Say NO to Baiting, Supplemental Feeding, and Hunting of White-tailed Deer Over Bait and Feed

James E. Miller, Certified Wildlife Biologist, Past President of The Wildlife Society (TWS), and Vice-Chair of the Committee for the TWS Baiting and Supplemental Feeding of Game Wildlife, Technical Review.

Most wildlife biologists working in the Southeast are aware of the complex and controversial biological and social issues associated with baiting, supplemental feeding and hunting of white-tailed deer over bait or feed across North America, and especially within the Southeast. Most of us working in the wildlife profession have become increasingly enlightened through continuing professional education, experiential observations, and lifelong contact with private landowners and managers, that the future of wildlife depends on sustaining and managing habitats that support diverse, healthy, and sustainable populations. Unfortunately, some people either through ignorance or the profit motive continually promote baiting and supplemental feeding as suitable replacements for habitat sustainability and management. This misperception that baiting and supplemental feeding of wildlife will mitigate habitat loss is one of the most insidious threats to our profession today. It is disappointing that baiting and feeding, although opposed by the majority of professional wildlife biologists and hunters because these practices are not in the best interest of wildlife resources, are continually promoted by those who would profit from the sale of bait and feeders.

At this point some definition and discussion of terms is in order to understand why state and federal natural resource agencies should retain responsibility for wildlife resources and why baiting, feeding, and hunting over it is not in the best interest of wildlife or the public good.

Public Trust Doctrine establishes the state and federal government as trustee over natural resources “too important to be owned” and therefore are critical to the well-being of modern society and future generations. Game and non-game wildlife in the United States have been protected by the public trust doctrine protection since decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1842 as an established legal principle. Therefore, baiting and supplemental feeding of game wildlife must be regulated by governmental controls if those practices transfer private property rights onto wildlife, jeopardize public access to wildlife, or jeopardize the health or well-being of wildlife resources.

Baiting—Intentionally placing food attractants (salt, minerals, and other materials to be ingested) in the natural environment to manipulate the behavior of game wildlife species for the purposes of:

(1) attracting wildlife to a specific location to enhance hunter harvest or trapping opportunities;

(2) capturing wildlife for relocation, population augmentation, or restoration;

(3) capturing wildlife for implementation of professional agency or institution research and management programs;

(4) capturing and treating animals for control of infectious or non-infectious diseases; and

(5) reducing or controlling overabundant populations (native or exotic), invasive species, or problem wildlife that pose a threat to human health and safety, domestic animals, or private property.

Supplemental Feeding—Intentionally placing natural or artificial food in the natural environment for use by wildlife on an annual, seasonal, or emergency basis with the intent of:

(1) improving the condition (e.g., body mass, growth rates, antler size) of individual animals, or population performance (e.g., survival, fecundity, restoration, growth);

(2) providing additional food resources to wildlife in emergency situations when natural foods become unavailable or severely restricted due to natural or man-induced perturbations (e.g., periods of severe drought, extended winter snow or ice cover, or wildfire);

(3) attracting or luring wildlife to alternate locations in order to reduce or eliminate damage to agricultural crops, including timber and livestock, or to reduce threats to human health and safety; and

(4) artificially increasing the carrying capacity of habitat to enhance recreational opportunities (e.g. hunting, wildlife viewing or photography).

Obviously, some of the above justifications are appropriate wildlife management tools for professionals, but, that does not imply that they are appropriate for indiscriminate public use. Additionally, the impacts to wildlife species (both target and non-target) can be significantly exacerbated by misuse, ill intent, and misperception by the baiter or feeder. Long-time public baiters and feeders often come to view wildlife less as a public trust resource and more as privately-owned, as in “these are my deer” because I feed and care for them. In discussions with people who regularly bait or feed deer, or where deer are confined behind fenced enclosures, they commonly perceive and refer to these animals as “my deer”.

What is the source of the mistaken perception that wildlife and particularly deer must be fed or baited in most of the Southeast? White-tailed deer are selective browsers that have adapted marvelously to a wide variety of habitats and changing land usage over the past 50 years without being artificially fed or baited. Because of the whitetail’s great reproductive potential, hunter harvest and legal bag limits continue to be increased annually throughout most of its range. Why do some people still believe feel that it is necessary to provide animal husbandry for wildlife as they do for domestic animals? Do they think these practices will make them good stewards? Or is it simply human nature (including ignorance or greed) to want to attract deer and other wildlife from adjacent lands? Their desire seems to be to shoot them at or near the bait site, which is a lot easier, than practicing good stewardship by managing and improving the habitat, or learning how and spending time actually (fair chase) hunting? The justification (whether perceived or as a defense) that is commonly given is: “Well I have to bait because my neighbors bait and if I don’t, they will be killing--My Deer”.

Currently, outdoor magazine and television advertisements (“hornography—the use of trophy size antlered bucks to advertise the magic new feed or bait, or to illustrate a deer hunting or management article”) persistently claim that their next and newest “silver bullet” will enable the user to grow deer with record book antlers regardless the biological and environmental capabilities of the property. These advertisements ignore the significance of soil fertility, sex and age of the existing deer population, genetics, or overall short-and long-term carrying capabilities of the habitat available. Admittedly, there are numerous studies documenting that the daily feeding of well-balanced, high nutrient supplemental foods to captive deer have improved growth rates, body condition, increased fecundity, and lowered fawn mortality rates. However, these “silver bullet” claims and benefits are not documented via scientific studies on free-ranging deer populations in wild habitats for a variety of reasons. The fact is no silver bullets, gadgets, magic baits, or feeds have been proven to provide the multiple benefits of sustainable wildlife habitat and population management.

Here are some safe bets, however: (1) the “silver bullets” are very profitable to the sellers, (2) the profiteers couldn’t care less what impact their gadgets will have on the wildlife resource or its habitat, being managed; and (3) they come with no guarantee to produce the advertised results. Most bait and supplemental feed are being sold and promoted by those in the business of manufacturing and selling wildlife feeders, or by vendors who sell feeders, bait, and feed whether it is legal in your state or not. It has reached a point today where the most recently promoted gadget is a battery-powered “deer call” that mimics the sounds of an automatic feeder dispensing corn or pelletized bait. Perhaps we all need to be reminded of some of Aldo Leopold’s essays in ‘A Sand County Almanac’ to put this into perspective. Here are some examples “There must be some limit beyond which money-bought aids to sport destroy the cultural value of sport. There is value in any experience that exercises those ethical restraints collectively called ‘sportsmanship’. Our tools for the pursuit of wildlife improve faster than we do, and sportsmanship is a voluntary limitation in the use of these armaments”.

Some people argue that there are no differences between the establishment and management of food plots or wildlife openings and the practices of baiting or feeding. This argument is not defensible, because food plots and wildlife openings are planted and managed primarily to diversify wildlife habitat--that is, to provide better cover for birds and mammals during nesting, brood rearing, or late winter or summer forage. Managed food plots or wildlife openings complement habitat diversity, which might otherwise be limited in such places as even-aged pine plantations, mature forests, or naturally regenerated timber stands. These food plots or openings (usually half an acre or larger) are much less likely to concentrate high- density deer populations or cause increased intra-species interaction or conflict than would much smaller baiting or feeding sites. Additionally, food plots and wildlife openings are always available for use by wildlife, not just when humans make feed or bait available at baiting and feeder sites.

Why don’t we simply ask ourselves some simple questions, and try to answer them based on what we know? Is baiting or feeding really essential to sustaining a white-tailed deer population? The answer is obviously no, given the progressive growth in deer populations and increasing harvest by hunters over the past 50 year. Certainly neither of these practices in the past were, or currently are, essential to sustain a large and growing white-tailed deer population. Also, most of us who have been around for a while and who work with private landowners know of many well-managed private hunting clubs or other wildlife operations where abundant annual deer harvests (including trophy bucks) occur each year without the use of either baiting or supplemental feeding. Some managers of these operations admit to having tried baiting or supplemental feeding, but stopped because it was neither cost-effective nor beneficial in achieving their management objectives. They have learned that managing and sustaining quality habitats are the primary practices necessary to achieve trophy deer management, not the use of bait or supplemental feeding.

If examined rationally, the following reasons why baiting and supplemental feeding of white-tailed deer are not in the best interest of wildlife resources, hunters, or the hunting tradition in the southeast should improve public understanding why professionals and the majority of hunters strongly oppose these practices. (Note) References for the many scientific studies that document the negative impacts of baiting and supplemental feeding will not be cited herein, however, a soon-to-be-published Technical Committee Report from The Wildlife Society will provide a significant amount of literature cited on these issues.

1. It is well documented that baiting and supplemental feeding sites concentrate deer and have contributed significantly to the increased spread and transmission of diseases in white-tailed deer and other wildlife, including. Bovine tuberculosis (TB) in Michigan and Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) diagnosed in a growing number of states. Such sites have also contributed to the spread of other diseases such as rumenal acidosis, enterotoxemia, aflatoxin fungi, etc. The spread of infectious and non-infectious diseases, plus the increased transmission of parasites, are exacerbated by the close contact at baiting and supplemental feeding sites. Recently, two hunters in Michigan have been documented to have been infected by Bovine tuberculosis (TB), the most recent (2004) while field dressing a deer without gloves. This strain of disease found in deer, cattle and other animals since it was first discovered in 1994, was confirmed to be spread by the baiting and feeding of deer and over 500 TB-infected deer have been identified. This led to a ban on baiting in core counties with high incidence of infection in both deer and cattle. Additionally, TB infection from deer has now spread into other wildlife species, including black bears, bobcats, coyotes, elk, opossums, raccoons, and to more than 30 herds of domestic cattle causing significant livestock financial losses.

2. These practices ultimately lead to detrimental changes in wildlife behavior, including habituation to humans, loss of wildness, increased social stress, and intra-species competition.

3. These practices lead to reduced home-range sizes, habitat destruction, short-term overpopulations and long-term reduced carrying capacity for deer and other wildlife.

4. These practices create significant negative impacts on non-target wildlife species, as noted by several recent studies documenting that up to 98% of visits to feeders and bait sites were made by non-target species. In a 2004 study of a black bear population in Florida, the home-range size of bears was decreased significantly because of extensive use of deer feeders, and baiting has artificially increased black bear harvest beyond the ability to sustain viable populations in some areas. Wild turkeys, other game birds, song birds, and other mammals are also known to be negatively impacted by deer baiting and feeding.

5. These practices are not cost-efficient, and expend funds that could more effectively be used for the purchase of wildlife habitat or to better manage existing habitats and populations. These practices also cause funds generated for the purpose of managing wildlife to be shifted to pay for the costs of monitoring and addressing wildlife disease outbreaks like TB, CWD, or other diseases exacerbated by baiting and supplemental feeding. For example, State Fish and Wildlife agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of the Interior, and state Departments of Agriculture during 2003 expended $41.68 million in efforts to monitor and prevent the further spread of CWD. If expenditures for these costs from 2002 through the present were available the total would easily exceed $100 million.

6. Short-term overpopulations of deer caused by baiting and feeding leading to increased agricultural and property damage and greater risks to human health and safety, e.g., deer/automobile collisions, spread of Lyme disease, and tick fever.

7. Baiting and feeding where used to attract deer for increased shooter harvest, play right into the hands of the anti-hunting, anti-management, special interest groups that will cite these practices to further attempt to convince the general public that hunting should be eliminated. In addition, numerous statewide surveys of hunters have shown that the majority of hunters oppose the legalization of baiting or feeding. It is impossible in the Southeast to justify the use of baiting or feeding as “Fair Chase” or ethical techniques for hunting deer, and it jeopardizes the potential of legal hunters receiving a citation for hunting over bait if they are unaware of its presence where they may be hunting. If the majority of the public who presently support recreational hunting are convinced that most hunting is done over bait or food, their support level will decline precipitously.

8. Proposed legalization of baiting and feeding is a definite disincentive to private landowners who desire to invest time, labor, and resources to manage and enhance wildlife habitats. If their neighbor places large piles of corn or other bait attractants on their properties just before and during deer hunting season, it defeats on a short-term basis the benefits of managing habitat.

9. Where baiting and supplemental feeding of deer have been previously legalized in states or territories within North America, history has proven that it is politically almost impossible even in the face of a disaster such as the CWD epidemic in Wisconsin, or the TB outbreak in Michigan, etc. to legally ban these practices or to effectively enforce such a ban.

10. Hunters anticipating that they are going to kill a trophy buck deer over bait or supplemental feeding sites simply do not recognize that older bucks seldom visit such baited or feeding sites during daylight hours. In South Carolina where baiting is banned in roughly half the state, but is legal to hunt over in the other part, studies have shown that more deer are harvested in the part of the state where baiting is banned, than where it is legal to use bait.

11. The hunting community needs to do some serious self-examination (ethically and morally), regarding the use of bait and supplemental feed to hunt over. Is this the hunting tradition and legacy that we want to leave to those who will follow us, including our children, grandchildren, or their children who may wish to hunt? We must recognize that we have the privilege of being stewards but for a short time, and that what we leave behind as evidence of our stewardship, (good or bad) will be a vital legacy to future generations. It should not revolve around how many trophy bucks we killed hunting over bait or feed.


Two final questions must be asked: (1) Can we not learn from the case histories listed above where disease transmission (clearly exacerbated and documented to be spread by baiting and feeding) and the recent diagnosis of CWD in wild white-tailed deer in New York have potentially threatened not only the sustainability of wildlife resources, but the future of hunting? And, (2) Can’t we understand how strongly the loss of public support for hunting will impact the abilities of state and federal agencies to manage the public wildlife resources in the future?

Within the past two years, because of the increased political pressure to make baiting, feeding and hunting over bait legal, Position Statements were ratified by the professional memberships of two State Chapters of The Wildlife Society, Virginia and Mississippi, that oppose baiting or supplemental feeding for wildlife by the public and further opposed efforts by state legislatures to legalize these practices.

Throughout my 40+ years in the wildlife profession, I have tried to live by this credo: “Wildlife biologists must stand firm in the face of pressures (political, financial, ethical, or other) that would significantly degrade wildlife resource values and sustainability, and there is a line beyond which these pressures must not dictate resource management decisions, nor degrade the professionals stewardship credibility”.

Our challenge NOW as stewards who treasure the wildlife resources and the hunting heritage is to educate and convince the various publics, including private landowners, managers, recreational hunters, public interest groups, and state legislators that nurturing wildlife habitat through wise stewardship is the key to abundant and sustainable wildlife populations and biodiversity. It certainly will not be achieved through legalizing the intentional placement of bait or supplemental feed into existing wildlife habitats for hunting.