Whitetail Hunting photo

Photo: Charles Alsheimer

I think baiting for whitetails has to stop. Now.

Okay, okay, before you peg me as a purist who thinks all baiters are slobs, hear me out. If you watch a spin feeder or camp near a pile of sugar beets, I’m not going to attack your character or question your allegiance to the flag. But I do think that if you gave up the bait, we’d all be better off.

Baiting divides us. Nationally, 28 states ban the practice in any form, while 22 allow it (eight with significant restrictions). And recent headlines point to deep divisions within individual states. Last spring, legislation passed by the Mississippi House and Senate would have allowed baiting in the Magnolia State for the first time had Gov. Haley Barbour not vetoed the bill. In Michigan, a state long synonymous with baiting, officials shocked the deer hunting community by abruptly banning the practice in the entire Lower Peninsula after a single game-farm doe tested positive for chronic wasting disease. In the Upper Peninsula, however, baiting remains legal.

What we need is to unify–against baiting. Not because it’s unethical (that’s a complicated argument and an ugly fight), but because deer hunters, deer hunting, and deer would all benefit. Here’s why:

1 | We’d see more deer during daylight. It doesn’t take whitetails long to associate bait piles with humans, and when deer know people are around, they wait for dark to feed. Studies from Texas, Michigan, and Mississippi all show that daylight buck visits to bait sites range from rare to virtually nonexistent. Whitetails already restrict their daytime movements. Why make it worse?

2 | Deer would generally be more active. Foraging whitetails must travel to find food. Bait reduces the need for this movement, creating not only a nocturnal buck but a lazy one.

3 | Deer would be healthier. Researchers have proved a link between baiting and bovine tuberculosis in whitetails. The CWD connection is shakier, but find me a biologist who thinks concentrating deer near a pinpoint food source is a good thing. Besides, baited deer in nonagricultural areas can get sick from eating too much grain. The disease is called lactic acidosis, and it can kill a whitetail.

4 | We’d be better managers. Baiting can lead to unnaturally high survival and birth rates, particularly in northern deer. It also concentrates whitetails, which eat more than just what we put out for them. That densely packed herd can wipe out native plant species and retard forest regeneration. We’ve long told the public, “We’re the managers who keep whitetail numbers in tune with their habitat.” Well, are we?

5 | We’d fight less with one another. We’re all aware of the battle lines drawn over the ethics of baiting. But beyond that, once a hunter puts out a pile of corn, his neighbors feel obliged to follow suit. Soon, a seemingly benign activity turns ultracompetitive. In 1984, only 29 percent of Michigan hunters reported using bait. Just nine years later, the figure had risen to 56 percent, and more than one in five hunters told the Department of Natural Resources that baiting to compete with other hunters was “very important” to them. Wisconsin DNR researcher Mark Toso estimates that Badger State gun hunters alone place 4.5 million pounds of corn on the ground each day–enough to feed the state’s entire herd of 1.8 million deer–during the firearms season.

Baiting is especially troubling on public lands, where hunters who place bait often claim ownership for their sites and a considerable territory around them. This practice–known as “homesteading”–ruins the hunting experience for everyone.

6 | We’d improve our public image. Surveys reveal that most of the nonhunting public supports our tradition as long as hunting remains a fair-chase, ethical endeavor. If the ethics of baiting is controversial among hunters, what must the general populace think? And make no mistake; what they think is critical to deer hunting’s future.

7 | We’d tag just as many deer. Baiting proponents argue they’d kill significantly fewer deer without the bait, but only one Texas study supports that. Other research reveals equal or near equal success. Just this past fall, Michigan hunters–despite complaints that the bait ban would slash their harvest–bagged nearly the same number of deer as they did during the previous season.

But suppose, just for the sake of argument, that we’d bag slightly fewer deer. So what? I’ll take that–along with better hunting, healthier deer, and one less wedge to divide us–any day of the week. –Scott Bestul