Minnesota conservation officers targeted a type of illegal deer hunting in mid-November in the far north near Blackduck that is common, yet an uncommonly dangerous element of their work.
There were multiple violations, from shooting a deer from a motor vehicle and from a roadway to transporting loaded firearms, and all centered around one act: shining deer.
Scofflaws often use high-powered lights to locate deer, which freeze when spotlighted, making themselves easy targets.
Also common but perhaps little known is how the Department of Natural Resources conservation officers (COs) approach such a risky scenario. Shining deer under the cloak of darkness, often on a rural property, firepower close, carries a threat that transcends the day-to-day duty of most COs.
Across the state, officers rely on the coordination of eyes in the air and in the field to catch perpetrators.
COs consider landowner reports of shining or shots fired or even dead whitetails in deciding where to patrol at night, said Maj. Robert Gorecki. Aviation officers can cover large swaths of territory. Pilot and CO Bob Geving of Mankato said some of his shining details have ranged from a 10- to 40-mile radius, and he can expect six to eight scheduled missions from autumn into early winter.
While some violators have upgraded to less-conspicuous light sources to attract deer, COs have an advantageous perspective from above, and use night vision optics and GPS to relay information to teams in the vicinity of suspicious behavior.
"We are hoping for more tools," said Geving, who has been an aviation officer since 2007.
Most pilots work in a team, too, with a technical flight officer aboard to help manage surveillance logistics. Having a bird's-eye view and the stealth of aircraft sometimes allows officers to follow suspicious characters away from the scene and to their residences, also lowering the threat of, say, a head-on traffic stop confrontation, Gorecki said.
"The biggest thing when placing officers is their safety," Gorecki said, who added that multiple officers are always involved in shining operations.
Illegal shining shouldn't be confused with the recreational version — for some Minnesotans, it's a pastime to look for and watch wildlife at night.
But a Minnesota law enacted in 2009 aimed at reducing poaching and disturbing businesses and landowners shortened the window for shining to up to two hours after sunset year-round. Among other changes to separate recreation-types from poachers, the new law also prohibited shining while in the possession of a firearm, bow, or another device that could be used to take wildlife. Shining onto a residence or building site, an often-heard complaint to law enforcement, also was banned.
COs have issued 10 shining citations and three warnings this year and had 12 citations and four warnings in 2021. The general fine is $200 but hunting privileges also can be lost, depending on the number of violations and other factors.
Tyler Quandt, an officer in southeast Minnesota, patrols a region known for big bucks that's therefore prime habitat for shiners, legal and otherwise. While he still receives shining complaints, he said the new rules have had an impact.
"Landowners have loved it, and it allows for a reasonable opportunity for a shiner to do it right. It is easy for people to understand what they can and can't do," said Quandt, who has been a CO for more than 30 years and advised stakeholders in writing the new regulations.
Even in the face of dangers posed by those who continue to do the wrong thing, Quandt is confident the DNR can keep illegal shining in check.
"One thing that we have in our favor — we have the law and the penalties that come with it," he said.