Like it or not, baiting is an accepted practice in many states, and is becoming more widespread and acceptable, particularly in states with burgeoning urban and suburban deer populations. Even Pope & Young, the self-proclaimed bastion of bowhunting ethics accepts records of animals taken over bait, where legal. For the biologist, it provides a more effective way to control deer numbers. For the hunter, it increases your chances of success. Or does it?
In the South Carolina Study, not only did hunters kill more deer where baiting is prohibited, but they expended less effort to do so. The results contradict the widespread belief that baiting leads to a larger deer harvest.
The South Carolina Experience
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist Charles Ruth has been researching the effectiveness of baiting from both a hunting and management perspective. His home state provides an ideal laboratory. Baiting is prohibited in the 18-county upstate Piedmont area, which is under DNR jurisdiction.
In the Coastal Plain region, which is managed by the state legislature, it is not addressed in regulation, and thus allowed by default. This divergence has led to a lot of confusion and many residents feel the DNR is being arbitrary and capricious in their regulations. "There's ongoing pressure to prescribe baiting as acceptable practice," says Ruth. "It's not prescribed in the Coastal Plain, it's simply permitted by omission." Where they have the authority, the DNR prohibits the practice.
The problem is exacerbated by South Carolina's high deer population. "Many believe that hunting with bait leads to better hunter success and higher harvest rates," says Ruth. "And this should lead to a better deer management situation." DNR biologists disagreed, and they set out to prove it.
They compared harvest and hunter effort between the two regions over roughly a four-year period. While densities are similar, the Coastal Plain may have slightly more deer. It also has a longer season, 140 days versus 109 days for the Piedmont. For the experiment however, they assumed deer densities were comparable across regions, and season length had no effect.
"The results were shocking," said Ruth "And the more data we gathered, the more our findings were reinforced." For starters, the Piedmont's total deer harvest was 33-percent greater than that of the Coastal Plain. More important from a management standpoint, the doe harvest was 41-percent higher in the Piedmont, as was the number of does harvested per buck — 12-percent higher in the Piedmont. That may be significant to a biologist, but what about a hunter?
Results here were even more revealing. Not surprisingly, Coastal Plain hunters accounted for more days in the field, which Ruth attributed to the longer season. However, they had to hunt longer to take a deer. Piedmont hunters accounted for six-percent fewer days per deer harvested.
These results were counterintuitive, and naturally beg the question: why? "We know through research that baiting changes deer movements and distribution," said Ruth. He cited other research that shows when bait is available, deer tend to visit bait sites more at night. He also cited results from one South Carolina study area where baiting had evolved to supplemental feeding (a common scenario). There, the ratio of night visits to bait sites compared to day visits was 25:1. Given these results, if your goal is to harvest more deer, baiting may actually work against you.
When baiting evolves to supplemental feeding, it leads to an increase in deer densities and body condition. For the hunter, healthier deer and more of them seem like good things. But, these too could be counterproductive. "A well-fed deer is harder to see because it can be selective about when it moves about to feed," says Ruth, and he has the data to back that up.
Hunters in the supplemental feed area spent 34-percent more man-days per deer harvested. Again, this was attributed mostly to more nocturnal behavior. It's important to note that you can't necessarily extrapolate these results to all other habitats and regions of the country. The less natural food available, the more effective baiting and supplemental feed will be. Results will also vary with feeding methods. In the South Carolina experiment, food was available around the clock. Anyone who has hunted over one knows the results would be far different if feeders were on timers, and distributed a limited amount of food only during daylight hours.
Baiting is not restricted to spilling food on the ground either. It includes any man-made attempt to unnaturally concentrate a preferred deer food. This incorporates both the intentional (food plots) and unintentional (spillage from normal agricultural practices, or even the planting of crops for that matter).
Though deer may not visit these food sources much during daylight, research has shown that they increase local deer densities. If you're hunting an area with relatively low densities, this could be considered a plus, whether you hunt over the feeder or not. In fact, you may be better off not hunting the feeder. Several studies have shown mature bucks seldom visit feeders, or food plots during daylight, if at all. They do work the fringes however.
Does baiting work? The South Carolina study gives us some interesting food for thought. Ethical questions notwithstanding, a good many hunters could argue that baiting is an effective way to kill deer. And under certain conditions it can be. Dumping 50 pounds of corn on the ground a week before the season is probably not going to help you much, and may very well hurt you.
At the other extreme are food plots, which represent a more effective and acceptable alternative. We plant them to increase our hunting success (baiting). They're not just a quick fix though. They also improve the overall year-round quality of the habitat, and the animals that live in it. Perhaps we can feel a little less guilty about hunting over them.