By Kevin Naze – OutdoorNews.com
Menominee, Mich. – Photographs of an Upper Peninsula of Michigan island buck pole heavy with whitetail bucks that flew around Internet sites and e-mails captivated hunters across North America and sparked a debate as to their authenticity and circumstances surrounding the kills.
While the photos are indeed real, some of the claims coming from the Nov. 19 “bust” on St. Martin Island – located just inside the Michigan/Wisconsin border where Green Bay waters meet Lake Michigan – are false, officials say.
Outside of a small parcel near the lighthouse that is managed by the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, the approximately 21⁄4-mile-long by 11⁄4-mile-wide island is privately owned. At least two tribal hunters were involved, but the rest of the group were non-tribal hunters, and all had licenses.
There were multiple citations for tagging violations, and warden discretion kept a number of individuals from potentially getting much harsher penalties, according to the Michigan DNR.
The two photos seeing the widest circulation on hunting blogs and message boards across the World Wide Web include 31 bucks hanging on two large poles – all of the bucks are 7 points or larger – and were taken by a Michigan DNR conservation officer. They were meant to be shared only internally until the investigation was complete, but someone within the Michigan DNR leaked the photos.
“With the Internet, once something gets out, it’s gone – there’s no stopping it,” said Michigan Conservation Officer Terry Short, of Menominee.
After that happened, a member of the island camp posted another picture on a hunting site that shows more than 20 of the largest bucks along with 10 hunters, three DNR officers, and the Delta County sheriff’s deputy. Many of the hunters were smiling.
The publicity generated around the globe was a major frustration for the family of a Wisconsin businessman who owns most of the island and has had trespassing issues through the years due to its remote location about six miles northeast of Wisconsin’s Rock Island off the tip of the Door County Peninsula. It is also near the Garden Peninsula in Michigan’s Delta County.
The island’s owner has extensive Door County connections, including owning a Sister Bay business. His daughter, from Door County, said the family allowed an Upper Michigan caretaker and his friends to hunt on the island, but didn’t condone any illegal activity. She said the family had no other comment.
A long boat ride
Short wasn’t sure what to expect as he rode across bumpy seas during a 20-mile trip aboard a Delta County sheriff’s department patrol boat aimed for St. Martin Island on Nov. 19.
Acting on citizen concerns of possible illegal deer-hunting activity on the island during previous seasons, Short and two other DNR officers and a sheriff’s deputy surprised more than 20 hunters who were preparing to take their kills back to the Upper Michigan mainland.
“It was pretty incredible, pretty impressive – something you didn’t really expect,” Short said, recalling his first look at the deer that were hanging.
Two large poles held 31 bucks and nine does. Another 10 or so deer, antlers, and heads were found on the ground around the camp, mainly a mix of smaller bucks and does.
“We didn’t have any problems,” Short said. “Some of the hunters were extremely cooperative. Some wanted as little contact as possible. That’s normal.”
While the hunters had enough tags for the deer, some simply failed to tag them, Short said.
By the time the investigation was completed, 11 citations for failure to tag a deer were written, a $144 fine in Delta County District Court. Michigan allows individual counties to set their own forfeiture amounts.
Since the weather had been mild, Short was surprised that so many carcasses were still hanging on what was the fifth day of the Michigan firearms gun deer-hunting season.
“It didn’t appear they were spoiling, though,” Short said. “At least I didn’t smell anything to indicate they were.”
Short said there were “a fair number of wife and girlfriend tags” on deer, and the women weren’t on the island at the time. Officers who followed up learned that some said they were there, while some admitted they weren’t.
If those hunters would have been cited for an illegal deer in Michigan, Short said they would have had to spend five days in jail, pay $1,000 restitution for the deer and up to $1,000 in additional fines, plus loss of firearm and hunting privileges.
“That route wasn’t taken,” he said.
Provided they purchase the licenses and comply with certain restrictions, deer hunters in Michigan can shoot two antlered bucks during the firearms season. Short said tribal members are allowed two bucks and three antlerless deer, in addition to any state licenses they might buy.
Two hunters in the group were from Alaska, Short said; the rest were from Michigan. He called it “a lot of friends and family,” and believes only two were tribal members.
Short had seen some trophy buck photos from the island on the Internet in past seasons, and learned that the group was trying to manage for trophy deer. This was the year chosen to reduce the numbers, he said.
“There are people who have large tracts of land (in the U.P.) that generate bucks like these (on St. Martin),” Short said. “It can be done individually in small areas. But it’s difficult to do over a large area like the Upper Peninsula.”
Short said he didn’t know if the group made any large drives, but he did see extensive evidence that deer were being fed.
“I understand they were basically stand hunters baiting the deer in,” Short said. “The browse lines were very high. I’m not sure how they maintained that many deer. It’s likely that this winter a lot of those deer would have just died.”
A lack of predators and nowhere for the deer to go made it a unique situation, Short said. Due to the influence of wave action from Lake Michigan, the ice rarely firms up enough in winter for deer to make it to other islands or the mainland. It’s possible, he said, that some deer might swim from one island to another on occasion.
A 13-year DNR employee, Short has seen the story heat up with a lot of misinformation on the Internet. He also heard that the hunters were culling what they believed to be the smaller bucks to allow the larger ones to grow bigger bodies and racks.
Several years ago, all the bucks shot on the island reportedly weighed more than 200 pounds dressed. Many sported 10- and 12-point racks.
St. Martin Island covers about 1,250 acres and most of it is owned by the St. Martin Partnership, which is a family ownership that goes back at least three generations, according to a Michigan DNR spokesperson. About 47 acres around the lighthouse is owned by the federal government, and 36 acres is owned by David Uihlein.