Deer Baiting and Feeding Issues in Wisconsin
Mark A. Toso
February 18, 2002
Using bait to hunt deer is a very hot topic these days. Arguments are waged everyday between friends, family and neighbors. This paper is an attempt to consolidate and clarify all the issues involved with deer baiting. Although some will perceive this paper as biased, it was not intended to be so. The fact is there is very little scientific data to support deer baiting. And this is not from a lack of effort. This is glaringly illustrated by the fact that there is a virtual cornucopia of published information on just about any method for hunting deer, except for baiting.
Ethics are often perceived as the principle objection to deer baiting. In reality there are many who oppose deer baiting for other reasons entirely. In fact, quite a few people who use bait are opposed to the method. Many continue to bait because they feel the need to because others around them are baiting. Others do so just because it’s legal. These people hold no moral objection to deer baiting, but oppose baiting none the less. Deer baiting involves so many other issues that ethics are not critical to this discussion. As it is with so many other topics hunting ethics are as varied as people themselves. Besides, as is often the case arguing over ethics is usually an act of futility.
Effect on Movement and Behavior Patterns
To say that baiting alters deer behavior is, as they say, stating the obvious. After all the purpose of baiting is to attract deer to an area, thus altering their normal behavior. Deer baiting is effective in seeing and harvesting deer - up to a point. Under conditions of low deer densities, and even more important low hunter densities deer baiting can be effective. However, there is a critical point that virtually all states that allow baiting have already crossed where baiting becomes counterproductive. For example, in Wisconsin a conservative estimate is that 20% of the gun deer hunters bait. If those hunters only put out 5 gallons of corn (half the legal limit) they would put out 4.6 million pounds of corn. This is enough to completely feed over 1.5 million deer. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that this would have a profound affect on deer behavior (1).
Studies of hunter success rates in Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas and Mississippi indicate that there is no distinct advantage to hunting with, or without bait (2, 3, 4). Neglected, until recently, was the effect baiting had on overall deer hunting success rates. Since deer spend more time feeding than any other activity it seems logical that feeding deer would make them less active, and less visible to hunters. This seems especially rational when you consider the enormous amount of bait involved. In addition, feeding deer corn and other high carbohydrate foods in non-agricultural areas can cause them digestive problems that would also tend to make them less active. This is due to a condition called lactic acidosis and is commonly seen each year in the Midwest. In some cases, this has been known to kill deer (5).
There is overwhelming evidence that baiting and feeding deer was a major factor in the bovine tuberculosis (TB) outbreak in Michigan deer and cattle (6). It was for this reason that Michigan reacted by restricting baiting and feeding in the endemic area. However it has been repeatedly argued that Wisconsin’s 10 gallon limit on baiting would not be enough feed to concentrate deer and thus spread diseases. However, a Michigan State University (MSU) study completed in 2001 refutes this claim (7). The study was conducted to observe deer interaction at fall baiting sites to determine how bovine TB could spread between deer. The researchers observed deer feeding at various types of baiting sites for 2 years. These sites consisted of bait placed in piles up to several tons in size, various quantities of bait spread in lines, and several types of mechanical feeders. They found that the number of deer face-to-face contacts that could spread bovine TB were higher at a 5 gallon pile of corn than any other baiting method. They also noted that up to 35 different deer were observed feeding at a single 5 gallon bait pile during a 1 hour observation period. It should also be noted that a USDA study determined that the bacteria causing bovine TB can remain infectious up to 16 weeks on frozen feed (8). Thus the conclusion from this extensive study is that any amount of bait can be expected to sustain and spread a disease like bovine TB, but that smaller quantities tended to be worse.
The MSU study also included radio collaring 163 deer to study movement and seasonal dispersal patterns when baited. These deer migrated an average of 15 miles with some deer migrating over 53 miles. It seems that even when baited deer will migrate substantial distances. During the 2-year study it was also found that one of the radio-collared deer had actually died from bovine TB.
It has been suggested that supplemental food plots are nothing more than "bait on a stick." Researchers have shown that food plots do not present the disease potential of bait piles. Food plots are dispersed over a much larger area than bait piles, and once they are consumed there is no more. The principle problem cited with baiting sites is they can be replenished over and over in the same location that increases the potential for contaminating residual foods and underlying soil. The Michigan DNR even recommended food plots in the TB area (9).
Other diseases that can be spread by baiting include Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD, or so-called Mad Deer Disease) and foot-and-mouth disease. Until recently CWD was a found only in wild deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming where it was believed to have originated. CWD has now been documented in wild deer populations in Nebraska and Saskatchewan. Both these new outbreaks resulted from the importation of game farm deer and elk with the disease. So far CWD has been found in game farm animals in at least 5 other states (10). This disease is particularly troubling because it is not caused by a living organism. Rather it is caused by a aberrant protein called a prion, which seems recalcitrant to normal sterilization procedures. That’s why Mad Cow disease is not destroyed by normal cooking procedures.
CWD is spread by close contact, similar to bovine TB and is always fatal. It is suspected that feeding was a major contributor for the CWD outbreak in the western states. It is because of this reason that Wyoming recently banned baiting, and that Saskatchewan immediately banned baiting when it was determined that CWD had been passed into the wild deer population. It seems that CWD would be especially devastating in the Midwest due to much higher deer populations. Also whitetail deer seem to be particularly susceptible because of their social behavior. Because of high deer densities in the Midwest it is thought that baiting would not be required to spread the disease. But baiting would certainly allow to disease to spread more rapidly and thus confound eradication efforts.
Other important diseases that affect deer are brucellosis, anthrax, brainworm, blackleg, hemmorhagic disease. Of these brucellosis is a concern for the dairy industry, and brainworm is lethal to elk and moose and may severely limit their reintroduction into Wisconsin.
While Wisconsin deer at present are relatively disease free, it is often cited that baiting need not be restricted until a disease is confirmed. This rationalization believes that the state can react quickly enough to eliminate a disease in a wild deer population. However, unless extremely lucky by the time a detection is confirmed any disease in a wild population would be well established. In fact once established Bovine TB may be impossible to eradicate in a wild population (11). As can be seen with the CWD outbreak in Colorado and Saskatchewan, eradication efforts usually involve attempting to kill every deer in the affected area (which may involve hundreds or thousands of square miles and thousands of animals). The logistics of killing and disposal of this many animals are staggering, and the financial impacts would be devastating. The foot-and-mouth outbreak in England is a case in point. Since wildlife do not respect political boundaries this issue extends beyond state lines.
Minnesota recognized that deer baiting was a growing concern when they proactively banned deer baiting in 1991. There was some localized protest when first enacted, but recent surveys by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association indicate that 75% of hunters continue to support the ban (12). As the level of baiting in other states increase, so do the complaints. Wisconsin DNR wardens now cite deer baiting as one of the most common complaints they receive (13). Most, if not all of these complaints are from other hunters. Based on Wisconsin DNR observations there appears to be a direct correlation between the level of baiting and the number of complaints. And as pointed out earlier, many hunters opposed to baiting feel compelled to bait because others in the area are baiting. This competition to put out the most bait soon becomes an endless spiral that negatively affects hunting for everyone.
Some Wisconsin Bear Hunters are opposed to eliminating deer baiting for fear that any regulation that bans deer baiting can be easily modified to include bear baiting. This ignores the fact that Wisconsin DNR rules always prohibited turkey hunting with bait. It has also been argued that the public would not be able to distinguish between the bear and deer baiting if one was banned but not the other. The concern with this is justified, albeit paranoid. The truth is the deer hunting community, as divided as they are over deer baiting, would not allow this to happen. Many of these people also hunt bear and certainly understand the differences. The fact is Minnesota banned deer baiting in 1992 while allowing bear baiting to continue and this has not been an issue. Wyoming also recently banned baiting for big game, but left bear baiting as an exception. There are other states like Minnesota and Wyoming, and also states where the table is turned, and bear baiting is banned but deer baiting is legal. The public has already accepted the federal ban on waterfowl baiting so one would expect there would be no problems with simply banning deer baiting.
It has also been suggested that the large numbers of bowhunters baiting deer may actually have a negative impact on bear hunting, since bears are attracted to the same bait. There have also been reports of deer hunters shooting bears to keep them off their bait piles.
There have been multitudes of surveys that document the non-hunting public’s opposition to deer baiting. Of course the general public does not support some other hunting endeavors like trophy hunting either. It certainly would be detrimental for everyone if the deer baiting dispute were to spill over into the public arena. The longer this conflict within the hunting community continues, the greater the chance the public will become involved. It certainly appears that as long as deer baiting is legal, there will be controversy. Clearly it would be best for everyone involved to resolve this issue out of the public spotlight.
There is no question that baiting and feeding deer is an economic benefit to farmers and retailers. Actual figures are not known, but it’s a safe bet that in Wisconsin it’s in the millions of dollars. However the disease considerations of deer baiting put the agriculture community in conflicting positions. The Michigan Farm Bureau continued to oppose any baiting restrictions even when bovine TB was well established in the deer herd and had spread to domestic cattle. Not until pressure from the USDA that threatened to remove the state's TB free status did they finally agree on restrictions. The outbreak of bovine TB has cost Michigan in excess of $250 million dollars to date, and the disease is still not under control. The cost of TB to the agricultural industry in Michigan is $15 million per year. The economic impact of a TB or CWD outbreak in a more agriculturally intensive state like Wisconsin would no doubt dwarf any economic benefit from baiting.
Safety and Crippling Rates
A popular claim is that baiting allows for more humane kills with lower crippling rates. However a Texas study suggests that the opposite is true and higher crippling rates result when deer hunting over bait (4). It has also been argued that hunting over bait is safer than other hunting methods. However the accident rate for hunting is so low that this statistic is essentially meaningless. It can be countered that falling from tree stands is a major cause of hunting accidents and that deer hunting with bait usually involves tree stands.
Despite what many people think, deer do not primarily eat corn and other grains. Their digestive system is poorly adapted for high carbohydrate foods (like corn) commonly used as bait. A condition called lactic acidosis, or "grain overload" is often observed as a result of feeding excessive grains (5). At a minimum this causes the deer discomfort. In extreme cases it can cause death (deer have been found dead in Wisconsin from this condition). Another potential problem with grain, especially corn is the toxic chemical aflatoxin, which is produced by a common grain mold. There are limits on the amount of aflatoxin permitted in livestock feed. However, there are no such limits for so-called "deer corn" and this can be a convenient market for what was an unsaleable product. A study in Texas found that 40% of the deer corn sold had illegal levels, and 20% had levels that would be immediately fatal to birds such as turkeys, and fatal to deer if consumed over long periods of time (14).
Baiting also increases deer social interaction due to crowding. This leads to more aggression and fighting, resulting in a higher incident of injuries.
Wildlife privatization is a growing issue on privately owned lands. Baiting attracts and holds (often large numbers) of deer on private parcels where they are unavailable to other hunters and proper harvest management. Baiting tends to lead to people thinking they "own" deer, or that they tend to "own" a particular hunting area on public lands. The privatization issue is likely an outgrowth of efforts the last 60 years or so to promote wildlife conservation. Sadly this turns out to be a perverse story of well intended conservation gone mad. Lately there has been an explosion of private wildlife "management" where deer are feed, photographed, named, vitamin and mineral supplemented, selectively harvested and intensely protected to the point where we must question if deer are truly wild. At what point do our deer become nothing more than frightened, free ranging domesticated livestock and hunters nothing more than shooters and butchers? Certainly there is a broad gray line that people will have to define for themselves, but where will it end? If we continue in our current direction we will not have to worry about how we hunt deer, or even if we do. The non-hunting public has made its intentions well known. They will be more than happy to make these decisions for us.
Deer are selective browsers, meaning they eat a variety of plants. As countless studies have pointed out, when fed supplemental feed, deer never eat just the feed; they also eat their natural foods (15). And the native plants that they do eat tend to be the less common, more nutritious species. When concentrated due to baiting this results in excessive browsing in areas which causes habitat damage and can lead to simplification of the vegetation. This further erodes the carrying capacity of the habitat. And as the highly respected Wisconsin DNR deer biologist Keith McCaffery says "Some might want to argue that the supplemental food buffers deer impacts on natural vegetation, but one does not protect a garden from deer by placing a corn pile in it!"
As anyone who ever observed a bait pile knows deer are not the only beneficiaries. Baiting also attracts other animals such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, squirrels, rabbits and wild turkeys. This can also result in the concentration of predators, which in turn results in greater mortality for all prey species. A Texas study found that the impact of deer feeders significantly decreased the survivorship of nearby turkey nests (16). The indirect result of baiting also increases the nutrition for predators which also increases their populations. This further skews the predator-prey balance.
Deer baiting can be hard work, and it can be tempting for some to drive ATVs off road to place bait. In fact, the DNR has seen a significant increase in ATV complaints related to baiting. This further undermines the perception of ATVs and could lead to trail closures and bans on ATV use during the hunting season.
Not only has the number of hunters baiting increased, but also so have the violations. These violations commonly include hunting over excessive bait, and hunting before and after legal hours. Wisconsin DNR wardens report that baiting violations are up 20% in 2001, and that they lack the manpower to respond to all the complaints. DNR wardens also indicate that almost all of the citations issued for hunting after hours involve baiting (13).
Effects on Productivity
Feeding deer not only increases winter survival rates, it also increases the productivity of does. This results in higher fawning rates and can lead to problems of artificially high deer densities. Wisconsin DNR biologists have indicated that feeding and baiting have significantly negated the effects of harsh winters on deer in the northern forest region. Some people might celebrate this result but fail to understand that Natural Processes, including winter stress, have honed the whitetail deer into the fascinating game animal that exists today.
Every single Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist is opposed to deer baiting based on ecological and disease considerations. That in itself says a lot. These wildlife biologists are dedicated and hard working individuals. They care as much, if not more, about the deer herd than anyone else. Certainly they are the experts on what’s right for the resource. Furthermore, the Wildlife Management Institute, an advocate for hunting and professional wildlife management, denounces all wildlife feeding (17).
It is commonly cited that surveys indicate that support for or against deer baiting in the hunting community is split 50/50. It should be pointed out that none of these surveys were extensive enough to be statistically valid, and thus a true representation of hunter opinion was not gauged. In any event, even if the split is truly 50/50, we should do what’s best for the resource and the sport.
Throughout history rules and regulations have been enacted to protect and enhance deer hunting. Take hunting deer at night as an example. At some point this was thought detrimental to the resource and banned. Sure, at the time there were likely protests, but I don’t think anyone today would argue that this was necessary. Very often the best resource management is not achieved by popular consensus. The harvest of antlerless deer is another example. It took leadership, even that of Aldo Leopold himself, to institute many of these necessary practices. Deer baiting is another issue that needs to be evaluated under these same circumstances. As this paper has pointed out there are many reasons why deer baiting is detrimental to both the resource and the sport. There is very little positive information on deer baiting. And as stated in the beginning this was not from a lack of effort. The desire for many to hunt with bait must be strong to override the underlying conservation morals possessed by many hunters otherwise deer baiting would not be an issue.1. Toso, Mark A. 2001. The Effects of Baiting on deer hunting in Wisconsin
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