A dispute over a hunting spot became frightening in a hurry when a man sabotaged another hunter's treestand in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
The Michigan Department of Natural resources announced that 23-year-old Thomas Steele III intentionally cut the straps of another hunter's treestand in October 2020, causing the man to fall 15 to 20 feet and sustain injuries in the incident. Steele took a plea deal and pleaded guilty in Marquette County Circuit court to two misdemeanors in the case, one for hunter harassment and another for aggravated assault.
He is currently serving 60 days in Marquette County Jail and will be on probation for a year once released. Steele also lost his hunting privileges in Michigan for an "undetermined amount of time." However, the DNR noted in a press release that he will lose hunting rights in other states under the Interstate Wildlife Violator's Compact. He will also be required to pay medical bills of the victim in the incident.
The case against Steele unfolded in October of 2020 on state-owned land in Marquette County. According to the DNR, Steele was a student at Northern Michigan University at the time. He was later suspended from the school and was on the verge of being suspended before withdrawing.
In this hunter harassment case, the first sign of trouble happened when another unnamed hunter found a note from Steele on his trail camera in which Steele claimed the other hunter was set up in his spot. The hunter discovered Steele had deleted all photos from the camera. Calling a number attached to the note, the hunter apologized to Steele, saying he didn't know someone else was hunting the area.
"Over the phone, Steele insisted that the hunter stay off the land. Eventually the hunter lost patience and told Steele he would stay away," the DNR's press release states.
Of course, on state land no one can claim a spot exclusively. In fact, Michigan's laws allow any treestand or blind left on state property unoccupied to be used by any other hunter who comes across it.
After the phone call, a few weeks passed before the other hunter returned to his treestand. His setup looked to be untouched. However, when the hunter stepped onto his treestand, it gave way and he fell an estimated 15 to 20 feet to the ground, landing on his feet.
According to the DNR, the hunter injured his back and ankle in the incident. His treestand did not fall completely out of the tree. It was left dangling approximately eight feet up the tree after the fall. The hunter called 911 to report the incident when he got home. He also inspected his trail camera's memory card only to find the photos had been deleted from it for a second time.
It was at this time that DNR officer Josh Boudreaux started an investigation and took a statement from the injured hunter. A few more weeks passed before the hunter returned and used new straps to reset his stand. However, the DNR says that Steele was using a trail camera to spy on activity at the stand. The day after fixing his stand, Steele sent a text message to the hunter which read:
"Are we going to work something out for this spot or what? I got a picture of you yesterday going in there with climbing sticks. Just not gonna respect I was there first?"
By this point, Officer Boudreaux and another officer, John Kamps were monitoring the victim's treestand and captured their own images of Steele cutting the straps on the victim's treestand for a second time. When the DNR went out and inspected the treestand, they discovered the dangerous trap that had been left behind.
"The straps were cut in such a way that they would support the weight of the tree stand but would break as soon as additional weight was applied to them, having a trap door effect," Boudreaux said in the press release. "The victim would have fallen 15 to 20 feet to the ground."
This was enough for the investigators to get a search warrant and confiscate Steele's trail camera. Steele mistakenly believed his victim had stolen the camera and began disparaging the other hunter on social media. Authorities say Steele also left threatening voicemails for the hunter.
Eventually Kamps and Boudreaux met with Steele after he called 911 to report his missing trail camera. Public safety officers from NMU were also involved. It was during this meeting that Steele confessed to sabotaging the other hunter's treestand. Steele was officially charged in 2021.
While many hunters probably expect hunter harassment laws to be targeted towards protecting sportsmen and women from anti-hunters, many of the calls to state wildlife agencies every year are disputes between hunters. The DNR wants to use this incident to educate on the types of behaviors that won't be tolerated under the state's harassment laws.
"Hunter harassment is real and taken very seriously," Michigan DNR Chief Dave Shaw said in the press release. "Most hunters respect the land and each other and take pride in an ethical hunt."
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