LONG PRAIRIE, MINN. – Thor, a spectacularly antlered whitetail buck, lives only in the fevered imaginations of most of the 450,000 Minnesota hunters who have ventured afield this deer season in search of a trophy.
But to a select band of hunters willing to pay money, everything about Thor is real.
The 5-year-old buck is a genetically engineered wonder. His monstrous, knotty, bulging rack of antlers would measure more than 280 inches. He reigns supreme in the breeding pens at Autumn Antlers, a 400-acre hunting preserve that features more than 100 bucks with traits rarely seen by hunters in the wild.
Like Thor, they all live behind an 8-foot-high fence. And for the right price — $3,000 to $30,000 — customers can bag the buck of their dreams. While clients are not guaranteed a shot at their favorite deer during a typical three- or four-day hunt, no one has left yet without a trophy, co-owner John Monson said.
"If you only have an afternoon, I'm going to put you up on hamburger hill and we'll get you a deer," he said.
Hunting preserves have been around for decades and are an integral part of the $7.9 billion deer farming industry. In states like Texas, where public hunting land is scarce, high-fence hunting is common. That's not the case in Minnesota, but the state's 339 family-owned deer and elk farms are emerging as a flash point in an increasingly acrimonious debate over who is to blame for spreading deadly chronic wasting disease (CWD) to Minnesota's wild deer herds.
Minnesota has gone from zero to 58 confirmed cases of CWD in wild deer in three years. While the origin of the largest outbreak, in Fillmore County, is not known, Minnesota's three other CWD outbreaks in wild deer have been linked by the Department of Natural Resources to infected deer farms. One, a hunting preserve and breeding facility in Crow Wing County, stayed in business for more than two years after the disease was discovered festering in its herd.
Partly because there is no live test or screen for CWD, state wildlife officials and mainstream deer hunting groups have pressed for more restrictions on deer farming as a key way to protect Minnesota's wild deer population. Deer farmers have successfully opposed many of those measures, including double fencing to prevent nose-to-nose contact of livestock deer and wild deer, and to reduce the possibility of livestock deer escaping from a farm, or wild deer wandering onto one.
"Legislators are not wanting to burden the business owner … but we have to do something," said state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, a deer hunter who has pushed for new regulations.
CWD has already raced across wide swaths of the U.S. and Canada, and now poses one of the biggest threats to the future of deer hunting in Minnesota, which contributes an estimated $700 million to the state's economy.
State wildlife officials worry that fewer people will take up deer hunting, depriving the state of license fees that help fund management of wild deer. Property owners fear that a CWD outbreak will lower rural land values. Small towns worry it could mean fewer hunters spending money in their bars, restaurants, hotels and stores.
"It's (CWD) destroying our deer hunting and will completely change our hunting heritage," said Bryan Todd, whose family has stalked whitetail deer in the blufflands of Olmsted County for three generations.
'Jurassic Park' vibe
Most of the wild, free-ranging whitetail bucks shot in Minnesota each deer season are yearling "spikes" and "forks" whose 4- to 8-inch antlers look nothing like the genetically turbocharged bucks raised on more than 100 Minnesota deer farms that specialize in selling animals for hunting. The state's reputation for undersized wild deer helps explain the allure of hunting preserves, said Steve Porter, a former Kittson County sheriff.
When Porter started deer farming in 1992, there were no hunting preserves in Minnesota. Today, he breeds trophy whitetails and sells hunts on 140 acres of private land.
Minnesota's state-regulated deer farms contain almost 10,000 deer and elk. About one-third of the farms produce trophy bucks for shooting or sell high-fence hunts. Customers include novice hunters, youth groups, people who like controlled settings and big-game enthusiasts who don't have the time or appetite for hunting wild deer.
"We're not some fringe group who are out there killing deer in fenced pens," Porter said.
Porter's herd is "closed," meaning he doesn't import deer from other farms in Minnesota or elsewhere. He breeds his own "monster" bucks like Typhoon, a whitetail that drew big crowds recently at Wisconsin Game Fest in Chippewa Falls.
In Typhoon's second year of growing antlers, his rack mushroomed into extraordinary dimensions — taller, wider and thicker than any antlers imaginable on a wild whitetail. The beams spider in all directions, 48 points in all.
Porter said his high-fence hunts almost always end with a taxidermy souvenir to hang at home or in a cabin. One of his clients told him she gets a "Jurassic Park" vibe when surrounded by so many massive bucks.
Traditional hunters of free-ranging wild deer have little good to say about the "canned" hunts that occur behind a fence.
"From a hunter's perspective, it's anathema of what hunting really is," said Terry Kreeger of Bovey, Minn., a former wildlife official for the state of Wyoming who has been fighting CWD in deer and elk for 25 years.
Greg Clark, 72, a lifelong hunter from Stillwater, begs to differ. Last year he gave up hunting "little deer" on land he owns in Washington County. To shoot a buck of a lifetime, he cruised the internet and dropped a "couple of thousand dollars" on a late-season discount deal at a 1,000-acre Wisconsin deer breeding and hunting complex endorsed by mixed martial arts champion Brock Lesnar.
Clark's biggest challenge was waiting for a buck with small enough antlers to fit his budget.
Was it sporting?
"More than I thought," he said.
CWD hot zones
DNR officials detected the state's first case of CWD in a wild deer in 2010. The doe had been living next to a poorly fenced elk farm north of Rochester where CWD had been detected.
Fearing a widespread outbreak, the agency enlisted hunters and federal sharpshooters to kill as many of the area's wild whitetails as they could. Over a few years the kill exceeded 4,000; none of the animals tested positive for the disease.
But random CWD surveillance in Fillmore County in 2016 detected a new outbreak with no known origin. Since then, the disease has spread in Fillmore, Houston, Winona and Crow Wing counties. The DNR said an infected deer farm near Winona and the one in Crow Wing contributed to the outbreaks.
Scrambling to arrest the scourge, state wildlife officials have imposed deer-feeding restrictions, liberal harvest regulations and/or mandatory CWD testing of hunter-killed deer in 24 counties. Deer farms in these hot zones also are restricted from moving their animals.
CWD tracking by the U.S. Geologic Survey shows that CWD has continually turned up at deer farms, and that the disease has infected wild and captive deer in 26 states and three Canadian provinces. In Minnesota, CWD-positive animals have been found on eight deer or elk farms since 2002.
Wisconsin, which likely has more CWD than anywhere else, has detected the disease in 5,250 wild whitetails since 2002, including 1,060 new cases last year alone. West of Madison, where wildlife researchers discovered the disease in 2002, CWD now afflicts about four of every 10 bucks. Though there's no cases of CWD infecting humans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns people not to eat meat from CWD-infected animals. Studies raise concerns that there may be a risk to people, the CDC has said.
Similar to mad cow disease in cattle, CWD infects deer with misshaped protein particles called prions, which ravage an animal's central nervous system. The microscopic matter is shed in saliva, urine, blood and feces, and can remain infectious in the environment for years.
Studies show CWD transmission can occur from nose-to-nose contact at fences. Healthy deer also can get the disease from contaminated feeding areas and other surfaces — including plants that grow in tainted soil.
Minnesota's two biggest deer hunting groups want more controls on the captive deer industry. They supported successful legislation this year that will require deer farmers to fortify fence gates to prevent escapes of tame deer and intrusions by wild deer.
Just this month, a bow hunter killed a 27-point buck on public land near Whitewater State Park in southeast Minnesota. The animal had escaped in April from an Olmsted County trophy deer breeding pen and its owner gave up looking for it. No CWD was detected in the buck.
CWD is widespread in Wisconsin
Chronic wasting disease, which infects animals in the deer family, has spread far faster in Wisconsin than it has in Minnesota. In some places, like central Minnesota's Crow Wing County, most of the positive cases have been found in captive animals, while in others, like Fillmore County, most cases have been seen in wild deer.
In the four-year period that ended last December, 247 deer escaped from Minnesota deer farms, state records show. Forty-six were never found.
"The deer farms have gotten a pass," said John Zanmiller, spokesman for Bluffland Whitetails Association. "They shouldn't be allowed to operate at the public's expense."
Dr. Linda Glaser, who oversees deer farm management for the state Board of Animal Health, said it's wrong to blame only deer farmers for the spread of CWD.
While it's undeniable that the movement of deer around the country by humans has contributed to the spread of CWD, Glaser said, that's as true for infected wild deer killed and moved by hunters as it is for deer farmers.
"If you move nothing, then you lower the risk," she said. "I don't know if that's a reasonable solution or not."
Shawn Schafer, spokesman for the North American Deer Farmers Association, said there's undue focus on the nation's 15,000 deer and elk farms and too much hype about the perils of CWD. He said it's more prevalent in wild herds than people admit and cries out for scientific breakthroughs on vaccines, genetic resistance and better testing methods.
"We're not the smoking gun that's spreading this disease," Schafer said. "We've got tunnel vision so bad we're truly missing the bigger picture."
Like many deer farmers, Porter believes his captive deer are more at risk of being infected with CWD by wild deer. He faults the DNR for blaming deer farmers while failing to ensure safe disposal of hunter-killed deer carcasses that can contaminate soil, plants and other surfaces.
"We are under attack," Porter said. "The biggest threat to our business isn't the disease, it's how the disease is being politicized."
Careful breeding at work
At midmorning on a late September day at Autumn Antlers, a young whitetail buck snoozes in a field of alfalfa not far from the lodge. The crop conceals the deer's body, but its antlers tower comically over the greenery. When a photographer gets within 100 feet, the whitetail rises and saunters away. Its head lists to one side from the weight of a lopsided rack loaded with clusters of bulbous tines.
The deer found at hunting preserves like Autumn Antlers don't happen accidentally. They are produced by carefully and intentionally mixing and managing bloodlines. It's a business where straws of semen for marquee bucks can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Monson, the resort's co-owner, said some customers who are at first turned off by such disproportionate antlers — obviously the product of artificial husbandry — change their minds when they are in the woods, waiting to shoot.
"A big one will walk by and they'll say 'I want that one,' " Monson said.
Because prices are set by antler size, part of a guide's job at a hunting preserve is to tell a customer how much money is at stake. At Autumn Antlers, all-inclusive, four-day hunts start at $3,250 and rise from there, depending on the size of a deer's rack. A buck with a rack measuring more than 200 inches of antlers, for example, sells for more than $10,000. Truly monstrous captive deer can command more than twice that amount.
High-fence clients don't need a state hunting license because the targets are considered livestock. They also don't have to abide by hunting seasons, with customers booking stays as early as late summer, when deer antlers reach the peak of their velvet stage.
By law, all kills must be tested for CWD.
Troy Hoekstra, Monson's business partner, said most first-time clients are surprised that the hunts feel natural. "(The deer) are not tied to a tree," he said, adding that Autumn Antlers draws a fair number of bow hunters who appreciate the reliable solitude.
Jessica Stroh of Williston, N.D., her husband and father belong to a family of deer hunters who were among Autumn Antlers' satisfied clients last year.
Stroh's dad bagged a magnificent red stag on day two of their three-day trip. The same afternoon, Stroh sat next to her husband in an enclosed deer stand, fascinated by the movements of so many bucks.
She was especially awed by a deer with an oversized but conventionally shaped rack.
"I said, 'Honey, take that one,' " she recalled. "I like to say I picked the one we wanted to bring home … It was quite exciting."
The DNR oversees hunting in Minnesota, but deer farms, which include hunting ranches, are licensed and inspected by the Board of Animal Health, the same agency that licenses and inspects commercial dog and cat, cattle, poultry and other animal breeders.
For years, the DNR has criticized the board, saying lax oversight of deer farms increased the risk of CWD outbreaks in wild deer. Last year, a Legislative Auditor report said the Board of Animal Health failed to enforce laws governing deer and elk farms, kept poor records and allowed a third of deer and elk producers to skip testing dead animals for CWD.
The audit also noted the board is stacked with industry insiders, including livestock producers and a livestock veterinarian.
"The movement of live deer and elk from one place to another may facilitate the spread of CWD," the auditor's report said. "There are some states with policies for managing farmed deer and elk that may better protect their animals from CWD."
The board's insider composition hasn't changed, but a follow-up audit early this year said staff was improving on tracking CWD testing, keeping closer tabs on herds and standardizing enforcement.
Then in January 2019 an emaciated, CWD-infected wild doe was found dead less than a mile from Trophy Woods Ranch, a Crow Wing County deer farm established in 2012.
The board had said Trophy Woods was low risk for CWD, which allowed it to both import and export live deer from other parts of the state and country. The ranch's star attraction was Mass XL, a mule deer with antlers so colossal that it spawned naming rights and a line of merchandise, including a deer food supplement that promised "explosive" antler growth.
CWD was first detected at Trophy Woods in 2016, the Board of Animal Health has said. But owner Kevin Schmidt resisted public pressure to shut down until the disease leaked out. State officials agree that the wild deer's infection probably came from the farm.
A few months later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture bought out Schmidt's herd for an undisclosed sum. The Star Tribune requested documents about the payment four months ago, but has yet to receive them from the USDA. Schmidt hasn't responded to interview requests.
When sharpshooters moved in to kill the herd of approximately 100, they found 13 decomposed deer that had not been reported to the state. The carcasses were too decayed to test, but of the 89 deer killed by sharpshooters, seven were positive for CWD. That brought Trophy Woods to a total of 16 CWD positive deer — by far the most of any herd in state history.
How Trophy Woods became infected is unknown. The property was previously used by area deer hunters as a carcass dumping site — potentially contaminating the ground with prions, the Board of Animal Health said in a report.
But the same report also found that Trophy Woods imported 149 animals from 20 different deer farms, including facilities in Wisconsin, where 27 CWD-infected deer farms have been detected, of which seven were still operating this past summer. As in Minnesota, they can't be forced to close.
"Possible sources of CWD considered in this investigation include importation of animals," the board's report said.
The report also said Trophy Woods unknowingly moved an infected deer to a Meeker County deer farm.
Trophy Woods' legacy, according to the Board of Animal Health, includes failure to report deer deaths and violations of testing protocol.
"It's a travesty, it really is," said Gary Henriksen, 70, of Maple Grove, who bought prime Crow Wing County hunting land before monster bucks roamed inside high fences at Trophy Woods.
Henriksen's 120 acres near Merrifield are now classified as part of a new CWD management zone. That means hunters, landowners and federal sharpshooters have been given the OK by the DNR to deeply reduce the local deer population in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease.
By the time the wild herd recovers from the onslaught, Henriksen fears he'll no longer have the legs to hunt with his grandchildren.
Like many deer hunters in the state, Henriksen did not know hunters were paying to shoot captive deer in Minnesota. High-fence hunting was something people did in Texas, he thought.
"Deer hunting is a tradition in our family that goes way back. This basically takes away my rifle," he said. "A lot of people don't know about this tiny little industry in Minnesota … but they need to start paying attention."
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213