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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Baiting Remains Hunting’s No. 1 Violation in Wisconsin

   Wisconsin’s deer-baiting violators should get credit for at least one thing: They work consistently hard disregarding the state’s baiting and feeding laws.

   Whether Wisconsin forbade deer baiting in one third of its 72 counties in 2006 or in 82% of its counties in 2023, deer baiters chronically led the state in hunting-related citations. A review of citations issued by the Department of Natural Resources from 2018 through 2023 showed baiting/feeding generated 3,283 citations those years, No. 1 in hunting-related violations and No. 3 overall in outdoor recreation, with 2023 data still coming in.

Baiting is currently legal in 14 of Wisconsin's 72 counties: Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, Iron, Burnett, Price, St. Croix, Pierce, Clark, Brown, Door, Kewaunee, Manitowoc and Ozaukee.

   In fact, baiters and, to a lesser extent, recreational deer feeders, combined for three times more citations than hunting’s No. 2 violation: putting loaded guns on or into a boat, car, truck or other motorized vehicle.

   And it’s not as if baiting violations carry cheap penalties. About 95% of baiting citations bring a $343.50 fine, according to Matt O’Brien, the DNR’s deputy chief warden. Violators who exceed baiting’s 2-gallon maximum by 25 gallons or more risk fines over $745. The fine for getting caught with a loaded gun in or on your vehicle is $258.

   DNR wardens issued over 600 types of citations the past six years. Of the 10 most common citations issued, only two involved hunting. While baiting/feeding ranked third overall, violations involving loaded firearms on or inside boats and motor vehicles ranked ninth with 1,019 citations.

   Those findings basically align with reports compiled each December in the 2000s by former DNR chief warden Randy Stark when recapping the nine-day November gun-deer season. DNR wardens issued only 87 baiting citations in 2002 after the agency banned baiting statewide in the wake of CWD’s discovery. Baiting citations fell to 76 in 2003 when uncertainty surrounded the Legislature’s newly imposed 2-gallon limit. Only the most egregious violations drew citations that year.

   Baiting citations then fluctuated during gun season from 150 to 334 cases through 2013, when Stark retired. The DNR then discontinued Stark’s detailed reports on gun-season violations. During the past six years, DNR data show baiting violations have ranged from 333 in 2018 to 516 in 2020.

   Which violation is No. 1 in Wisconsin outdoor recreation? The agency’s detailed annual citation records from 2018 through 2023 showed fishing without a license topped the list the past six years, totaling 4,482 citations, nearly 750 annually.

   That’s not shocking, of course. Many folks are casual anglers. They might go fishing once a year, and figure their odds of getting caught are minuscule. Others maybe felt hurried that day and skipped buying it, or forgot their license expired March 31.

   Boaters can be forgetful, too; even complacent. DNR data show boaters often disregard laws on personal flotation devices, such as carrying enough PFDs for everyone on their boat, or having a throwable PFD in boats 16 feet or longer. PFD violations rank No. 2 in Wisconsin outdoor recreation, accounting for 3,949 citations, nearly 660 annually.

   Complacency and forgetfulness also play roles in three other common violations, all involving registration requirements for boats, ATVs/UTVs, and snowmobiles.

   -- No. 4: Violations of snowmobile registration rules and registration stickers; 2,479 citations, nearly 415 annually.

   -- No. 5: Violations of boat registration rules and registration stickers or hull ID numbers; 2,468 citations; about 410 annually.

   -- No. 6: Violations of ATV/UTV registration rules and registration stickers, 1,745 citations; about 290 annually.

   In contrast, it’s hard to bait deer through oversight or complacency. When game wardens show up at a treestand and find a bait pile nearby, the hunter seldom says: “Hmm. How did all those corn cobs and bruised apples get there?”

   Nope. Buying, hauling, pouring and monitoring bait doesn’t happen by accident, especially among hunters who watch their bait 24-7 with trail-cameras.

   Other top DNR violations requiring intent rank lower on the list.

   -- No. 7: Possessing marijuana, illegal drugs and/or drug paraphernalia; 1,279 citations, nearly 215 annually.

   -- No. 8: Operating personal watercraft too fast or too close to other boats; 1,045 citations, nearly 175 annually.

   -- No. 10: Fishing with more than three hooks, 904 citations, about 150 annually.

   But none of those other top violations require the same sweat, labor and planning common to baiting/feeding. The only charitable excuse is that hunters must pay attention to the state’s expanding roster of counties that forbid baiting. When a wild deer or privately owned captive deer on a game farm tests positive for chronic wasting disease in a county with no previous CWD cases, baiting is immediately banned there. Likewise, if a county’s border is within 10 miles of the new CWD case, baiting is outlawed there, too.

   To complicate matters, the Legislature passed a bill in 2017 that lifts a county’s baiting ban if the DNR finds no more CWD cases for three years. The ban expires in neighboring counties if no new cases appear within two years.

   That law, however, doesn’t require the DNR to conduct scientifically designed sampling before lifting the ban. CWD tests remain voluntary statewide. In fact, the bill’s author, former Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, still publicly encourages hunters not to get their deer tested for fear they could trigger bans.

   DNR wardens, of course, won’t publicly criticize laws that complicate their work. Instead, they give hunters some grace when random CWD testing triggers or relaxes the Jarchow law.

   Dylan Belisle, a DNR warden who patrols Rusk and Barron counties, said Rusk County was always open to baiting until a deer near Birchwood in Washburn County tested positive for CWD in October 2023. In contrast, Barron County has been a revolving door, opening and closing repeatedly because of the Jarchow law.

   Belisle said most hunters want to be law-abiding, whether they like a law or not. Still, it’s a learning curve as baiting laws fluctuate in his area, and he considers that uncertainty when encountering hunters in the field.

   “Hunters understand, and most of those who were baiting know they have to learn to hunt without it,” Belisle said. “Others see someone on social media using a gravity feeder, but don’t realize it’s illegal here. And just like any other rule, some hunters know the law quite well, they disagree with it, and they continue baiting no matter what.”

Deer baiting has been Wisconsin’s No. 1 hunting violation much of the past 25 years.

— Patrick Durkin photo

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