As I sit and write this, the 2021 firearm deer season is coming to a close. I have hunted my entire life and I am also a proud retiree of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) having spent 35 years with Parks and Recreation and finishing my career as a district supervisor. I also was a hunter education instructor for over ten years. I guess I have a bone to pick with the DNR over the baiting issue that has divided the hunting community.
First, let me say that I am not pro- or anti-baiting. I have baited in the past and no longer do so because it is not legal where I currently hunt. What I have seen is this is very similar with what occurred in northeastern Michigan with the tuberculosis (TB) issue. Baiting is still happening and making many honest hunters dishonest.
I spent the better part of 25 years in northeastern Michigan, the TB “four-county area” consisting of Alcona, Alpena, Montmorency and Oscoda counties, when the DNR imposed the baiting ban there. There was a huge issue with TB spreading amongst the deer herd in that area and it was spreading to the cattle farms and decimating the local farmers’ herds. The DNR, along with the Department of Agriculture, came up with a plan to ban feeding and baiting of the deer herd to help stop the spread of this disease.
The four-county area is known as “Club Country,” meaning there are very large privately owned areas where people own shares in these clubs and fed deer all year. These weren’t your small bait piles; it was semis full of sugar beets that were dumped in large piles that would draw deer in during the winter from over 12 miles away. I think it is important to note that there is a big difference between feeding deer with semis loaded with beets and baiting deer with a bag of beets. The DNR monitored these areas with airplane flights so they knew they had an issue. Nose-to nose contact spreads disease. This how TB became an issue in northeastern Michigan.
Fast forward to the current issue of chronic wasting disease (CWD) and the fact that it is more contagious than TB. The DNR followed suit by imposing a ban on baiting in some counties where CWD was present and limiting baiting to two gallons in the rest of the Lower Peninsula. Unfortunately, some hunters did not follow the rule and still put out larger piles of bait. Eventually, the DNR eliminated the baiting altogether in the Lower Peninsula, largely because people did not follow the two-gallon rule.
The first year the baiting ban was established in northeastern Michigan, bait sales plummeted as hunters — for the most part — followed the law. The second year, the bait sales resumed and hunters once again began the baiting practice. After a few years, baiting become the norm and enforcement was almost impossible. When speaking with local conservation officers (COs) in northeastern Michigan, they estimated that during bow season between 75% to 85% were using bait. Baiting also occurred at high levels during the firearm season as well but probably not at the same percentage. Only the honest hunters were not baiting.
Let’s be truthful, baiting works and increases the chances of harvesting a deer. So now you have a large percentage of hunters violating the law because “everyone else is doing it.” This is when the honest hunter crosses the line just trying to keep up with the neighboring hunters who are baiting.
As CWD was identified in the Lower Peninsula and baiting restrictions were being applied, I mentioned to several friends to watch and see how this plays out. The first year most people complied, the second year baiting returned and now it has become the norm. Fruit markets, gas stations, etc. are selling “deer bait,” and I don’t blame them for doing so. They are businesses and last I knew selling beets or carrots or apples is not illegal. So the question becomes, do I bait to help me stay up with the Jones’s or do I follow the law and lose a big advantage to the high percentage of hunters who now bait illegally?
I am a big supporter of our DNR Law Enforcement Agency and to be candid this is not their fault. If we make laws or rules they must be enforceable or people will not follow them. If we keep the current baiting laws in place, in my opinion there are only two ways to enforce the them: 1. You hire enough COs to enforce the law, or 2. You make the penalty severe enough to deter people from violating the law.
We all know option No. 1 is not going to happen, so that only leaves option No. 2. If the penalty were that you lose your hunting privileges for, say, three years, would that prevent people from taking the chance? I don’t claim to have all the answers on this issue of baiting and I am not a wildlife biologist, but I do know we have a major enforcement issue under the current laws. We are making honest hunters dishonest at a very high rate.