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Published September 07, 2010, 09:48 AM

North Dakota livestock men struggle with deer

BISMARCK, N.D. — Bill Dethloff wonders why a landowner can shoot a predator that is killing his livestock, but not a deer that is stealing and damaging his feed supplies. He says deer have cost him thousands of dollars over the years.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. — Bill Dethloff wonders why a landowner can shoot a predator that is killing his livestock, but not a deer that is stealing and damaging his feed supplies. He says deer have cost him thousands of dollars over the years.

“We mailed a bill to the Game and Fish Department for $139,000 for 20 years of feeding the deer after they accused me of killing their deer,” he says.

Dethloff currently is charged with shooting 17 deer last February. He fully acknowledges he’s shot “hundreds” in the past 20 years. His case is scheduled to go to a 12-person jury trial Oct. 6 in Bismarck, N.D. His lawyer is consulting with a colleague who is representing Harlan Kleppe, a Daw-

son, N.D., farmer, who also is charged with shooting deer to protect hay. Kleppe’s case that may be headed to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

“I can’t wait to get to court to get this over with,” Dethloff says. “They can’t afford to let me win, though, because if I do, the flood gates are going to be opened and every rancher that has a problem is going to be on their steps.”

North Dakota Game and Fish Department officials say legal confrontations the Dethloffs’ are rare.

“They’re atypical,” says Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief with the department.

In the past 10 years, there have been only five such cases, and these two are among them.

“In 16 years, there have been only seven cases,” he says. “We believe the people of North Dakota don’t want big game — deer, elk, and antelope — to be treated like coyotes and skunks, especially when there are other options available.”

Viewpoint differences

Dethloff says he’s shot deer because they’ve caused tens of thousands of dollars of damage to his feed supplies. He thinks the deer and their diseases have caused abortions in his cattle herd.

He was convicted of the same crime in 1997, which may have a bearing on the current case. He was convicted of shooting 56 deer then and paid $200 payment to the Report All Poachers program. The court ordered him to a deer-proof hay yard by a Nov. 1, 1997, deadline. The state delivered more than $1,400 in materials to build it, but Dethloff didn’t build it — at least the way the state required.

“We lined our corral with it, so the deer wouldn’t crawl into the feed bunks,” Dethloff says.

He had 2,700 bales at the time, which he says the approved enclosure wouldn’t have held.

“It probably would have held 200 bales,” he says.

In 1999, Dethloff explained to wardens that he

“didn’t want the hassle of getting on and off his tractor to open gates four times a day.”

He says an enclosure needed an electric gate, which the department would not fund. He facetiously said the department should a hire warden to monitor the structure “24 hours a day.”

Since 1997, Dethloff openly says he’s been shooting deer and claims the department, for some reason, “looked the other way.”

In February 2010, however, the department took quick action as soon as a neighbor reported they thought Dethloff was shooting deer. After an investigation, Dethloff was charged with 17 counts of illegal killing of deer. It infuriated him when the news media said he was a accused of “poaching,’ though Kreil maintains that’s the correct term for killing deer or other game out of season, or without a license.

“I call it protecting your property,” Dethloff says. “I don’t like killing animals. I haven’t shot anything except what’s bothering my family. I don’t venison because I have a freezer full of sirloin steaks. Why would I have any interest in these ‘goats?’” he says.

Dethloff hauls out a legal file that is 2 inches thick. Throughout the 1990s, there are various reports of state offering various levels of feed for deer and Dethloff’s dissatisfaction with the amounts. There are reports of Dethloff being very cordial at some points, and very abrasive, which Kreil says doesn’t figure into the department’s treatment of him.

For this 2010 case, his lawyer plans to offer the argument that Dethloff deserves to be able to protect his property from deer depredation with deadly force. That argument was thrown out of court, but will be an issue in an appeal.

Dethloff also says he intends to take the case as far as to the North Dakota Supreme Court if necessary. He says he has more than 150 statements of support from other landowners who have heard about his case and say they’ll stand up to complain about inadequate protection from deer damage, too.

“They can’t afford to let me win, and maybe I won’t, but I’m going to go down swinging, if I go down,” Dethloff vows.

Cattleman and trucker

Dethloff was born in 1941. He and a younger sister grew up on a “smallish” 720-acre farm in the Pettibone, N.D., area. In 1959, three days after high school graduation, he enlisted in the Army and served in the 82nd Airborne Division. Honorably discharged from the military in 1962, he started driving truck.

In 1967, he bought his own truck. The Dethloffs moved in 1983 to Bismarck, where he continued trucking and began to lease the former Northern Improvement feedlot, along the river a mile northwest of town. It had been a 2,000-head capacity yard, but Dethloff started small.

“The first year, we only had money to buy 150 cattle,” Dethloff says.

Slowly, he expanded to 600 head, and finally to 1,000 head per year. The place holds 350 head at any given time, except for the summer.

“We buy older cows, ‘preg’-check them and calve the cows out,” he says. “The cows that aren’t pregnant get fattened up and we sell those to slaughter. So we’re dealing in older cows and sell as either cow-calf pairs or for slaughter.”

Twice-divorced and single at age 68, Dethloff remains proud of his family, who support him and hope for a good outcome in this case..

Daughter Julie, 41, manages and owns what is now known as JSLM Cattle and Trucking companies. They have seven trailers and hire owner-operators to pull them around the country, buying and selling grain in five states. His son, Scott, died in 1996. Lori Dethloff is a practicing veterinarian in Bismarck. His son, Marcus, 31, works with the family business and studies electrical engineering.

Prime time — for deer

From November to March, it’s prime time for the cattle company and also for the deer.

There used to be two other feeders in the nearby area, but they’ve gone. Now, he says, the deer simply congregate at his place. They come into his feedlot, they go right past the first- and second-cutting hay, he says, and go right to the better third-cutting hay.

Another issue is that through the 25 years here, there are some 20 upscale houses nearby. Some neighbors complain about the smell of his cattle. One woman suggested he sell the land and retire.

“‘Buy a condominium up-town,’ she said. I said I already own two condominiums downtown and have them rented out,” Dethloff says. “We’re ‘the Clampetts’ is what we are. We’re not wanted because the rich and famous moved in. I tell them we live in a home, and this land is not for sale. We have 20 acres down here.”

One neighbor has offered him $1.5 million for his property, but the land isn’t for sale for $5 million.

Well, there’s an exception. Three years ago, he told a game warden he’d sell the place to the state for $3 million, but he never received a response.

“Why would you want to pay me when you could feed the deer for nothing?” he says.

Zero tolerance?

The year 1997 was a bad deer year. It was the big snow year, when thousands of North Dakota cattle died.

“We had over 400 deer on the place here, and called Game and Fish numerous times,” Dethloff recalls.

Dethloff started shooting deer.

“They come out and asked, ‘How many deer did you shoot?’ I said 56,” he recalls.

So the Game and Fish folks came out to pick them up.

“I took a loader truck out to help them. We found 47. They asked, ‘Where are the other nine?’ I said I didn’t know, but I’d go out and shoot another nine to make the head count come out.”

Dethloff was convicted of shooting deer. He paid $200 for Report All Poachers and ordered to put up the deer-proof hay yard. He was ticketed for hunting without a license, and part of the punishment was to take his hunting privileges away.

“I told ’em I hadn’t hunted for 20-plus years,” he says.

The Game and Fish Department decided to withhold further depredation help, rather than press for compliance with the court order.

Dethloff declares that if he would only get 25 or 30 deer pecking at his hay bales, he’d never complain.

“If it was like that every year, it wouldn’t cost anyone a dime,” he says.

He remembers suggesting harvest of the deer, bring in a 25 hunters, shoot the deer, provide meat saws, grinders, processing them and give them to the poor in the community. “They asked, ‘Mr. Dethloff, how much would go into your deep freeze?’

Another go-round

In 2010, Dethloff ran afoul of the law again.

According to the reports, on Feb. 3, “an individual” reported to the state headquarters that they’d seen dead deer at Dethloff’s place. Wardens investigated the same day and saw more. They interviewed Dethloff, who said he’d been shooting deer.

In the reports, Dethloff admits he started shooting deer in December and that numerous deer were buried around the place. He’d shoot seven to nine a night, aiming for the “leaders.” He says he owned 50 guns but often used a Ruger Mini 14 .223 caliber. The authorities continued investigating and brought “siren box” and “cracker shells” to scare away further deer. The wardens didn’t immediately arrest him, but later found a total of 18 deer around the place. There were new shootings as late as Feb. 27, and some of the deer found were not dead.

At one point, the wardens complimented him on his marksmanship, which he attributes to military training.

In March 2010, Julie got a phone call and they asked where Dethloff was.

“I told them he’s over at Kist (Livestock in Mandan, N.D.) like he is every Wednesday,” she says.

Game and Fish personnel streamed into his place, used a warrant and confiscated several guns and ammunition. He says they since have returned all but one.

Urban encroachment

Dethloff admits he has a “quick temper” and is fast with a stinging retort.

In one case, as Dethloff remembers rebuking a Game and Fish employee who had the temerity to imply that deer might not be such a large problem because they ate only 4 pounds, 12 ounces of hay a day, while a cow eats 30 pounds.

“I told him, ‘OK, when you’re having supper tonight with your family, how about I come over and urinate and poop on your mashed potatoes,’” Dethloff says. “It’s not what they eat, but what they waste that’s the problem.”

In another case, Dethloff says he suggested that if he couldn’t get rid of the deer, maybe Dethloff could move 70 cows of his out on one of their wildlife refuges.

“They said we’d have to do that for everybody that has a problem,” he says.

He also has offered to capture deer in his barn and ship them to a refuge for free, but officials have told him they couldn’t do it because the deer might be injured.

Kreil says one of the ways of dealing with deer is allowing more hunting. The urban conditions are something of a complication, but notes the department has been successful with urban hunts in south Bismarck for more than 20 years. The technique has not been tried north of town, partially because the area is much more controlled by private landowners, and “we’ve never had people request it in that part of Bismarck.”

Any such arrangement would require private landowners to allow access.

“We wouldn’t set up licensing if they have no hope for access,” he says.

Dethloff says he allows a half-dozen hunters in every year, but no strangers. Twenty years ago, he let strangers bow-hunt here, but had a Chestnut mare “shot in the ass” with an arrow, and “nobody knew who did it.”

Better ways

to handle it

Kreil declines to say much about the Dethloff case because it’s still open. Generally speaking, however, he says the department is in a difficult spot anytime any citizen “shoots first and doesn’t give us a call and give us a chance.”

Kreil says he doesn’t know how long it’s been on the books, but “big game” animals are “a value to the citizens of North Dakota” and says there are other ways to handle them than simply killing them.

“We work with hundreds of farmers every year on these issues,” and many come to successful resolutions, he says. The department worked with more than 1,000 livestock producers in the 1996 to ’97 winter and with 400 in the 2008 to ’09 season. In 2010, they worked with “just 140” depredation complaints.

“Last winter wasn’t a walk in the park, but it paled in comparison” to a bad year, Kreil says.

Kreil says the state has put up some 400 to 500 deer-proof hay yards across the state and producers have found them to be “quite useful.” The department put out a brochure last year and is working with the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association to get the word out. They used Jack Reich, a Zap, N.D., cattleman and president of the Stockmen’s Association in one of its videos.

“A lot of techniques — examples of what works — have actually come from livestock producers, or a combination of our folks working with livestock producers,” Kreil says.

One particular technique was for farmers to stack their bales on end, making it more difficult for the deer to scramble up.

Kreil says that when the department works with the producers, there often is an early phase when tensions are high. Ultimately, however, the producer comes to appreciate the department’s efforts and staffers often become friends. He acknowledges, however, that although the department conducts numerous surveys on bag results, the department never has conducted a survey on satisfaction for its depredation efforts.

Curiously, a January 1999 Game and Fish deer depredation report form says Dethloff had told them “any depredation is intolerable.” A question titled: “Outcome,” lists three possible responses from a landowner: “Successful and operator satisfied,” “Moderate success” and “Unsuccessful and operator unhappy with outcome.” That part of the form was blank.

Kreil says the department considered surveying farmer-landowners on satisfaction with their efforts, but gave up on that idea. There is “such a broad diversity of situations” and it would boil down to a “list of anecdotal stories,” he says. A producer who lost 25 bales before state intervened, he says, might be satisfied with the state response, but still might be disappointed that he lost the bales at the start.

Nevertheless, Kreil concludes that the “general level of satisfaction” is “pretty good.”

‘Lethal take’ permits?

Kreil says the department offers no “lethal take” permits for deer depredation, as they do for geese depredation problems.

He says the range of deer situations makes the “lethal method” impractical.

“Some people say they wish we had a permit to kill five. But if you don’t kill every single one of them, ‘lethal’ doesn’t work as a management tool.”

Despite this, Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the Stockmen’s Association, says leaders in her organization a year ago talked about the idea of a state “depredation tags” that could be offered to people “with impacts.” The group will hold its annual meeting Sept. 23 to 25 at the Holiday Inn in Minot, N.D. She says that while the Game and Fish Department enclosures are helpful to some people, others store feed in multiple spots and have more difficulty in keeping deer away.

Kreil notes that deer depredation problems are down.

But deer numbers also are down. In fact, deer numbers are down enough so that the department has cut its deer licenses by 30,000 for 2010. In meetings with the department and constituent groups, “everybody agreed” that the license numbers should be cut as the agency strives for “that balance” between recreational use and agricultural tolerance.

Kreil doubts whether the Legislature would enact a law that “allows people to kill game animals, impacting their crops or livestock feed supplies.”

“Our guess is that there would be great public concern from landowners and hunters alike,” Kreil says. “Many landowners are also hunters. When there are other tools, when you go right to the lethal method, we doubt we’d have a lot of support” for that. If that were allowed, “there’d be no incentive for anybody to allow hunting, or try fencing and other tools we have.”

A neverending reality

Kreil says that deer depredation has been an issue for a long time. He notes that there were reports of deer depredation in a tough winter of 1943, when someone suggested that the proper number for a deer population in the whole state would be only 9,000 of the animals.

Another perennial suggestion is that farmers should somehow be compensated for damage when their feed supplies are overrun by deer or other big game animals. That’s the issue in at least some of the lawsuits.

“Frankly there’s not enough money in the world to pay whenever an animal takes a bite out of something,” Kreil says.

Compensation could involve everything from rabbit damage in vegetables to geese in soybeans, to deer in feed supplies or standing crops. Wisconsin has tried such a program, but it doesn’t alleviate the problem, he says.

One thing’s for sure, Kreil says: “Of all of the things we deal with, depredation issues are absolutely, positively, the most difficult.”