Deer Baiting

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Kentucky is home to about 500,000 deer hunters, myself included. Many, if not most, of us will be in the field later this month when the modern firearm whitetail season opens Nov. 12.

Deer hunters have already been in the field, of course, and thousands have tagged a deer. Archery season opened in early September. Crossbow season began Oct. 1. Muzzleloader hunters have had a weekend to hunt, and young hunters have been afforded their own deer weekend afield. State wildlife managers do a good job spreading the whitetail hunting opportunities, but November is when most of the action happens.

In deer-hunting lingo, Kentucky is also becoming a “destination state,” which simply means that hunters are traveling here for a shot at a trophy deer. This may annoy some, but generally, nonresident deer hunters—and the dollars they bring with them—are welcomed statewide. Deer dollars drive a powerful economic engine, which revs up in this month.

Amid all this cheerful deer news, however, a twinge of controversy simmers. Kentucky allows baiting for deer, and while not everyone likes it, there is nothing on the horizon that indicates state game officials have any plans to alter the rule.

It is not without risks or benefits.

It’s also on the increase, according to Will Brantley, an accomplished deer hunter and lifelong Kentuckian. He is also hunting editor for Field & Stream magazine. Brantley knows deer and understands hunters. His opinion carries weight.

“Though baiting has been legal for some time in Kentucky, it has soared in popularity in the last decade,” he said.

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“It’s a hot-button topic for hunters and wildlife managers alike. Baiting artificially congregates animals, and there is some evidence that it contributes to the spread of diseases such as CWD [chronic wasting disease].”

Deer baiting is essentially placing foodstuff—commercial (often marketed as “deer attractants”) or natural (corn, apples, etc.)—on the ground to attract deer. Feeders are sometimes used to drop a certain amount of bait at a specific time of day. Also, deer bait (or attractants) and food plots are not the same. This is an important distinction. Food plots are planted foods (clover, etc.), and while they are used to pattern deer movement and provide game with food, they benefit deer and other wildlife both before and after the season ends.

“I’ve heard some compare baiting to hunting over a food plot,” said Brantley. “It’s not. Food plots and large-scale habitat management are far better practices than baiting, but not everyone has the means, time or capability for them.”

While Kentucky allows baiting for deer, there are limitations. It’s prohibited on all state-owned or -managed wildlife management areas, some federal land and other state properties. Private landowners can do as they wish. Other states, including neighboring Indiana, absolutely prohibit the practice.

While baiting for deer is legal in Kentucky, Gabe Jenkins wishes it weren’t, although he supports it as a legal hunting method.

If this sounds akin to walking a political tightrope, it is. Jenkins is the deer and elk program director for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He is the state’s public face of deer hunting.

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“It is legal, and it is a method of hunting that many folks employ,” he said.

Jenkins’ primary concern is keeping the state’s 1 million or so deer healthy and disease free. He said attracting deer repeatedly to a specific spot to feed (and thus urinate and defecate) creates a petri dish for disease.

“When animals come to the same spot time after time after time, all that gets mixed in together, and it can be a transmission spot for disease,” Jenkins explained. “There is a risk with that. It’s a concern.”

Ethics often slips into the baiting debate, although the charge that baiting for deer is unethical is levied by non-hunters more often than non-baiting hunters. Jenkins passes judgment on no one who is hunting legally but acknowledges that bait is a wild-card factor.

“When you mix feeding and baiting and hunting, that can change the dynamics,” he said. “Does bait increase your chances of seeing deer? Absolutely. Does bait guarantee you’ll get a deer? Absolutely not.”

Brantley acknowledged that baiting is a heated, controversial issue that likely isn’t going away but stressed that hunters and non-hunters would better benefit the resource by focusing on more challenging and serious problems, such as habitat destruction, loss of public hunting lands, whitetail farming, dwindling funds for conservation and disease threats.

“[Baiting] is a perfectly legal practice for Kentucky deer hunters on private land, and I don’t thumb my nose at anyone who hunts over a corn pile, so long as they’re abiding by all the other rules,” he said, noting he often uses small amounts of bait on farms where he hunts.

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“I think as the big picture of wildlife management goes, hunters and non-hunters alike should see pouring a little corn on the ground to get a shot at a deer as fairly inconsequential. There are a host of other issues that are far and away the bigger worries wildlife lovers have today.”

Readers may contact Gary Garth at outdoors@kentuckymonthly.com

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>