When the 2019 hunting seasons opened across the Midwest this fall, not one of the 13 states from Kentucky to North Dakota and Kansas to Ohio allowed deer baiting statewide.
Deer baiting is illegal in seven of the 13 states—Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota and South Dakota—and partially banned in the other six.
Kansas, Kentucky and North Dakota prohibit deer baiting on all or most public lands; and Wisconsin and Michigan broadened their bans to include most of both states as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) continued spreading. Baiting is illegal in 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, and Michigan imposed a ban throughout its Lower Peninsula in January. In July, Michigan expanded the ban to cover a 660-square-mile area in the Upper Peninsula for parts of Dickinson, Delta and Menominee counties.
Ohio was the last Midwestern state to allow deer baiting statewide, but that changed after a deer tested positive for CWD at a Holmes County deer farm in January 2018. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources then moved to ban baiting for at least three years in 10 surrounding townships of Holmes and Wayne counties as part of its CWD testing and containment plan.
But as Michigan demonstrated this year, no state wildlife agency bans baiting without a fight. Even though baiting is a recent phenomenon in whitetail country and played little to no role in deer hunting’s rebirth during the 1900s, those who bait defend it and cling to it quite ardently.
Michigan entered the current decade as the region’s undisputed baiting champion. Baiting established itself as popular tactic across the Wolverine State by the 1980s, and by the early 1990s nonbaiters were a distinct minority.
Wisconsin wasn’t far behind. Even though most Wisconsin hunters assumed baiting was illegal in the early 1980s, the only item actually prohibited was salt. Baiting then took off in the late 1980s and boomed through the 1990s as low-grade apples, beets, shell-corn and other produce became staples at gas stations and convenience stores in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The Wisconsin DNR banned baiting statewide after discovering CWD in 2002, but lawmakers restored it in 2003 for areas where the disease hadn’t been found. Unfortunately, CWD is now present in wild deer in 26 Wisconsin counties and in captive deer in seven others. The state also forbids baiting in counties within 10 miles of where CWD is identified, and so 78 percent of the state is now “CWD affected.”
Of the Midwest’s 13 states, only Indiana and Kentucky have yet to find CWD in wild deer or in captive facilities. The disease, however, has been found in Illinois deer 30 miles from Indiana, and north of its border in Michigan. Likewise, although CWD has been found in six of seven states bordering Kentucky, and even though the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources has tested over 30,000 deer and elk since 2002, the agency hasn’t yet found CWD.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin has become infamous for CWD, and it has documented more cases of the always-fatal disease than any other state or province in North America. The Badger State confirmed a record 1,063 cases in 2018, of which most are in its southern third.
LONG-TIME BAIT OPPONENTS
Wildlife agencies across the United States have long opposed baiting, given that it concentrates deer artificially and keeps them returning to small areas they steadily foul with urine, feces and saliva. Although scientists have not yet proven how CWD spreads, the disease is triggered by rogue proteins called “prions,” which deer shed in bodily wastes. University of Wisconsin researchers have documented prion concentrations at bait sites in CWD-infected areas.
Still, many hunters aggressively fight baiting bans and claim baiting is no different than hunting over crop fields or food plots. Baiting foes, however, note that once those food sources are harvested or eaten, deer move on. And even when crops and food plots are flush with food, deer spread out and don’t converge on the same square yard daily to eat. In contrast, baiters typically replenish the food in that square yard several times weekly for two or more months.
Dr. Grant Woods, owner/creator of “Growing Deer TV” and The Proving Grounds in southwestern Missouri, said hunters should not minimize the disease potential at bait piles.
“By its nature, bait has more disease risks than food plots,” Woods said. “I see huge differences. Whether a food plot has corn, clover, soybeans or whatever, deer bite the edible part and it’s gone. Even if it grows back, it won’t regenerate quickly, so the deer leave. They don’t put their heads back into the same little spot for their next bite.”
That’s why biologists think bait sites can become Petri dishes for culturing bacteria and other disease-causing agents. “It’s much more likely for contagious diseases to transmit when deer keep putting their faces in the same place alongside each other, especially when someone pours more food into that spot tomorrow, next week, next month and next year,” Woods said.
Despite such arguments against baiting, attempts to ban it typically end up in state legislatures.
In its 2017 nationwide survey of wildlife agencies, the Quality Deer Management Association made this observation:
“The future of deer baiting will be increasingly decided by political desires and actual disease outbreaks, rather than (precautionary) recommendations from wildlife professionals. The history of deer management in North America makes it clear that if baiting is prohibited in your state today, it’s likely to remain that way in the future. Also, it’s an even better bet that if baiting is allowed in your (hunting area), nothing short of confirming CWD or tuberculosis is likely to change that in the future.”
But as the deer hunting world learned in December 2018, that possibility is growing increasingly likely. At Thanksgiving 2018, everyone considered Tennessee to be CWD-free. Two months later the Volunteer State had confirmed 183 cases.