Baiting ban debate rages as deer firearm season nears
Waterford Township — Brian Melonio shot at the Pontiac Lake range of the state Department of Natural Resources this week, sharpening his hunter’s eye and reflexes for the opening of deer firearm season on Nov. 15.
The next day, he was in a tree in Jackson County with his bow and arrows.
“I’ve seen a few bucks, this morning, and a couple of doe,” Melonio said, coming down long enough to talk. “Nothing in range, though.”
He used no bait to lure them closer.
Even if the state ban against luring the animals was not in place for the abutting bow and gun seasons in Michigan, Melonio said, he would not place apples, sweet beets, shelled corn, carrots, alfalfa and other deer delicacies around the fields to attract the animals.
Like many hunters, he said, he knows there is danger in the woods.
Scientists and public health officials say the chances of Chronic Wasting Disease leaping from the deer and elk in herds across a wide swath of the state into humans has increased in the past several years.
But some state legislators say the baiting ban — ordered last year by the Michigan Natural Resources Commission — is ruining hunting season, strongly discouraging hunters and affecting local businesses that cater to them.
“My constituents in northern Michigan are pleading with me to get the deer bait ban repealed,” said state Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton.
“We’ve got to use some common sense in these decisions, along with sound science.
“CWD concerns all of us,” Hoitenga said. “And that is why it is important to retain hunters who can keep the deer herds thinned out appropriately.”
While Hoitenga’s bill has passed the House and gone to the state Senate, even if it is approved there, it is likely to face a veto from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Chronic Wasting Disease is a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disorder with symptoms that can include drastic weight loss, stumbling and listlessness, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The possibility of an outbreak, something like the Mad Cow Disease epidemic of the early 1990s in the United Kingdom, though slight, exists, health officials and scientists said.
Helping to keep deer from contaminating each other by banning bait is, at minimum, prudent, scientists and officials said, and it may also be necessary. Deer tend to forage in groups, often nose-by-nose, in bait.
“Things are different now than they were five or 10 years ago, when people said, well, it’s not a risk,” said Michael Osterholm, the founding director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Osterholm and others, including at the CDC, are monitoring protein particles highly resistant to destruction that are believed to cause Chronic Wasting Disease.
The particles are called prions.
“This prion is changing. And that’s the challenge,” Osterholm said. “Because it’s mutating towards one we worry about that could be a human transmitted prion.”
CDC has issued a strong caution to hunters.
“It's important for hunters to consider many factors when determining whether to eat meat from deer and elk harvested from areas with CWD, including the level of risk they are willing to accept,” said Scott Pauley, a spokesman for the disease control center in Atlanta.
“In areas where the disease is known to be present, CDC recommends that hunters strongly consider having those animals tested before eating the meat,” Pauley said
The state also strongly urges testing the meat of deer harvested in affected areas.
DNR has provided a network of check stations, partnering meat processors and taxidermists, and drop boxes throughout the state. The meat checking sites are listed at Michigan.gov/dnr.
There are also special rules for transporting deer carcasses.
The management areas for Chronic Wasting Disease include much of the western half of the southern half of the Lower Peninsula and the general areas of Delta, Dickinson, Marquette and Menominee counties in the Upper Peninsula.
The ban against baiting, enacted by the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, is in effect throughout the Lower Peninsula and designated areas of the Upper Peninsula.
Next week, Melonio will be hunting for deer in the zone.
“We haven’t baited in a long time,” he said. “Even before they put the ban on, we were never baiting too much.
“Where we hunt, we have a lot of natural food sources around here as far as acorns, corn, beans, alfalfa. There’s really no need to,” he said.
Some hunters say baiting only keeps deer away during the day and brings them back at night, when they seem to know the hunters are gone while the bait remains.
But others who may have only a few hours to hunt say baiting assures success.
Mostly, though, it is a cultural thing.
“Most of the die-hard bowhunters who are out right now are not going to use bait. It’s more of a firearms season kind of deal," said Travis Smola, a hunter and author from Van Buren County.
“There’s some people who really think it ups your odds.” said Smola, of Van Buren County, who has been hunting for 20 years.
“The funny thing is, in my experience, it really doesn’t up your odds that much. But people still do it.”
The frequency of baiting in Michigan has depended a lot on location.
“We did a survey last year to try to figure out exactly how many people were baiting, and it varies by region,” said Chad Stewart, the deer and elk biologist and specialist of DNR.
“South of Clare, a little bit less than 1 in 2 people were baiting; 40 or 45%. As you start going farther north, that number increases,” Stewart said.
“And in the Upper Peninsula it’s like 80% of hunters were putting bait out.”
Different takes on hunting culture sometime determine who baits, he said.
“Some people do not want to shoot an animal that has been conditioned by putting food out,” Stewart said. “They view it as less sporting.”
The current ban and one in effect about a dozen years ago resulted in annual decreases in hunting licenses of about 5%, Stewart said. That is just a bit more than the 2% to 4% annual reduction expected solely from the aging population of hunters.
While the baiting ban and testing of the meat taken in affected areas is essential to try to limit the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease, Stewart said, eradicating it is far more complicated.
“There is no silver bullet,” he said.
Tougher measures in Wisconsin and Alberta included wholesale culling of deer in affected areas, with hunters called in and sharpshooters contracted for the killing, actions that proved beyond unpopular.
Meanwhile, the baiting ban is the only official remedy.
While the states are providing ample information on the location of the risk and remedies, wildlife officials said, not all hunters heed the warnings and advice.
“What most researchers would offer up, I think, is that there is a risk of transference to humans,” said Bryan Richards, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the emerging disease coordinator for the National Wildlife Health Center.
“That risk is small," he said. “But we cannot rule out that CWD could transfer, at some point, into a human host.”