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Comfortable in the hot seat | "Feeding" carries responsibilities
To bait, or not to bait – it's a wedge issue with the potential to divide hunters from each other and from nonhunting neighbors.
Those who don't hunt or follow the sporting press may not know of this hot-button hunting issue. "Baiting" is the practice of placing piles of foods that deer favor near hunting blinds and stands. Hunters who bait hope to draw-in deer within close shooting range. By baiting deer over a period of time, they expect to improve their chances of getting a closer shot during legal hunting seasons. State law limits the volume, content, location and times when baits can be legally placed for white-tailed deer and black bear, but some hunters and nonhunters don't view baiting as "fair chase." They consider the practice unethical and believe hunting should a test a human's ability to read the landscape, match the animal's instincts and habits, and pursue game stealthily and skillfully.
"Feeding" is different, as the aim is just to watch wildlife by providing supplements to natural foods. State law does not regulate or limit the foods, locations or timing when wildlife feeding can occur.
Both practices can change wildlife's normal habits and both practices are under scrutiny.
The issue has split hunters into many factions. One group holds that Wisconsin has allowed baiting for black bear and the practice has recently been adapted for white-tailed deer. Others approve of baiting bear because they are much more difficult to find, but view deer baiting with little enthusiasm. Some would hold that baiting is acceptable for bowhunters who must get much closer to their quarry to assure clean kills, but isn't warranted for gun hunters. Some of the baiters think the debate is more about class warfare: Those who can afford to buy private hunting lands just have their "bait" growing on stalks in food plots, while the "masses" are just trying to give themselves an edge on public hunting grounds. A much larger percentage of the public doesn't care about baiting at all. People who like to feed deer in their back yard don't want the bait debate to cut them off from the pleasure of viewing nearby deer.
Artificial feeding and baiting raises a host of technical questions: How do baiting and feeding affect the deer herd? Does the practice affect other wildlife and domestic animals? Who benefits economically from baiting? How does the practice change agriculture? And what are the consequences for other forms of outdoor recreation?
Two people aiming to sort out these issues are Jerry Aulik of Deerbrook in Langlade County and Dave Nowak of Fredonia in Ozaukee County. They volunteered to lead the Baiting and Feeding Study Group of the Deer 2000 and Beyond project – a grassroots project led by the Conservation Congress to examine current policies of managing deer.
Deer 2000 study groups will forward recommendations by next summer, but the Baiting and Feeding group is under the gun to forward recommendations to the State Assembly Natural Resources Committee by January. Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud, who chairs the committee, tabled legislation that would have banned deer baiting in Wisconsin pending some fresh ideas from the study group and the Department of Natural Resources.
Aulik and Nowak have made a long-term commitment to guide the process. Jerry Aulik has managed 480-acres of hunting land and a three-acre game farm for more than 20 years. He feeds, watches, hunts and videotapes deer regularly. Aulik has served on the Conservation Congress Big Game Committee for 12 years and also serves on the Executive Committee. Nowak hunts extensively statewide, has served on the Conservation Congress for 11 years and on the Big Game Committee for six years. He works as the Parks Director for Ozaukee County.
Aulik got involved in the Deer 2000 and Beyond study because so many of his friends were asking what was happening statewide with deer feeding and baiting.
"A lot of people have different opinions about the ethics of baiting," Aulik says, "and I can see all sides of that debate. It's hard to separate these issues. My hunting ethics could be totally different from someone else's, but they are both valid. We have not found anything written in stone that says 'you have to hunt this way or you can't hunt over bait.' We're trying to separate the herd management issues in those statements, and it's hard.
"It's interesting how positions and issues change as we keep talking about baiting," Aulik notes. "When we start talking, strong feelings about whether baiting is ethical is one of the first issues that comes out. However, as we keep talking with each other, some hunters who were strongly against baiting begin to see that it isn't so much a matter of whether the practice is right or wrong, it's just a choice that people make for a variety of reasons. We're hearing from some people who are strongly anti-baiting that they want the ethics part of the discussion left out or minimized in the final recommendations because they realize it's not the main issue."
The Baiting and Feeding Study Group thought that northern forests had a greater concentration of both baiting and feeding than the farms and fields of southern Wisconsin. "People told us otherwise," Aulik said. "They told us there is more recreational feeding in the south, but supplemental feeding remains more of a northern Wisconsin practice."
"Recreational feeding" consists of stocking a deer feeder in a back yard or scattering a small amount of corn outside a window so people can watch a couple of deer from their house. "Supplemental feeding" happens on a much larger scale. Pickup loads of corn or culled potatoes may be dumped during hard winter weather to feed a deer herd. The amount of food people spread depends on what feeds are available and how healthy they gauge the herd is.
Artificial feeding is popular, but discouraged. DNR wildlife biologists generally recommend against feeding deer because most of the herd can't travel to the feed, artificial feeding causes deer to concentrate, the practice is expensive and most people do not supply deer food mixes that provide a balanced, digestible diet.
Many people feed straight corn or large quantities of other culled foods like apples, pumpkins or hay. A pure corn diet, high in starch, can cause high acidity in the deer's rumen stomach, that can kill the bacteria deer need to digest their food. Straight hay diets are also a poor feed choice in the winter. As food supplies dwindle, deer are less able to digest alfalfa fiber. Formulated pellets with a mix of corn, alfalfa, oats, soybeans, molasses, vitamins and minerals are available at some feed mills, but are more expensive. Moreover, once you start to feed, feeders must be continually stocked right through to snow melt, as the animals become more dependent on the food supply.
"We feed," says Aulik, "but I sure see some problems with the practice. More and more young does are bred late in the year. Fawns may be born in late July or even August. These animals don't grow full coats or fill out enough to ride out the cold, and it's a cruel truth to say that they shouldn't survive the winter, yet artificial feeding can sometimes pull them through to spring, which only adds to the population problems."
Nowak also notes the lack of clear definitions distinguishing baiting and feeding. He thinks the study group could help DNR formulate guidelines describing what you can use, how often and where the public can feed deer.
Among the many issues the study group is grappling with, the most serious is the potential for disease spread. Since the 1930s wildlife biologists have been concerned that artificial feeding and baiting can change the normal feeding patterns, behavior and migrations of wild animals, particularly in winter when natural food supplies dwindle or are buried under ice and snow. As deer concentrate around a bait pile or feeding station, the animals could spread disease through nose-to-nose contact, sneezing, breathing, salivating, urinating and defecating on feed that may be eaten or inhaled by other animals.
In Wisconsin, the current concern is bovine tuberculosis, a contagious killer that spreads as a bacterium among deer, elk and wild scavengers like coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks and opossum. Bovine TB could also infect goats, dairy cows and beef cattle. An outbreak threatens both animal health and the sale of agricultural products from "infected" states. Though there has never been a documented case of bovine TB in Wisconsin whitetails, two captive herds of elk tested positive without showing signs of active disease. Those animals were sacrificed and the areas they roamed remain fallow.
The disease has been found in deer herds in pockets of northeastern Michigan, and efforts to isolate the disease in both wild and domestic herds have been extremely costly.
Veterinarians who addressed the study group said feeding and baiting are clearly factors in disease spread. There are large concentrations of deer in five counties of northeastern Michigan and bovine TB spread very rapidly there. The fewer deer there are, the less chance of disease spread. "We're real aware that disease control is a big issue for the Wisconsin economy and involves a lot more than just hunters," Aulik said. "As a state, we are very concerned about the dairy and cattle industry. We don't want cattle transmitting disease to deer or the deer spreading disease to them because of the costs of containing diseases. We don't want to endanger a multi-billion dollar dairy industry."
Though many other contagious diseases have been isolated in white-tailed deer, the only other outbreaks in wild free-ranging populations in recent years were bovine brucellosis in Wyoming elk and chronic wasting disease in Colorado deer and elk. Neither was attributed to baited food supplies. Still the threat is very real given our economic dependence on dairy and cattle agriculture. The State Veterinarian, Dr. Siroky, and Dr. Howard Cook, who also addressed the study group, haven't found the diseases in domestic herds or in the free-ranging animals that concern conservationists, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen given the herd size and deer habits.
"This is a bigger issue than bait piles or dumped feed," Aulik added. "Growing food plots does the same thing creating a potential for disease spread. If you grow 15 acres of corn and let it stand for the winter, that's just supplemental feeding on a stalk. Disease spread might not be as rapid as in a winter deer yard, but the deer are licking each other constantly, and have nose-to-nose contact. They would likely transmit the disease if it were there.
"Naturally, we hear discussions from both sides describing how food plots are the same or different from 'feeding,' " Aulik said. "But if you are raising a food plot so you can hunt over it, I see that as the same idea as hunting over a pile of bait corn."
Maybe food plots are grown for the same reason, but wildlife biologists don't conclude these plots pose the same potential for spreading disease. Steve Schmitt, veterinarian with the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources compared the disease potential in food plots and bait piles. Food plots attract deer to a larger area than does a bait pile. There's less nose-to-nose contact in a food plot. Once the food is eaten, no more is grown until the next year. Bait piles, on the other hand, can be replenished daily for months." In my opinion, the risk of transmitting disease is greater from bait piles or feed piles than from food plots. In fact, in Michigan we recommend food plots in the bovine TB area where it is illegal to feed or bait deer," Schmitt said.
Deer 2000 is showing how baiting can help reduce the herd size. "Down here in southeastern Wisconsin we find that a lot of private lands are posted and closed to hunting," Dave Nowak said. "Those properties almost become deer refuges. The populations grow tremendously and those deer are eating neighboring crops, plants and ornamental shrubs. The baiters will place feed near the edges of these lands to see if they can draw some of those deer out. It can be an effective tool.
"It's only a little different up north. For instance, we heard people say that in Marinette County 69 percent of landowners were out-of-county residents who often don't want other people hunting their land. Some of the owners have just posted the land, others may come up with their buddies for opening weekend, hunt and then leave. These deer will learn that they can find refuge in those areas and people will leave them alone. So some of the locals have resorted to baiting areas near that property fringe to try and draw those animals off the land. There is no other way of drawing them out or moving them. The days of big deer drives are over, but baiting can become a way to move some of the large herd off a growing amount of refuge-like land.
"There's also a case to be made that bowhunters can improve their chance of bringing a deer within range by baiting. Certainly anyone who has practiced with their equipment should be able to take cleaner shots from the 15 yards or so that are typical when baiting," Nowak said. "We could get quicker, safer kills and avoid crippling from people taking more questionable shots."
"In some situations, the public is telling us that baiting can produce a safer hunt," Aulik said. "We're hearing people say that interest in bowhunting would drop considerably without baiting and the kill would drop because hunters would be shooting deer from farther away. Baiting definitely makes for a safer hunt with rifle hunting, where you are shooting down from an elevated stand. It also has reduced the practice of deer drives – a dangerous situation in which a group of hunters walk in a line through the woods and the deer move toward shooters. The practice puts drivers closer to the line of fire, which is very unsafe."
Bear hunters are watching the deer debate closely. They sense if baiting practices are taken away from deer hunters, bear hunters are next. And then perhaps, fishing. "After all," Aulik says, "we call it baiting when you put a worm on a hook and you put bait on, near or under a trap. People bait almost any kind of wildlife, to draw in geese or see songbirds or even see butterflies. You are enticing that animal to come closer, whether you want to harvest it or just see it."
Some who like to hunt without bait complain that baiters on public lands are drawing the deer towards areas they have baited. Not only that, but the baiter then gets territorial. He thinks that because he has spent the time and money baiting a public property that it's "his" area and doesn't want anybody around him. "That's not right," Aulik said. "I feel for the guy who wants to go and hunt public land. He has an equal right to be there, whether the baiter wants him there or not. But I see the baiter's position too. He's spent time finding a good spot and setting up for the hunt. I think it's the same argument you hear from someone who has put up a tree stand on public land along a deer runway and doesn't want anyone else around. It's a similar situation, but the fact remains that everyone has a right to these public lands."
"People who bait public land tend to think they now get to hunt that area exclusively, and of course that isn't right," Nowak said. "But that's what goes on in the woods today. It gets territorial."
Nowak said another important issue is enforcement. Is our warden service going to have the manpower, the time to enforce baiting and feeding laws, and put forth guidelines that are more cut-and-dried? Fewer people would have bad opinions about baiting if the limits were more uniform and better understood. For instance, the quantity of bait a person can place is set at ten gallons, but it's really not clear about how wide an area that can be spread on. If a person can spread bait within 50 feet of a stand, can he spread it within 100 feet? "People don't want to inadvertently break the law and the wardens have a lot of discretion in interpreting this practice," Nowak said.
And there are inconsistencies in the baiting versus feeding laws. You can feed year-round without limit. What's happening is that people are putting out 500 pounds of feed close to a season, then somebody who may not know a feed pile is nearby can come by and set up a stand or might even put a bait pile out just before the season opens. Those people who do not know that someone else has been putting out feed may be charged with hunting over an area that has much too much bait even if they haven't baited. Clearly, more consistent guidelines would help, Nowak said.
He notes there are intentional abuses as well: A lot of people will feed near their cabin and shoot right from the building. The wardens tell us they're making more cabin hunting cases these days.
The study group is now finishing its recommendations for the Conservation Congress Executive Committee and the Natural Resources Board.
"Our project is called Deer 2000 and Beyond," Aulik said. "We're looking ahead. We'll probably make some changes now and some others down the line. I'm hoping that we can make some right recommendations. We'll have to make some compromises, and we will be able to fine tune in the future if necessary. We don't know the total answer. We are still listening to both sides, and we're committed to this issue. We're not backing off until it's finished."
David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine