Trophy buck poached from deer breeding farm

A Rushford teen is suspected of killing the penned-in animal.

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This 21-buck was poached from a southern Minnesota deer farm.

The 19-year-old couldn't look more proud in the photo, wearing a broad smile as he squats next to the trophy buck he took with a bow and arrow.

But it may end up he's no trophy hunter at all, just a thief.

The trophy buck, which was used for breeding, was killed last week on a deer farm near Houston in southeastern Minnesota. Then, according to the animal's owner, it was tagged, registered with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and taken to a taxidermist.

The antlers, hide and meat were recovered later by authorities and returned to the deer's owner.

Investigators are now building a possible felony case against the teen from nearby Rushford, according to the Houston County Sheriff's Office.

The deer's owner, who doesn't want to be identified until charges are filed, is angry. "He came in and took something from me that I worked very hard to do," said the owner, who raises deer with his brother. "He doesn't realize what he's done."

The 3 1/2-year-old buck, worth many thousands of dollars, is the product of "many years of intensive and selective breeding," said the owner, who has raised deer for the past 15 years. "It's a lot of time and money."

The buck was in a pen with more than a dozen other deer when the thief shot him in the dead of night last week. With blood staining snow on the ground and a hole snipped in the fence, the farm owners could easily see one of their prize deer had been killed.

"Whoever did this was definitely looking for a trophy," the owner said. Fourteen other deer escaped through the hole in the fence that night, but 12 returned for food. Two bucks are still missing.

"One is a younger brother ... and genetically better," the owner said. "We're making every effort to get these deer back. I even went up in a helicopter yesterday."

The dead and missing deer will take a large chunk out of the family's business. "Our future is in jeopardy," the owner said. "And I don't have money to replace the deer."

Scott Bestul, who co-writes the Whitetail 365 blog for Field and Stream magazine, lives about 20 miles from the deer farm and said he was "pretty disappointed" when he learned about the theft. Days before he learned the deer had been poached, someone had sent him a photo of the 19-year-old showing off his trophy.

"Make no mistake, it's just monstrous big," Bestul said. "In Minnesota, you might get one or two that large. They're very hard to come by in the wild." But for a farm-raised deer, the size is not unusual, he said. "This kid made a big, dumb mistake that will affect the rest of his life. He's probably in a lot of trouble because he stole private property."

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the case had little to do with hunting.

"This obviously was livestock, a penned deer, and it would be akin to horse thievery,'' Johnson said. "This was not hunting, it was stealing.''

For the deer's owner, it has shattered his family's sense of security. "You hear a noise outside, you hear something different, you wake up and come flying out of bed to see what will happen next," he said.

Hunters and nonhunters often visit the farm. "They enjoy coming out to look at the antlers, to see the babies in the spring," he said. "They come to see the deer up close rather than hitting the front of their car when they jump across the road. ... It's really sad this happened."

Star Tribune staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report. mlsmith@startribune.com pwalsh@startribune.com

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