Long before he was accused of poaching an African lion named Cecil, Walter Palmer was stalking suspected poachers on his private hunting land in northwestern Minnesota.
The Twin Cities dentist guarded his acreage and property lines so fiercely he alienated and even frightened local hunters, some Clay County residents and officials said. Run-ins with Palmer became the stuff of local hunting lore, said Clay County Commissioner Jenny Mongeau, whose district includes Palmer’s land.
“You don’t go close to it because he would report you,” said Mongeau. “He has zero positive relations with any of the neighbors, which is very uncommon for this area.”
A global furor erupted after news broke that Palmer, a veteran big-game hunter, had killed the famous research lion in a nighttime hunt in Zimbabwe in early July, maiming him 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 accusations against Palmer, only the professional hunter he hired, Theo Bronkhorst, has been charged in Zimbabwe.
Palmer, 55, has not responded to multiple phone calls from the Star Tribune in the past two weeks, including requests for comment on this article. Vilified by animal welfare activists and the target of vitriol in social media, Palmer and his wife have not been staying at their Eden Prairie home or at their vacation home in Florida. Palmer’s dental practice in Bloomington remains shuttered.
In his one statement to the media last month, Palmer expressed deep regret for killing the lion but denied knowingly breaking any laws, saying he “relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
Palmer’s Minnesota hunting refuge lies between the town of Barnesville and Pelican Rapids, about 45 minutes southeast of Fargo-Moorhead. Locals talk with envy about the nearly 900-acre spread of rolling hills, oak woodlands and small lakes. It’s some of the most pristine countryside in the area, they say.
“That’s his own personal little hunting refuge,” said Shawn Olson, head of the Barnesville Rod & Gun Club. Olson said he’s heard all the stories about territorial disputes but hasn’t experienced any himself.
Palmer lives in Eden Prairie. 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 another 230 acres on nearby Pelican Lake, in Otter Tail County.
Jason Stetz recalled the first time he met Palmer. Stetz, who owns Heart O’ Lakes Quality Meats in Pelican Rapids, said he’d been out hunting, and was driving down the gravel road by Palmer’s land when an odd deer appeared just off the road. Stetz said he pulled over and grabbed his binoculars thinking: “That’s the ugliest damn deer I ever saw.”
The deer was fake, plastic.
Something slapped Stetz’s pickup, startling him. It was Palmer. He was angry.
“You were going to shoot that deer,” Stetz recalled him saying. Stetz said he just had his binoculars out to look but Palmer insisted that Stetz was going to shoot the deer.
Palmer said he was going to call the game warden and told Stetz to get out of there.
Over the years Stetz 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. 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.”
Keith Stetz did not respond to messages seeking comment.
None of the confrontations over Palmer’s boundaries resulted in violations, according to Lt. Phil Seefeldt, a DNR conservation officer who covered the area. Seefeldt said that the hunting disputes around Palmer’s land are “kind of an ongoing issue.”
Despite the friction, Stetz said Palmer invited neighbors to a party on the property around 2008. Stetz said not many people went, but he drove over. When he arrived, Palmer invited him into an old white schoolhouse near the old farmhouse on the land. Stetz peered in.
“I was like, Holy [expletive]!” Stetz said.
The schoolhouse was a museum, chock-full of mounted animals, he said, mostly head mounts on the walls. He said he recalls seeing deer heads, and “big game” type animals, but he can’t recall exactly what kind. Stetz said the collection might disturb someone not familiar with hunting, but that he considered it “neater than hell.”
“That’s his shrine. That’s his baby right there,” Stetz said.
Stetz said relations with Palmer have improved in recent years and that, at least with him, Palmer seems to have “come around.” Stetz butchers some of Palmer’s deer for him. Palmer, he said, always brings in the biggest bucks.
Some locals suspect Palmer and his wife may be on the secluded property now, keeping a low profile to avoid the harsh public reaction to Cecil’s killing. Stetz says he has no idea. All he knows is someone hired private security to watch the property.