A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bluegrass Wildlife: Think about it — to bait or not to bait? There are ethics involved in the decision

By Howard Whiteman
Murray State University

A few years ago I observed a sign above a pallet of feed corn in the sporting goods section of a local Walmart: “If you feed them, they will come” – signed “Redneck Hunter.”

At about $10 for a 40-lb bag, it is a cheap way to increase your success. Baiting is illegal in many states, but in Kentucky it is only illegal to bait on public land. Baiting deer on your own private property is perfectly legal. It shouldn’t be.

Even when done legally, baiting is unethical because it goes against the ethics of fair chase. It is also the absolute worst thing we could do right now for the deer herd, because bait sites — whether by automatic feeder, salt lick, or other attractants — increase the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Whitetail Deer (GarretGabriel/Wikimedia Photo)

You probably already know about CWD, which has spread from western states into the east, and threatens our white-tailed deer populations. It’s not in Kentucky yet, but it is knocking at our doorstep in western parts of the state. It can be transferred in a variety of ways, but many deer get it from nose-to-nose contact. Such interactions are common around bait sites, where multiple, unrelated deer often congregate. When they do so they spread disease, and that affects the health of the deer as well as interest in hunting them.

Many people like to hunt for big bucks and will wait multiple seasons before they find the deer of their dreams. That buck is often four or five years old. Bucks, however, are more likely to contract CWD than does, and bucks in heavily infected areas rarely survive more than 18 months.

That means if CWD is common in an area, local bucks will not live long enough to keep us awake at night (and hopefully in the stand).

It is unknown whether humans can get CWD from eating infected deer, but I don’t think any of us want to find out, since it is lethal in our four-legged friends. Diseases like CWD have made the jump to humans before, and this one might as well. That means that when we hunt in CWD areas, it is important to get our harvested deer tested, not only to provide data for wildlife biologists trying to study and manage the disease, but also because we should not be eating infected deer. That reality check, in turn, keeps some people from entering the woods at all.

I get why people put out salt, corn, and other attractants for deer and other wildlife, even if they don’t hunt. It is fun to watch them, and often it is a great way to get trail camera photos as well. It’s not like the deer aren’t eating corn from farmer’s fields every day. But concentrating deer into one small place, as baiting does, is simply bad for deer, and it’s bad for deer hunting.

Even if CWD isn’t in Kentucky yet, we can help slow its spread by stopping the baiting of deer altogether, whether it is on private property or not, and whether it is for hunting or just wildlife viewing. What we do now can reduce the chances that CWD takes over our state the way it has done elsewhere, and reduce its effects on future hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities.

Humans like to think about short term gain over long term consequences, and you see it all the time. Few people, even those that can, save enough for retirement. We worry more about our bill at the gas pump than the world we will leave our children. We also think about how we can get a buck this year and not whether there will be any decent bucks at all in a decade.

The next time you are thinking about putting out a mineral block in the woods, or dropping a bag of corn in just the right spot, consider the long-term. What you are doing is helping to spread a disease that hurts deer and will likely hurt your own hunting in the future. We need to do everything we can to reduce CWD, not help spread it.

To bait or not to bait? It’s not really a question at all.

Dr. Howard Whiteman is the Commonwealth Endowed Chair of Environmental Studies and a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Murray State University. He is also director of the Watershed Studies Institute.

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