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Baiting ban opponents, wildlife officials debate bill to forbid bans

Wildlife officials say baiting causes deer to concentrate more closely than they do naturally in winter, potentially furthering the spread of disease

Jon Pieper, operations manager at Apple Creek Whitetails in Wisconsin, speaks Friday morning at the Capitol during a hearing about a bill regarding deer baiting bans.
Jon Pieper, operations manager at Apple Creek Whitetails in Wisconsin, speaks Friday morning at the Capitol during a hearing about a bill regarding deer baiting bans.
Darren Gibbins / Bismarck Tribune
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BISMARCK — Supporters of a bill that would keep wildlife officials from banning deer baiting in North Dakota say the main disease that bans are meant to corral isn’t as bad as thought, and maintaining bans will only diminish hunter access and success.

But North Dakota Game and Fish Department officials argue they won’t get a second chance at fighting chronic wasting disease if it gets past a certain point.

The disease has been accelerating in North Dakota deer the past couple of years. Game and Fish restricts baiting — placing food to attract deer to a certain area — in hunting units if they fall within 25 miles of a CWD detection zone in North Dakota or a surrounding state or province. Wildlife officials say baiting causes deer to concentrate more closely than they do naturally in winter, potentially furthering the spread of disease.

House Bill 1151 would bar Game and Fish from banning baiting on private land. Supporters of the bill say baiting gives people with busy schedules a chance to hunt for short spans of time. It also allows hunters with disabilities an opportunity to hunt, they maintain. The House Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on the bill Friday.

DJ Randolph, of Velva, said some of the hunting blinds he’s used in the Prairie Grit program, which provides sporting opportunities for people with physical and mental developmental disabilities, became nearly useless after a bait ban was put in place.

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If every hunter had the same physical ability and access to quality land, baiting wouldn’t be an issue, “but that’s not the reality,” Randolph said.

He added that bait bans apply to big game animals but not to turkey hunting or to people who want to watch or photograph wildlife.

“The deer don’t really know the difference between one grain pile from another,” he said.

Game and Fish in 2009 began banning baiting in areas where CWD was confirmed. The department’s job, by law, is to use the best science available to make hunting, trapping and fishing opportunities available now and in the future, according to Wildlife Division Director Casey Anderson.

Andy Buntrock, of Menoken, testifies before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a Jan. 20, 2023 hearing at the Capitol on a bill regarding deer baiting bans.
Andy Buntrock, of Menoken, testifies before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a Jan. 20, 2023 hearing at the Capitol on a bill regarding deer baiting bans.
Darren Gibbins / Bismarck Tribune

The bill “removes one of the department’s tools” to manage a disease that, “once it’s contracted, it’s always fatal,” he said.

Game and Fish surveys show most hunters trust the department to handle such matters, and license sales have increased since 2009, which Anderson said shows interest isn’t waning.

Outdoors enthusiast Andy Buntrock, of Menoken, said the “hysteria” around CWD “is similar to other unnecessary and heavy mandates by the government,” which he said have been fed by “media frenzy and federal dollars.”

“There is resistance out there naturally to this disease,” Buntrock said. “Mother Nature will take care of her own.”

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He added, “We’re here to restore our freedoms. We want to put the power back in the hands of sportsmen and women.”

Jon Pieper, operations manager at Apple Creek Whitetails in Wisconsin, said deer on the farm benefited from the use of humic acid as a food plot fertilizer and as a feed additive. He also told the committee that certain deer have a genetic resistance to CWD. Some on the farm that tested positive for the disease at a young age lived to be 8 or 9 years old, he said.

“It don’t affect the deer like people are saying,” Pieper said.

Translating information from a farm setting to a wild setting involves “a considerable level of complexity,” Game and Fish Wildlife Veterinarian Charlie Bahnson told the committee. A deer without the stressors of free-ranging might live longer with a neurological disease than deer in the wild, he said, but he added “It’s quite clear that the clock starts ticking” when a deer is infected.

The state’s bait ban is consistent with those used in other states, Bahnson said. CWD was first seen in Colorado — where baiting is not allowed — in the 1980s. The disease is still “pretty hot” in that state’s northwest corner, with infection rates as high as 33% in mule deer bucks. That’s concerning, Bahnson said, but “it took 45 years to get there.”

In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan — where baiting is allowed — the first cases were found in captive elk in 1997, then in wild deer a year or two later. Today, some areas have 80-90% infection rates in mule deer bucks, according to Bahnson.

“Saskatchewan took the approach of doing nothing. Baiting has been a part of the hunting culture there, it was never controlled, and this is the outcome they received,” he said.

Elgin rancher Keith Payne said taking the ban ability away from Game and Fish would have “grave consequences” not only for wildlife but for sheep and cattle that come in contact with wild animals. He’s hauled many deer carcasses from his hayland and cropland, which is in the hunting unit where CWD was first discovered in the state.

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“These diseased deer are drinking out of the same water tanks and eating out of the same bales as our cattle,” he said. “It makes no sense to take away the ability of Game and Fish to help manage our wildlife.”

The committee took no immediate action.

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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