circumstances."
Salo said that if the allegations hold up, such acts are against the law.
"A person may not use a motor vehicle to intentionally drive, chase, run over, kill or take a wild animal," Salo said, quoting the misdemeanor statute. A conviction brings $287 in a fine and court fees.
In response, a representative for Palmer released a statement that said neither he nor any of his guests were on the land at the time of the alleged "herding." The statement did not address whether anyone was redirecting deer to his land.
"The source cited by the media has a history of personal animosity toward Dr. Palmer," the statement continued. "This is just another example of people trying to attack an innocent man."
The representative added that the DNR has yet to contact Palmer, and Salo said his agency will be doing so soon.
Leah Thompson said she reported that two pickup trucks were hindering deer from leaving Palmer's property over the weekend while she was deer hunting on her family's land. She said she could not identify the drivers.
"I see the deer start coming out just after 4 [p.m.] … four does and a buck making their way toward the road," said Thompson, who was hunting with a nephew. "I think, 'They're going to come right by us.' … I get excited."
But then, Thompson continued, "Out of the blue, comes this one white pickup, and he stops right between me and the deer. … He stopped for a moment. … All of a sudden, he drives up the hill and the deer run back onto his property."
Thompson said a similar scenario played out late Saturday afternoon in a different location bordering Palmer's land involving the same pickup and a navy blue pickup.
"That is called herding," Thompson said.
Thompson said she's been seeing this tactic on or near Palmer's land "for the past 10-plus years. This is not because of the lion, no."
Salo said that while deer are nimble and elusive, "You can change their direction with a motor vehicle."
A global furor erupted in early July after news broke that Palmer, a veteran big-game hunter who lives in Eden Prairie, had killed Cecil in a nighttime hunt in Zimbabwe, taking the research lion down with a compound bow and then finishing him off hours later. The lion was baited and the hunt was conducted on private land where, some authorities have said, there was no permit to kill a lion.
Despite the accusations in Africa against Palmer, only the professional hunter he hired has been charged in Zimbabwe. Authorities later said they would not be charging Palmer with a crime. An investigation by federal authorities in the United States continues.
In an interview with the Star Tribune and the Associated Press in September, Palmer held to his contention from the start that he relied on his guide that the hunt was legal. He added that if he had known of the lion's stature as a research subject and as an attraction, he would not have killed the animal.
Palmer's Minnesota hunting refuge lies between the town of Barnesville and Pelican Rapids, about 45 minutes southeast of Fargo-Moorhead. It's made up of nearly 900 acres of rolling hills, oak woodlands and small lakes.
Property records show he bought the core 520 acres in Clay County in 1999 and then added adjacent parcels over the years. He also owns 230 more acres on nearby Pelican Lake, in Otter Tail County.
Thompson's brother, Jason Stetz, recalled how he and his friends and relatives would wrangle with Palmer over property lines, deer stands and trails of deer blood. Palmer was always quick to accuse them of trespassing, Stetz said in an interview with the Star Tribune in August. Once, Stetz said, Palmer scared him while he was hunting when Palmer popped out of the trees in camouflage with a digital camera, snapping photos of Stetz.
As he told the British tabloid Daily Mail, Stetz recalled Palmer once kicked his cousin Keith Stetz out of a deer stand, accusing him of hunting on his land. Stetz said Palmer had a handgun. When Keith climbed down, Stetz said he recalled Palmer telling him: "There is no excuse for ignorance."
Lt. Phil Seefeldt, a DNR conservation officer who covered the area, said this summer that the hunting disputes around Palmer's land are "kind of an ongoing issue."
Along with this latest case and the killing of Cecil, Palmer has gotten attention from conservation enforcement officials at least twice before. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to misleading federal authorities about a bear he killed illegally in Wisconsin. He was put on probation and fined.
In the spring of 2003, Palmer was convicted in Otter Tail County and paid a small fine for fishing without a license, a misdemeanor.
Star Tribune staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482