Baiting congregates deer groups where diseases may spread through contact with saliva, urine and feces at the feeding sites.
The great de-bait
Baiting and feeding draw deer closer, but the practices continue to increase disease risks and change hunters' habits, while complicating deer management and driving wedges between hunters, state agriculture and the nonhunting public.
A young hunter finds a promising hunting spot on public land within the Chequamegon National Forest and sets up. Along comes an older hunter who orders the youngster to leave the area because he is too close to the older hunter's bait pile. The older hunter has paid somebody else to bait the site before he arrived. The older hunter tells the younger hunter to compensate him for the money spent to bait the site if he does not leave. The younger hunter contacts his own hunting party who are all upset. They tell the older hunter his actions are wrong. In the older hunter's presence, they contact the local conservation warden via cell phone. The older hunter decides to leave before the warden arrives. The incident causes ill feelings and a negative hunting experience for all, according to the warden who documented this case during the 2006 season.
Baiting and feeding deer has drawn a lot of attention in recent years from the hunting public and resource managers alike. Both practices have the same aim: to attract wildlife to a specific area. Although many people enjoy drawing wildlife closer, the practice has several negative consequences for deer, people and the environment.
Both deer feeding and deer baiting were once legal statewide. Feeding deer was a strong tradition near many of the mom-and-pop Northwoods resorts and restaurants to delight customers who could watch deer out the windows as both patrons and whitetails dined. Baiting for deer hunting started to pick up in the mid to late 1980s to draw deer near established stands.
After the discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Wisconsin in late February 2002, the DNR implemented a statewide ban on baiting and feeding deer. Months later in 2003, the State Legislature redefined the Department of Natural Resources' authority to regulate baiting and feeding. Lawmakers lifted the baiting ban in much of the state, but required that feeding and baiting bans continue in counties where a positive case of CWD or bovine tuberculosis (TB) was found in a wild or captive animal, plus adjacent counties within a 10-mile radius of a confirmed positive case. Currently, deer feeding and baiting is banned in 26 counties. In 2004-2005, a law that had limited deer baiting to 10 gallons per site was lowered to a two-gallon limit in counties where baiting and feeding was still allowed. Thereafter, a complex series of detailed rules and laws distinguished "baiting" for hunting purposes from recreational "feeding" by those who just want to watch deer.
States across the nation take different stances on baiting for hunting deer. The practice is currently banned in 25 states; 12 states, including Wisconsin, have partial restrictions; and 13 states have no restrictions. Our neighboring states of Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois all have statewide bans on baiting deer for hunting, and Michigan has a more restrictive position banning both baiting and feeding deer throughout the Lower Peninsula after recently discovering CWD in a captive deer farm.
National attitudes and restrictions on wildlife feeding for nonhunting purposes are more lax.
Not all forms of artificial feeding are restricted. Hunting over food plots or unharvested portions of agricultural fields are not legally defined as baiting or feeding. Some argue this is no different than hunting over bait, but there is one big difference: baiting and feeding concentrate deer on a food source within a much smaller area, while planted plots and farm fields spread the food source over a larger landscape.
The concerns are that food piles cause deer to artificially concentrate within a small area where they are much more likely to salivate on the food or come into contact with feces, urine or other bodily fluids as deer feed. Several scientific studies have shown clear evidence that such exchanges increase the risk of transmitting diseases such as CWD or TB.
In nature, wild deer occasionally make direct and indirect contacts with fluids from other deer within their family groups. However, the frequency of these contacts among unrelated deer is much greater at bait or feed piles, which is why deer baiting and feeding is banned in counties where CWD or TB have been detected in wild and captive deer and elk herds. The bans typically extend to adjacent counties in an effort to reduce the potential of spreading these contagious diseases. TB has been detected in Michigan and Minnesota. Pockets of CWD infections in wild deer have been found in several states including northern Illinois and wider areas of southern Wisconsin.
The risk of further spread led DNR Secretary Matt Frank to ask deer hunters and recreational deer feeders to refrain from baiting and feeding deer in 2008. "While [these practices are] currently legal in areas outside of the CWD zone, we asked all hunters and citizens last year to refrain from baiting and feeding deer. It's a cost-effective way to substantially reduce the risks of spreading disease in Wisconsin's deer herd."
Sixteen groups including the Conservation Congress, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation (WWF), the Department of Agriculture, the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and the Wisconsin County Forest Association also support a statewide moratorium on the practice during the fall and winter hunting seasons.
"We've been mainly focusing on animal health issues," says George Meyer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, in explaining his organization's call for statewide bans on deer baiting and feeding since April 2007."
"This is serious business and has cost Michigan, Minnesota and their farmers millions of dollars," Meyer says. "When some hunters' preferences for baiting cause potential financial damage to their neighbors, the whole equation changes," Meyer says.
"Baiting and feeding of deer threatens not only the health of our deer population, but our dairy and forestry industries as well, increasing the risk of TB being transferred from deer to dairy cows," adds Secretary Frank. "And an artificially high deer population threatens natural regeneration of our forests with potential [consequences] for our forest and wood products economy," Frank says.
Wisconsin also allows baiting of black bears for hunting purposes, provided baiters and hunters adhere to conditions in regulations and permits. Bear baits must be concealed in hollow logs or holes with covers that prevent access by deer or other wildlife. To date, no one is aware of disease transmission between bears at such sites. The practice of baiting for bear hunting is considered effective and necessary.
Other wildlife species also are fed. Thousands of people put up feeders in hopes of attracting songbirds and small mammals, like squirrels, within viewing distance of their windows. However, if a food source such as a bird feeder is being visited by deer in a county where feeding is banned, the feeder must be raised or placed out of the reach of deer.
Illegal use of deer bait has been the most frequent violation of state wildlife conservation laws for the last five years and has increased each year, according to DNR law enforcement reports. However, in 17 of the 19 counties of south central and southeastern Wisconsin where baiting and feeding are illegal, such citations are significantly less common – fewer than 11 percent of the statewide total, even though these are the most populous Wisconsin counties.
Though many people believe that more deer will be harvested when baited, Wisconsin surveys from the 1990s show that overall hunting harvest rates are very similar between baiters and non-baiters during the gun season. Deer hunting harvest rates are only slightly greater for archers who bait compared to those who don't. But baiting and feeding clearly change deer habits and behavior. Hunters who don't bait often report seeing fewer deer once their neighbors begin to bait. It's a vicious cycle that spreads discontent. According to warden reports, many hunters who are cited for illegal use of bait claim they only started the practice to compete for animals when neighboring properties started baiting.
Marlin Laidlaw, who serves on the Wisconsin Conservation Congress' Big Game Study Committee, recalls speaking with some hunters who had baited heavily on lands they owned in Buffalo County.
"When the moratorium on baiting and feeding was passed in 2002, they were very unhappy," Laidlaw says. "After that season I saw them again and this was their response: 'We will never bait again. We saw twice as many deer and bigger bucks as when we baited.' They continue to keep that promise and haven't baited since," Laidlaw says. They clearly suggest that deer movements increased between properties during hunting hours because of the baiting ban.
When deer are being fed by humans, the animals tend to restrict their home range because they do not have to spend as much time searching for food. Deer that are fed on one parcel become less mobile and are less likely to travel while searching for food.
Baiting and feeding also promote nocturnal activity by deer. Deer that do not have to spend as much time and energy searching for food will often restrict their movements to nighttime. This is why many hunters find signs that deer ate from their baited sites overnight and are less frequently seen during shooting hours. Wade Jeske, hunter educator and archery safety instructor from Oconto Falls agrees. "It's a matter of numbers," he says. "Why would a deer spend 18 hours a day browsing when in 18 minutes under cover of darkness it can eat as many calories from a corn pile? You've just got less time to interact with that animal during legal hunting hours," Jeske adds.
Some people have been caught violating hunting laws in several ways – shining deer at night from their cabins, using feeding stations as a bait pile, and firing shots from the dwelling after hunting hours.
More and more hunters believe baiting violates the fair chase ethic and detracts from the traditional values of deer hunting. Others say they bait because they have less time to scout for deer sign walking around their woods.
Peter Mancl has hunted Buffalo County for about 30 years. He does not bait, but has noticed this increasing trend in Buffalo County. "Bottom line & scouting hunting land for deer sign and stand locations is as much fun as the hunting part, especially if your decision on where to place your stand proves fruitful. To me, that determines the skill of a hunter," he says.
Jim Richardson of Merrill has noted many changes in hunting rules and traditions over the years; both good and bad. "I'm sure that many will argue about the amount of time spent learning the deer's patterns is unchanged, but when you throw out a bucket of feed, your intent is to change the habits of wildlife to your advantage," Richardson says. "What appears to be happening, however, is a change that affects more than just you. It affects those people hunting around you as well, and that creates another issue altogether.
Active hunters are ahead of their elected representatives in advocating that it's time to reinstate state bans of baiting and feeding. Last spring when the Conservation Congress advisory hearings asked, "Do you favor action of the Wisconsin State Legislature to ban deer feeding and baiting statewide?" a majority of attendees voted in favor of a ban. On a county basis, 43 counties supported a ban, 25 counties were not in favor, and four counties were neutral.
Conservation wardens note hunters tell them they have started baiting only because their neighbors are doing it. This has led to a competition for who can attract the most deer, which often results in baiting violations due to a gross excess of the two-gallon limits. In some cases, wardens have found locations where deer bait was dumped by the truckload to attract deer. Wardens have also discovered instances where landowners fed deer to hold them on their property where hunters would not have access to them.
Some hunters, like the one in the incident that opened this story, believe baiting can give them an edge when hunting public lands, but they get frustrated when other hunters want access to that same area. Baiting sparks friction and competition between hunting groups. Warden Matt Meade of Peshtigo recalls a heated conversation two years ago with a hunter whom he was citing for hunting over too much bait. The hunter said he was being picked on. He said he was baiting more heavily on public hunting grounds because he firmly believed he had to draw deer from adjoining private lands that he believed were not as regularly checked. He was convinced people on adjoining private lands were placing both more bait piles and larger bait piles. Meade sees baiting as a tension area and a barrier between those hunting on public lands and those on private property.
The unnatural addition of nutrients encourages higher deer numbers, even though deer are already significantly above population goals throughout most of the state. Feeding deer throughout the winter can increase survival rates and well-fed does are more likely to bear more fawns in the spring. An overabundance of deer on the landscape above the population goals brings increased agricultural damage, ecological damage and a greater need for herd control tools that are unpopular with many hunters.
Deer have evolved and survived long before human settlement in North America. The species has prevailed without the aid of agriculture, bait or feed, even through the harshest of winters.
Over the years, many grain operations have found opportunity in packaging and selling their products to deer hunters and feeders. Each fall, stacks of "deer corn," apples, carrots, pumpkins and spuds line the roadsides and sidewalks at convenience stores to draw in the people who would feed deer. We know that the risks of disease transmission make the profits from these short-term sales seem paltry. A stable footprint of the Wisconsin economy includes its $34 billion livestock industry. If TB were found in Wisconsin's wild deer herd, it would trigger an estimated $1.87 million in annual testing costs alone for farmers to continue exporting cattle. Larger deer populations pumped up by supplemental food also lead to larger herds that can cause crop damage every year. In 2007, Wisconsin paid more than $1.6 million in appraised crop damage losses to those enrolled in the Wildlife Damage and Abatement Claims program.
Baiting and feeding also jeopardize Wisconsin's forests and the $22 billion forest products industry. Deer overpopulation nips back natural tree regeneration and decreases the native undergrowth in our forests and fields. This creates a trickle-down effect within our forest ecosystems that changes the makeup of native plants and forests that support native flora, forest composition, and losses of the birds and mammals that depend on certain plant species.
Deer overpopulation and habit changes brought on by baiting and feeding can increase the likelihood of deer-vehicle collisions. Every year, deer-vehicle collisions result in hundreds of injuries and, tragically, some deaths to motorists. Deer-vehicle collisions cause millions of dollars in personal property damages. As deer habituate in residential areas near feed piles, they are more likely to cross roads and get hit by vehicles in unexpected places near urban areas as well as in the countryside.
A 2007 law requires people to cease baiting and feeding activities for at least 30 days if bear or elk are known to be visiting the food sites. Since that time, there has been a noticeable decline in the frequency of elk-vehicle collisions in the Clam Lake area.
The science is clear that for herd health, economic health and disease control, restoring a statewide ban on deer feeding and baiting is warranted. Baiting and feeding are not necessary for herd survival, do not increase the overall harvest and come with some very real, very large risks.
Jason Fleener is the Assistant Deer and Elk Ecologist with DNR's Bureau of Wildlife Management.
For more baiting and feeding information, visit Baiting and Feeding Regulations.