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Chopped aspens at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris Jussila/USFWS.

Chopped aspens at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris Jussila/USFWS.

Concerned citizen helps close tree chopping caper in Minnesota

This last spring, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge staff received numerous complaints about tree chopping. Just off of Sherburne County Road 1, between 273rd and 277th Avenues, someone was chopping trees along the St. Francis River fishing access and canoe launch trail.

Girdled oak tree at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris Jussila/USFWS.
Girdled oak tree at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chris Jussila/USFWS.

On April 7, 2016 a federal wildlife officer was alerted, and he started investigating. Right away, he saw a wooden parking lot bollard axed off, and small maple tree down on the cable barrier. He walked the trail, and found more than 70 trees chopped down. While 60 of those were small aspens, there were large oaks, maples, and other trees felled as well.  What was really odd, the officer found a three foot-wide oak tree girdled, with two axes still leaning on that tree.

“I’ve been investigating natural resource crimes for more than 25 years and I’ve never seen such an egregious effort towards trees. It was obvious that whomever did this spent a lot of time doing it,” said Regional Law Enforcement Chief Chris Jussila.

A lot of resource crimes go unnoticed, but this crime had witnesses. In this case, a tip became very valuable later. One of those tips came from a Zimmerman resident who reported seeing an older pick-up in the area, but only had a color and no license plate. While this wasn’t much for the officer to go on at first, he put investigative tools into place.

As April moved into May and the case remained unsolved, things started to develop. The same resident noticed the vehicle again in a Zimmerman neighborhood and was able to provide the officer with more information including a license plate number and the address where it was parked.

This new information led the officer quickly to four local young adult males, all of whom were honest, and quickly confessed to causing the damage.
What was their reasoning for their arduous effort? All of them said anger management, release of energy, and to get some exercise. One of the suspects also said they were having a contest to see who could fell a tree on a last swing. The officer issued all of the young men tickets, with large fines, which they quickly paid.

Visitors at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, and the other 11 national wildlife refuges in Minnesota, help us keep refuges free from poaching and other illegal activities. Whether you are hunting, angling, birding, or out for an afternoon walk at a refuge, you can help us stop wildlife crime.

If you witness any resource violations at a national wildlife refuge in Minnesota, make a report through the Minnesota State Patrol at 651-582-1292.

If you believe you have observed or have information on past resource violations, you can report what you witnessed through our national line at 1-844-FWS-TIPS (1-844-397-8477). Always, if you have an emergency or dangerous situation, you should always dial 911.

By Chris Jussila
Regional Office - National Wildlife Refuge System

Last updated: September 14, 2017