St. Joseph, Minn. — Mike Beltink of St. Joseph loves to hunt. So much so that he and his relatives paid $38,000 for 40 acres near Staples, just for hunting.
"It's like having your own home," Beltink said. "Everybody wants to have a place to call their own. If you do a lot of hunting and you enjoy the outdoors, it's nice to have a place of your own."
Beltink, 43, has been hunting since he was 10 years old. There were plenty of open fields to hunt when he was younger. But rapid development has turned them into house-filled neighborhoods.
He's willing to pay $950 an acre for his own hunting land, because it's hard to get permission to hunt the open land that's left.
"When I was in high school, when we saw birds in a farm field we'd drive up the driveway and ask the farmer, and almost 90 percent of the time they'd say 'Yea you can hunt.' Now probably 90 percent of the time they say no, and slam the door in your face," Beltink said.
It's a situation hunters across the region have experienced. Some say it's because the link between hunters and landowners has been lost. Years ago almost everyone who hunted was connected to the land. They knew someone who farmed, or owned land. But others say that's not the only reason. They fault a few careless hunters for damaging the relationship.
Eric Hall considers himself a safe and seasoned hunter. The 27-year-old banker lives in Virginia and does most of his hunting on land owned by his family. He doesn't like to hunt on public land, especially when it's crowded. He wants to hunt private land, but finds it hard to get permission. Hall thinks that's because a lot of landowners have had bad experiences with hunters.
"It's certainly frustrating because I know that I'm a responsible hunter, but there are a lot of irresponsible hunters, so I understand when they request I don't go on their land," Hall said.
Talk with people who don't allow hunting on their land and you'll likely hear some of the same stories. They've had hunters leave garbage behind, damage their crops or even shoot their livestock.
Jay Eckle grew up on a farm near Eagle Bend. Eckle, 37, isn't a farmer himself, but he bought an old farm place adjacent to his family's land, and started an electronics business in the small town nearby. He doesn't paint all hunters with a broad brush. In fact, he's a serious hunter himself. But he knows there are bad hunters out there.
About seven years ago, he ran into one of the worst. A hunter who had permission to be on his land, took two shots at Eckle as he walked through a stand of corn.
"The first time, I didn't realize what was going on, I just stood still. And there's another shot, and that one's on the other side of me. We told him he had to leave, and he hasn't been back since. And that's when we decided, 'No more,'" Eckle said.
Eckle has this advice for those looking to hunt on private land.
"There's too many deer around, and there's a lot of farmers who are happy to have hunters -- as long as they know them and know what they're going to do," said Eckle. "Build a relationship with them. Don't just come on deer season opening morning and try to take over his land."
Eckle says a few parcels of land surrounding his family's farm have been sold to hunters.
It's an ironic twist -- hunters who had a hard time getting permission to hunt private land, buy their own land, so other people can't hunt on it.
The state is working to build better relationships between private landowners and hunters. The DNR says hunters should take Jay Eckel's advice and build a relationship with landowners. That's as easy as talking to a landowner months before the season starts. Hunters could even offer to do some chores on a farm. And in many cases, money or other gifts change hands for the privilege to hunt private land.
If all else fails, the DNR says there are millions of acres of public land in the region that many hunters overlook. People can hunt in state forests, wildlife management areas, and even some county and school lands.
The DNR expects a good year for deer hunters in Minnesota. Last year 300,000 deer were killed. State wildlife experts say this year's total probably won't be as high.
The DNR also says it will take samples from 11,000 deer for chronic wasting disease. The fatal brain disease hasn't been found in any wild deer in Minnesota after two years of statewide testing. This year there's an easier way to test for the disease. In the past the DNR needed the whole head of the deer, now only the lymph nodes are required for testing.