Shot in the dark: Night hunting under the spotlight

  • Updated: November 27, 2012 - 9:24 PM

Night hunting for deer isn't allowed in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but Chippewa bands in the latter want tribal members to be able to use lights "at the point of kill."

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION - Shining deer is legal in Minnesota.

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When the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources filed suit last week against Chippewa bands in a tussle over night hunting for wolves and deer, it shined a light on hunting after dark -- a little-known practice allowed for some species in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Coyote, fox and raccoon hunters in both states can legally pull the trigger at night. And both states also allow those hunters to use lights.

Yet when it comes to deer or other game species, hunters in both states are prohibited from hunting at night or with lights.

Why?

"Coyotes, fox and raccoon are furbearers and mostly active at night," said Jim Konrad, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources enforcement chief. "The effectiveness of hunting them only during the day would be limited."

But perhaps more importantly, officials in both states say, is the value society places on different animals.

"Certainly deer have a greater value than varmints," Konrad said.

While whitetail harvest is highly regulated, there are no bag limits for raccoons, fox or coyotes. In fact, in Minnesota, coyotes are classified with skunks as unprotected species and can be shot year-round.

Other wildlife is simply considered more valuable.

"Raccoons and predators like fox and coyotes are one of the biggest killers of ground-nesting birds, like waterfowl and pheasants," said Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, a former DNR conservation officer.

The sheer number of hunters involved is another factor.

In Minnesota, about 19,000 people hunt coyotes, 9,000 hunt raccoons and 1,400 hunt fox. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has 600,000 deer hunters and Minnesota has about 500,000.

Night deer hunting would be a disaster, officials said.

"If you flooded the fields and woods with a half-million deer hunters at night, Lord knows what would happen," Konrad said.

Tom Van Haren, enforcement policy officer with the Wisconsin DNR, agreed.

"We have a fair number of hunting accidents now -- imagine if there was night hunting," he said. Plus it would be difficult to control the deer harvest, Van Haren said.

No one in either state has suggested nighttime hunting be opened for deer. But Chippewa bands in Wisconsin said last week they want to allow tribal members using lights "at the point of kill" to hunt deer at night -- arguing that the state allows wolf hunters to do so.

Which it does.

While Minnesota's and Wisconsin's regulations regarding coyotes, fox and raccoons are similar, Minnesota forbids night hunting of wolves, but Wisconsin allowed it starting Monday, after the firearms deer season ended.

That state's night wolf hunters must be using a predator call or hunting over legal bait and be in a stationary position. A flashlight can be used "while shooting a wolf at the point of kill," the law states.

Last week, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) -- which represents 11 Chippewa bands in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan -- authorized tribal hunters to hunt deer in Wisconsin at night using a light at the point of kill.

The Wisconsin bands had opposed the wolf hunt.

"The DNR said it's safe to have hunters in the woods at night hunting wolves and using a light at the point of kill," said Sue Erickson, spokeswoman for the commission. "The tribes are simply instituting the same thing."

The Wisconsin DNR filed a suit asking a federal judge to require the bands to comply with current law and confirming the state's right to enforce the law against tribal hunters in the ceded territory, which includes the northern third of the state.

On Tuesday, the tribes asked the judge to block the DNR from enforcing the prohibition on tribal hunters. The tribes argue they have the right to give their members more harvest opportunities, the state allows hunters to kill wolves at night and tribal hunters must meet stringent safety requirements to get night permits.

Seventy-four tribal members have met marksmanship requirements for a permit.

Erickson couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday night, but Wisconsin DNR officials said they haven't received reports of any permits being issued so far.

Both states' inaugural wolf hunts have been controversial, and Minnesota officials said there was never any talk at the Legislature last year of allowing wolf hunting at night.

"I wouldn't like that in Minnesota," Cornish said. "We had enough problems getting this wolf season through."

But in 2006, the Minnesota Legislature did approve the use of lights at night for the hunting of fox and coyotes. Previously, lights were only legal when hunting raccoons.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com Twitter: @dougsmithstrib

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