Is there a difference between the two?
By David Hart
Deer hunters love a good debate. We’ll haggle over the best bullet, the ethics of crossbows and whether or not the moon has any influence on the rut. But nothing stirs up as much emotion as the debate over food plots and bait. Are they the same?
The answer is pretty simple for Virginia hunter Karl Schmidt. “I don’t see any difference,” he says.
Schmidt plants five or six acres of corn every year and then mows a little at a time throughout hunting season. His state wildlife agency forbids hunters to buy corn and drop it on the ground. Scattering the cultivated corn with the help of a tractor, however, is perfectly legal. And it has the same effect: It draws deer to a specific loca-tion so Schmidt, who is confined to a wheelchair, can shoot them.
“It’s not only similar to baiting, it is baiting, only our game department doesn’t call it baiting,” he said. “I find it ironic that it’s perfectly legal to plant and mow corn for the sole purpose of hunting over it, but I can’t buy a bag of corn and do the same thing. It’s hypocrisy.”
It also could be discriminatory.
“I’m fortunate that I have the land, the equipment and the money to plant six acres of corn. My neighbor down the road doesn’t have any land or farming equipment. Is it fair that I can plant corn and then mow it for the specific purpose of attracting deer, but he can’t throw some corn on the ground for the same purpose? The end result is the same, isn’t it?” wonders Schmidt. “The deer don’t care whether they’ve been shot over a bait pile or in a food plot.”
The Disease Factor
The deer might not, but many biologists do.
As a group, wildlife managers insist that baiting artificially concentrates deer and thus increases the risk of the spread of disease. That’s why many states enacted bans on feeding and baiting or tightened existing laws soon after the discovery of chronic wasting disease. Other states, including Maryland and North Carolina, con-tinue to allow baiting. Schmidt points to those and other states that border Virginia as proof that the disease is-sue is blown out of proportion.
“I’ve been hunting for 40 years now, and you can’t show me one state where baiting has been proven to be responsible for a major disease outbreak,” he argues. “Every state that borders Virginia allows baiting, and I challenge you to show me one problem that has come up as a result.”
Schmidt agrees that baiting can concentrate deer, one of the primary arguments biologists use in their opposition to baiting, but deer routinely crowd themselves even when there is no bait present. During severe winters in northern climates, whitetails gather in large groups and remain in a small area for days, even weeks on end. Called yarding, it’s a well-known phenomenon that crowds large numbers of deer into a small area for extended periods of time. Still, biologists tend to agree that any time deer gather in tight quarters, there is a greater risk for disease transmission, something they insist isn’t worth the risk, especially when done for the sole purpose of hunting.
“There is no question that feeding and baiting increases the likelihood of disease and parasite transmis-sion,” says Mississippi State University professor of wildlife ecology Dr. Steve Demarais. “It’s difficult to quantify the rate of death from disease in general, but any time you artificially put a large number of deer in a small area, you are going to see higher rates of disease and parasite transmission. It’s a well-known fact. We have to treat the deer in our research pens for parasites four times a year.”
However, Demarais and Texas A&M-Kingsville professor Dr. Tim Fulbright agree that food plots also artificially concentrate deer. The difference depends on the size of the food plot. Fulbright says there is certainly a risk of disease transmission in any food plot, but the risks tend to be higher in smaller ones.
“The main issue with supplemental feeding or baiting is that you have a bunch of different deer sticking their noses into a single trough or a very confined area,” says Fulbright. “A food plot at least allows the animals to spread out some, even if it just a little.”
Is Baiting Easier?
If there seems to be little difference in the risk of disease transmission, there also seems to be little varia-tion in the effectiveness of bait and food plots. Schmidt insists that dropping corn on the ground or using a timed broadcast feeder does not translate to a guaranteed shot at a giant buck any more than sitting guard over a food plot assures success. He hunts over bait in Maryland, where baiting is legal, and on food plots in Virginia, where bait isn’t legal. He has no better luck in one state or the other, particularly on trophy-class bucks. A feeder sometimes won’t even pull in a small buck or doe. Schmidt says whitetails do indeed eat the corn he puts out, but they know when it’s safe to approach a bait pile and when it isn’t.
“They aren’t stupid. They learn real quick when they can hit a bait pile and when they can’t,” says Schmidt. “Believe it or not, it takes a lot of skill to bait properly. There is a lot more to it than just dumping corn on the ground or filling up a feeder.”
Anyone who has spent much time over a food plot also knows that deer don’t always stroll into a clover field during legal shooting hours and stand broadside at 50 yards. Whitetails learn to avoid threats, no matter where those threats occur.
“Can you condition deer to come running to a feeder? Absolutely. I’ve seen it. Does that mean you are going to kill a deer every time a feeder goes off? Definitely not,” says Fulbright.
If deer can become conditioned to the sound of a feeder, they can also become programmed to alter their normal patterns thanks to the constant presence of bait. A study in South Carolina found that whitetails were far less likely to move during daylight hours in areas of the state where baiting is legal than in areas where baiting is not legal. As a result, hunter success actually decreased because the animals were well-fed and had little rea-son to move until dark. For the same reasons, whitetails also moved less in general. However, Fulbright says deer that have access to food plots also tend to move less.
“I just don’t see much difference in how they affect deer behavior,” he says.
Food plot proponents insists clover and other plants offer abundant insect life for birds, food for turkeys and rabbits and nesting cover for songbirds — benefits that can’t be found in a pile of corn. Fulbright, however, argues that raccoons eat bait. So do turkeys, crows, quail, doves, hogs and even coyotes. Those animals clearly benefit from the constant availability of corn, so it’s not fair to say a food plot benefits wildlife and a feeder doesn’t.
Arguably, food plotters tend to take a more holistic approach to the landscape than baiters, planting a variety of wildlife-friendly trees, shrubs and other plants that are good for more than just attracting deer. That’s not to say those who rely on bait don’t care about the landscape, but those who plant clover or corn or beans at least are more conscious of the ecosystem as a whole.
Despite the various arguments that suggest food plots and bait are not the same, Demarais and Fulbright agree that when it comes down to it, there really isn’t much difference between the two from a biological per-spective.
“Both are artificial,” says Fulbright. “They both have the same purpose, and deer respond to them in many similar ways. They both bring deer together that might not otherwise share the same space.”
The Ethical Factor
Eric Nuse, executive director of the hunting ethics think-tank The Orion Institute, largely agrees and says there isn’t much difference ethically, either. He echoes Fulbright.
“What is the ultimate reason for planting a food plot? The same as dumping corn on the ground: To kill deer, of course. In that sense, there really isn’t much of a difference between a food plot and a pile of corn,” says Nuse, a retired Vermont game warden. “Both make it easier to see and shoot deer and both are not a natu-ral part of the landscape. I’m not a big fan of either one because there are certainly some ethical issues with both of them.”
Part of the ethical debate includes the total effort put into the hunt, including the work that goes into a food plot, says Nuse. Planting a food plot not only requires far more work than buying a bag of corn and pour-ing it into a feeder, it creates a connection to the land and a better understanding of the ways of wildlife and na-ture in general. But he agrees that carrying a sack of corn a mile into a wilderness area requires plenty of effort, as well.
“Where do you draw the line? I don’t know,” he says.
The bottom line, of course, comes down to the law and personal ethics. Nuse agrees that if it is legal, there is nothing stopping a hunter from sitting over a broadcast feeder with a timer set for sunrise and sunset. Nor should there be any issue with a hunter watching a clover field he planted.
“How each of us chooses to hunt comes down to a personal decision,” he says. “We can’t decide if it’s legal, but we can certainly decide if it fits into our own definition of ethical.”