Food Plots and Baiting

By Bob Humphrey

 I’ve hunted whitetails in more than two dozen states. Some allow baiting while others do not. And I’ve spent many hours pondering the question of baiting from a social, ethical and biological perspective.

The West Texas wind had been howling around my box blind for several hours; but as the late afternoon sun began lengthening the shadows, the wind finally slacked off. The surrounding mesquite and cactus scrub seemed devoid of life, and the sudden calmness only served to amplify a feeling of desolation. Then, a nearby feeder went off; its sudden ringing nearly launched me from my seat. No sooner had the spinner finished broadcasting corn when deer began materializing out of what, just seconds before, had seemed like a lifeless desert. First came a pair of skittish does, followed shortly by a spike, later a 5-pointer, more does, then more bucks. The bucks seemed to get sequentially bigger — first the reckless yearlings, then a brace of sleek, 2-year-old 8- points. It was exciting, but these weren’t the deer I had flown 1,500 miles to hunt. It wasn’t until shooting light was almost gone that he came — a mature 10-point. With only a scant few minutes to spare, he finally stepped into range. But as I drew back my bow, a sudden twinge of guilt flashed in my psyche. It felt like cheating; it was almost too easy. I grew up in New England, where baiting is not only illegal, but abhorred. This was the first time I’d ever hunted over bait, and though I was genuinely impressed with the number of animals I saw each day, I still felt just a little uneasy about the whole thing. My moral dilemma passed quickly though, and I sent a spiraling shaft toward the buck’s vitals. Since then, I’ve hunted whitetails in more than two dozen states. Some allow baiting while others do not. And I’ve spent many hours pondering the question of baiting from a social, ethical and biological perspective. The ethical questions can be debated ad nauseam, though ultimately, I believe if the practice is allowed by law, it’s up to the individual hunter to decide. As hunters and biologists, we are more concerned with the social and biological issues. Recent years have seen more widespread legalization and acceptance of baiting, particularly in states with burgeoning urban and suburban deer populations. The justification is that it provides a more effective way to control deer numbers. However, if we’re going to try and sell that message to the non-hunting public, we need facts to back it up. And a recent study puts some gaping holes in that argument.


South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist Charles Ruth has been researching the subject of baiting and how effective it is from both a hunting and management perspective. At the Quality Deer Management Association’s (QDMA) 2005 annual conference, Ruth discussed recent research he’s conducted in his home state. The results were both surprising and enlightening. Ruth’s study area, the state of South Carolina, provided an ideal laboratory. In the 18-county upstate area known as the Piedmont, baiting is prohibited by DNR regulations. In the Coastal Plain region, it is not addressed in regulations, and thus allowed by default. “It’s a real weird situation how we got where we are,” said Ruth. The difference is primarily attributable to history. “There were always deer in the Coastal Plain,” he noted. Hunting in that region was done predominantly with dogs. “Baiting was never an issue.” By the late 1970s, and especially the mid-1980s, the region saw a rapid shift to still hunting. “Since there was no law against it, people started baiting, and now it’s entrenched,” Ruth added. “To a large extent, we’ve moved past what I would call baiting, and into supplemental feeding.” In this case, supplemental feeding refers to largescale feeding programs (not mineral/vitamin supplement feeding). The Piedmont situation was quite different. Formerly, deer were absent. There were some restoration efforts, but most of the population growth was natural and gradual. By the late 1950s, the DNR established a hunting season. As deer numbers were low, they prohibited hunting over bait. This divergence has led to a lot of confusion. Many residents don’t understand the difference, and they feel the DNR is being arbitrary and capricious in their regulations. “There’s ongoing pressure to prescribe baiting as acceptable practice,” Ruth said. “It’s not prescribed in the Coastal Plain; it’s simply permitted by omission.” Meanwhile, DNR biologists do not support baiting due to biological, social and ethical issues. South Carolina’s high deer population exacerbates the baiting problem. “Many believe that hunting with bait leads to better hunter success and higher harvest rates,” Ruth said, “and this should lead to a better deer management situation.” DNR biologists disagreed, and they set out to prove it. What they did, quite simply, is compare harvest and effort between the two aforementioned regions over roughly a four-year period. In their experiment, the Piedmont, with no baiting, represented the control, while the Coastal Plain represented the treatment. They also made two assumptions: first, deer densities across regions were comparable, and second, there were no effects due to season length. Ruth noted there is a perception that deer densities are much higher in the Coastal Plain. While he believes densities are similar, he admits the Coastal Plain may have slightly more deer. He also acknowledged that the Coastal Plain has a longer season — 140 days — versus 109 days for the Piedmont, which may have influenced some results.


“The results,” Ruth said, “were shocking. 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 was the doe harvest, which was 41 percent higher in the Piedmont; and the number of does harvested per buck, which was 12 percent higher in the Piedmont. That may be significant to a biologist, but what about a hunter? Not only did hunters kill more deer where baiting is prohibited, but they expended less effort to do so. Results in the Coastal Plain were even more revealing. Not surprisingly, Coastal Plain hunters accounted for more days afield, 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,” Ruth said. He cited other research that shows when bait is available, deer tend to visit bait sites more at night, and it is mostly younger animals that visit during daylight. He also cited results from one study area in South Carolina where baiting had evolved to supplemental feeding. 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 as a hunter; and as Ruth pointed out, “it’s not going to help you much from an overall management standpoint.” Baiting can also be the first step on a slippery slope. Ruth has observed a growing trend from baiting to supplemental feeding. Looking at the effect of bait on body condition and local deer densities, he observed that both increase as you move from baiting to supplemental feeding. For his example, he compared data from an area with supplemental feeding and a nearby wildlife management area that doesn’t allow baiting or feeding. “In the area where feeding took place, deer had greater body weights in nine of ten sex/age classes,” Ruth said. “So you can artificially prop up your deer physically.” Hunters in the supplemental feeding area spent 34 percent more man-days per deer harvested. Again, this is likely due to more nocturnal behavior. While Ruth did not have any supportive data, it’s reasonable to assume if hunters are harvesting 33 percent fewer deer over bait, then deer numbers will also increase. “You stand a chance of unnaturally supporting a higher deer population,” he cautioned. This practice is diametrically opposed to the concept of quality deer management. Your property will hold more deer than the land could support on its own, and even with supplemental feeding, habitat will suffer, making you a slave to a very expensive feeding program. Furthermore, because deer are harder to kill, you have far less control over sex and age ratio of your population. There are also other social implications. One Ruth looked at was deer-vehicle collisions. Despite the Piedmont having a 33 percent higher human population, it had seven percent fewer deer-vehicle collisions per capita.


Ruth was quick to note there is a difference between baiting and planting food plots. “Food plots are part of an overall habitat management plan that also benefits other species,” he said. “The food plot is out there 24/7, 365 days of the year. You don’t have unnatural congregations of deer, and as a result, they’re less susceptible to disease issues.” Obviously, a lot depends on your food plot layout: how big your plots are, how many you plant and what type of forages they contain. Food plots, however, are much more akin to concentrated natural food sources. Again as Ruth pointed out, they’re out there 24/7-365, unlike a pile of corn placed a week or two before the season, and maintained only until the season ends. They’re part of the landscape, and deer visit them more like they would a natural food source.


While not directly part of his research, Ruth also discussed some of the negative social and political aspects of hunting deer with bait. “The general public accepts management and hunting for food, but baiting is generally not acceptable,” he said. “It weakens public support for long-term wildlife management programs.” It won’t make you a better hunter, and based on Ruth’s research, won’t make you a more successful one either. Meanwhile, the general public does not view food plots as baiting. Baiting also unnaturally partitions the resource. “We often hear of baiting pitting hunters against one another,” Ruth said. Imagine, you have a sound QDM program in place and have expended hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on building food plots to grow healthier deer. Then a week before the season, your neighbor dumps a pile of corn over on his side of the property line, hoping to take advantage of all your hard work. It hardly seems fair to the wildlife manager that created food plots, even though we now know that the neighbor with the corn pile may be less successful because of the bait.


The South Carolina study gives us as hunters and land managers some interesting food for thought. Ethical questions notwithstanding, a good many hunters could argue that baiting is an effective way to kill deer. And my experiences in Texas have certainly demonstrated that, under certain conditions, it can be true. However, Texas is very different from South Carolina, and many other places for that matter. And when you also consider the social and ethical aspects, the negatives seem to far outweigh the positives. Food plots, on the other hand, represent a more effective and acceptable alternative. Admittedly, the primary reason we create them is to increase our hunting success. But those of us who have forsaken the quick-fix baiting offers for the more labor-intensive practice of building food plots, typically have a larger objective in mind. We also want a healthy deer herd, living in a healthy environment. Instead of candy, we give them the proper nutrition they need for a year-round diet. And we can better manage our herd for proper sex and age ratio.