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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin’s Deer-Bait Business Thrives While CWD Worsens

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

   Baiting and feeding deer is illegal in 59 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, so wildlife professor Scott Craven thought it odd Dec. 7 to see 50-pound bags of “deer corn” stacked atop a pallet as he Christmas-shopped at a major retail store in Madison.

   Madison, of course, is 20 miles east of where the Department of Natural Resources verified Wisconsin’s first three cases of chronic wasting disease in February 2002.

   The DNR imposed a deer baiting and feeding ban statewide soon after. The Legislature ended the ban in 2003, except in the CWD-positive counties of Dane, Iowa, Sauk, Richland and Walworth. That law restricts bait piles elsewhere to 2 gallons, and expands the ban whenever the DNR verifies CWD in other counties or counties within 10 miles of new cases.

    The always-fatal disease has since ballooned in wild deer from those three Dane County cases to 12,394 cases in 44 counties. Roughly 88% of those cases are within an hour’s drive of Madison. The 13 counties that still allow deer baiting/feeding are Door, Iron, Brown, Price, Pierce, Ozaukee, St. Croix, Burnett, Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, Manitowoc and Kewaunee.

   Given that all open-baiting counties are two- to five-hour drives from the state capital, Craven—a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—couldn’t fathom why Madison retailers would stock and sell deer corn.

   “I know gas stations and grocery stores up north sell deer corn, but it struck me as irresponsible to see all those big, white bags with bright yellow ‘Deer Corn’ lettering stacked in a local store,” Craven said. “It was like a big flashing yellow light advertising a product that can’t be legally used anywhere close. At the least it’s a sad lack of awareness of a major conservation problem in the store’s backyard. That store depends on healthy wildlife populations for an array of outdoor recreation, and yet it’s selling a product that puts deer at risk. At least they could post a sign reminding people that corn piles can concentrate deer and increase the risk of spreading CWD.”

   Craven felt so baffled he summoned the store’s manager, but that “didn’t go well.”

   “The guy was polite, but he basically shrugged his shoulders and said many stores and feedmills also sell it,” Craven said. “He was unmoved by my concern that peddling corn could worsen an already desperate situation with CWD.”

   Craven left the store agitated, but concedes the situation isn’t unique. Many folks also buy and possess explosive fireworks from licensed sellers. They aren’t breaking laws or risking citations until using them.

   Why such disconnects? Because Western democracies avoid interfering with private commerce, even for potentially harmful products. Governments instead regulate advertising on such products, typically alcohol, cigarettes and pharmaceuticals. After all, it’s futile to forbid their sale, and risks creating black markets.

   But as Craven’s experience shows, deer bait isn’t just a roadside market where “mom and pop” sell surplus corn, carrots, potatoes and fallen apples from rusty pickups and plywood kiosks, with hand-painted signs for advertising. In addition to “deer corn,” retail stores also sell commercial bait products such as pulverized corn, pellet feeds, and cherry- or apple-flavored powders for treating 200 pounds of shell corn. Those corny treatments promise to “bring droves of deer in from afar” and “make deer lick their chops and beg for more.”

   You might laugh at such goofy claims, but it’s not illegal to separate wishful thinkers from their money, and the DNR can’t bust buyers until they pour their bait in one of the 59 counties that forbid its use. And it’s doubtful we’ll craft a law to prevent the “intent to bait.” Just ask Randy Stark, who worked three decades for the DNR, including 12 years as its chief conservation warden until retiring in 2014.

   “It might sound like a good idea, but try writing that law and running it past the people who have to enforce it,” Stark said. “They’ll hand you 30 pages of exceptions you’ll face in court. If you question someone leaving a store with deer corn, they’ll say they’re feeding birds and squirrels in their backyard, or heading to their cabin up north. You also can’t cite someone for fishing when the walleye season is closed. They’ll claim they’re fishing for big crappies. Should we ban the sale and possession of Rapalas, too?”

   So, what should a state with the world’s worst case of endemic CWD make of all that deer corn and bait supplements? Yes, CWD likely causes some folks to quit deer hunting, but it’s tough to measure how many.

   Our endemic apathy toward CWD is more easily measured. If the hunting public truly cared about CWD’s proven risks to deer, we would not see manufacturers and stores peddling products that risk increasing CWD’s spread and infection rates.

   Consider these measuresments of indifference: Seven counties are recording CWD infection rates near or above 20% this fall: Richland, 31.1%; Iowa, 28.2%; Sauk, 29%; Lafayette, 27%; Columbia, 20.5%; Dane, 19.6%; and Grant, 18.7%.

   And yet increasingly fewer hunters in those counties test their deer for CWD, even though disease rates are climbing, testing is free, and more sample-collection sites are conveniently located; with many also providing dumpsters for butchered bones. As of Dec. 14, hunters in the above seven counties registered 32,588 deer during our archery and firearms seasons, but submitted only 13.8% (4,484) for CWD tests. Of those tested deer, 25.8% (1,159) were infected.

   That means venison from about 7,250 other infected deer in those counties are now food for hunters, their friends and family, who presumably believe ignorance is bliss. Further, previous research found roughly 40% (an estimated 464 so far this year) of hunters who submit samples for testing start eating the venison before learning the test results.

   And that means over 7,700 people in those seven counties are willfully ignoring advice from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization not to eat venison from CWD-infected deer.

    Those figures explain Wisconsin’s indifference toward deer baiting’s commercial “yellow light districts.” If most hunters don’t think they’re risking their families’ health by eating CWD-infected venison, we surely won’t shame away the bait trade to protect the state's deer herd.

“Deer corn” is sold across Wisconsin at gas stations, roadside kiosks and retail stores, even though it can only be used as deer bait in 13 counties. — Patrick Durkin photo

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