DULUTH, Minn — Deer baiting continues to be an issue in Minnesota’s firearms deer season this fall, according to Department of Natural Resources enforcement officials. As of Thursday, 140 baiting citations had been issued to hunters in addition to 42 warnings, DNR officials said.
Over the past five years, Minnesota conservation officers have issued an average of 147 baiting violations per year.
Deer baiting, illegal in Minnesota since 1991, continues to be the No. 1 violation among big-game hunters in the state, according to the DNR. In baiting, hunters typically place corn, apples, pumpkins or other food near their deer stands in hopes of attracting a deer.
The practice continues at about the same level as in recent years despite significant fines and the possible forfeiture of hunters’ firearms.
“People still aren’t learning,” said DNR conservation officer Kipp Duncan, who works north and east of Duluth.
Tom Provost, DNR regional enforcement supervisor in Grand Rapids, said deer hunters who use bait are trying to shortcut the hunting process.
“Philosophically, I think it’s an instant-gratification thing,” Provost said. “I think people are wanting to get two weeks of hunting into two days and up their odds.”
Conservation officers spend a lot of time, especially on opening weekend of the season, trying to enforce Minnesota’s baiting rule. Aerial surveillance by DNR pilots can help in identifying bait sites from above, and conservation officers also rely on tips from other hunters or neighbors to find hunters using bait.
Conservation officer Andy Schmidt, who works the Brookston area, says baiting hasn’t diminished.
“I don’t think we’ve made a dent in it,” Schmidt said. “I think it’s still alive and well.”
Origin of baiting rule
Deer baiting wasn’t a major issue in Minnesota until the 1980s. It wasn’t expressly forbidden at the time, but bowhunters mounted an effort to formally make the practice legal. However, the Minnesota Legislature eventually passed a law in 1991 to outlaw the practice.
Illegal baiting has become especially prevalent in the past decade as deer populations have dropped and competition for deer has increased.
Bait, according to hunting regulations, includes “grain, fruits, vegetables, nuts, hay or other food that is capable of attracting or enticing deer and has been placed by a person.” Hunters may place bait near where they hunt at other times of the year, but according to regulations, all bait must be completely removed for 10 days before hunting.
An entire page of Minnesota’s hunting synopsis is devoted to explaining what constitutes bait and what is not bait.
Penalties include a typical fine of at least $300, plus about $100 in expenses. In addition, the hunter faces a loss of hunting privileges for a year and forfeiture of the firearm upon conviction.
Across the border in Wisconsin, hunters are permitted to use bait in quantities up to two gallons, except in counties where baiting deer is prohibited. Most northern Wisconsin counties allow deer baiting.
Bait vs. food plots
Provost said hunting ethics are behind Minnesota’s baiting law.
“We need to make sure we’re practicing and preaching ethics, so we continue with the principle of fair chase,” Provost said. “Otherwise, that opens us up to attacks from non-hunters and anti-hunters.”
Complicating the issue of baiting for some Minnesota hunters is the fact that agricultural crops, including “wildlife food plantings,” are not considered bait. Those so-called “food plots,” aimed at attracting deer during the fall when other food sources are scarce, are commonly advertised in hunting publications. Many hunters don’t see a clear ethical or practical distinction between baiting with food products and attracting deer with food plots.
DNR officials say bait significantly increases the risk of disease transmission by concentrating deer and promoting nose-to-nose contact among them. The agency also contends that bait attracts and holds large numbers of deer on private parcels, creating a “privatization” of the deer herd.
Baiting, DNR officials say, can alter a deer’s natural movements, effectively taking away another hunter’s attempt to shoot a deer.
Worth the risk to some
Some hunters are willing to risk being caught baiting, Schmidt said, because they think they’re unlikely to be discovered.
“I think that’s a big part of it,” Schmidt said. “(Hunters think), ‘What would a warden be doing back here?’ I think they feel it’s a low percentage.”
“We’re working hard to catch them,” Duncan said. “We find them deeper in the woods. They just don’t expect us to find them.”
Officers must find hunters actively hunting over bait in order to issue a citation. In some cases, officers will discover remnants of bait one season and make it a point to be at the hunter’s stand on opening day of the following season.