LANSING — A great debate is roiling Michigan deer hunters as they gear up for another season: Will a ban on baiting help preserve the state’s herd or hasten a long decline in hunting?
In an effort to halt the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, the Natural Resources Commission last year voted to ban baiting and feeding deer across the entire Lower Peninsula and parts of the Upper Peninsula.
The regulations took effect in January, making this deer hunting season Michigan’s first with such a widespread ban against baiting, which involves placing large piles of grain, minerals or other produce to lure deer or elk within hunters’ sights.
Michigan’s early antlerless firearm weekend was last Saturday and Sunday, but deer season kicks off in earnest Oct. 1, with the start of bow hunting, which concludes Nov. 14 before resuming from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1. Regular firearm season is Nov. 15-30.
Questions about baiting have long split Michigan’s hunting community, and this year’s ban has only fueled the controversy.
The Michigan Farm Bureau supports the ban. So does the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which encompases more than 200 hunting, fishing, trapping and other outdoors clubs. Regulators based the policy on science and the need to protect deer herds in the long term, said Amy Trotter, executive director of the conservation clubs.
“The health of our deer herd needs to come first so the next generation of hunters have deer populations in order to hunt,” she said.
But some hunters question the scientific consensus that baiting increases the risk of spreading wasting disease among deer. Those critics see the ban as an affront that could drive hunters out of Michigan.
Ted Nugent — the Michigan-born rocker, hunter and conservative provocateur — brightened the spotlight on the issue last week when he testified in favor of House Bill 4687, which would overturn the ban. At a hearing of the House Government Operations Committee, Nugent called the ban part of regulators’ “engineered ruination of our hunting heritage.”
Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton, introduced the bill, saying the baiting ban would mean “devastation” for hunting and related businesses. One industry group claims hunting generates more than $2 billion in annual economic activity to the state.
Sen. Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, sponsored similar legislation in his chamber — Senate Bill 37. Neither bill has drawn a committee vote.
Here’s what Michiganders need to know about the baiting ban.
What is baiting and feeding?
“Bait” includes substances for consumption such as grains, minerals (think salt and salt blocks), fruits, vegetables, hay or other foods that might attract deer or elk to aid hunting. “Feed” encompases foods aimed at luring deer for reasons other than hunting.
The ban does not apply to “food plots” — crops planted long before hunting season to attract deer. Those are considered “normal agricultural practices.” Certain “urine-based” lures are also allowed.
How many Michigan hunters use bait? And why?
More than half of Michigan hunters used bait in 2017, according to a DNR survey. Yoopers were particularly fond of baiting deer, with four-in-five doing so.
“The primary reasons that Michigan hunters have cited for using bait were to make hunting more exciting because they can see more deer and improve their hunting success,” the DNR reported.
Baiting had “minimal effect” on total deer bagged in Michigan though it might have aided hunters in the U.P. and northern Lower Peninsula.
Statewide, about 1.75 million white-tailed deer roamed across Michigan in 2016 through 2018, up from 1.58 million deer in 2015, according to the DNR.
U.P. deer appear healthy this year but populations will remain relatively low, with few bucks — similar to last year, according to a DNR forecast. In the Lower Peninsula, populations appear similar or higher than last year.
In 2018, about 554,331 hunters killed 361,000 deer — down 4 percent from the previous year, according to the DNR.
And if hunters violate the ban?
They would risk fines of $50-$1,000, possible jail time or loss of hunting licenses, according to the House Fiscal Agency.
What is chronic wasting disease?
The fatal neurological disease attacks the brains of cervids (deer, elk and moose). The disease, known as CWD, is highly contagious and considered a big threat to Michigan’s hunting economy.
Michigan has tested more than 60,000 deer for the disease since 2015 when state regulators first found the disease in a free-range deer. The Department of Natural Resources has flagged the disease in 122 free-ranging deer in nine Michigan counties: Clinton, Dickinson, Eaton, Gratiot, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Kent and Montcalm.
Outside of Michigan, regulators have found the disease in 25 states and three Canadian provinces, according to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, a group that raises awareness about the disease.
The disease spreads through direct contact between animals and through bodily fluids such as poop, spit, blood or urine.
Scientists have not found a cure for infected deer, elk and moose whose brains degenerate — causing the animals to lose bodily functions and look abnormally thin before they die. No evidence suggests the disease spreads to humans or other animals, according to the DNR.
How could baiting and feeding spread the disease?
Dan O’Brien, a veterinary specialist with DNR’s wildlife disease lab, said baiting and feeding artificially increases the rate of contact between deer and elk. That bolsters the likelihood of transmitting CWD or bovine tuberculosis. Artificial feed might even bring together separate groups of deer that might never otherwise connect, O’Brien told Bridge Magazine.
Baiting also increases the risk of spreading the disease indirectly — if infected deer leave body fluids on or near the feed.
“Those infectious agents — they get into the soil or on vegetation. Other animals that come along would come in contact with them,” O’Brien said.
The DNR relied on more than 40 studies in recommending the baiting ban. Those include a 2008 study by University of Wisconsin-Madison and U.S. Geological Survey researchers finding that Wisconsin white-tailed deer linger longer at artificial feeding sites, leading to “greater risk for direct and indirect disease transmission” compared to natural foraging.
In legislative hearings, Nugent, VanderWall and other critics of the ban speculated that banning baiting would lead to fewer deer harvests — meaning disease would naturally spread more rapidly, and out-of-control deer populations would continue to bedevil some farmers and cityfolk.
That’s not a concern among scientists, O’Brien said, in part because CWD’s spread doesn’t correlate to total deer populations. The bigger factor is how frequently deer interact, and baiting increases that trend.
Will the baiting ban mean less hunting in Michigan?
That’s hard to know.
Some 50 percent of bowhunters and 31 percent of firearm hunters in the northeast Lower Peninsula reported hunting less because of a long-standing bait ban in that region to limit the bread of bovine tuberculosis, according to the DNR.
Most Michigan hunters want regulators to take some action to combat CWD, according to the 2017 survey, but just 39 percent considered ban on baiting and feeding “acceptable.” Even fewer Yoopers backed the idea.
“This law is dramatically reducing revenue generation and dangerously reducing family recreation,” Nugent testified last week.
The debate comes as fewer Michiganders are hunting — part of a nationwide trend as Baby Boomers age and interest wanes from younger generations. Firearm deer-hunting licenses sold to residents have plunged more than 20 percent over the past two decades, down to 621,000 in 2017 from a peak of 785,000 in 1998, according to a recent demographic analysis from Michigan Technological University.
The baiting ban might discourage some hunters, O’Brien acknowledged. But the spread of CWD could more dramatically limit hunting opportunities.
“We're dealing with a disease that has the potential to compromise the deer herd for decades and decades to come,” he told Bridge. “This is a situation where we need to be able to make a sacrifice in the present — so that we can preserve this resource that we love for future generations.”
DNR Director Dan Eichinger doesn’t expect a decline in hunters, but “it is something for us to be sensitive to,” he said in an interview with a magazine produced by Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
Eichiner pointed out that Michigan banned baiting in Lower Peninsula in 2008-2011, and it didn’t seem to speed the decline in participation.
Wait, Michigan banned baiting and feeding before?
Yes. Michigan banned baiting in feeding in 2008 after regulators confirmed CWD in a deer at a Kent County ranch. The Natural Resources Commissions lifted the ban in most of those counties in 2011 after three years of testing revealed no additional diseased deer.
In 2011, the Alpena News reported: “About the only thing a three-year lull in baiting proved is that Michigan deer hunters continued to bag their game, despite a baiting ban. In 2010, 44 percent of hunters shot at least one deer; in 2008, 47 percent were successful.”
Where may Michiganders bait and feed deer?
Michigan allows deer baiting in the Upper Peninsula with one large exception: a 660-square mile CWD “surveillance area” outlined by major roadways in parts of Menominee, Delta and Dickinson counties.
That surveillance zone surrounds the spot where regulators found a CWD-stricken deer last year. Statewide, hunters with disabilities may use bait during Michigan’s Liberty Hunt (which occurred Sept. 14-15) and Independence Hunt (Oct. 17-20).
Do other states ban baiting?
Yes. Outside of Michigan, 23 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces ban baiting of cervids, and 15 others restrict the practice in various ways, according to research by the DNR. Those include some of Michigan’s neighbors. Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota all ban the practice. Wisconsin bans baiting in most of its counties, a number that fluctuates depending on testing results. Ohio bans baiting only within a limited surveillance area.