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One view on the great bait debate

I checked my trail camera yesterday and found a few interesting things – a trio of coyotes on the hunt, a skunk ambling along and a bobcat prowling past – but not many deer. That’s understandable. Our woods don’t have many acorns this year, so I recon the deer have gravitated to areas with better foraging options.

I like keeping track of the deer in my neighborhood during the non-hunting season, so I automatically thought of stopping at the local farm store for a bag of shell corn. If I spread some golden kernels around the camera, within days, I’d have deer mugging like movie stars on Oscar night. But I didn’t do it, and I won’t. Not this year or ever again.

I have decided that feeding deer is a luxury I no longer can afford. It’s not the cost of the corn that’s stopping me. That is fairly cheap. No, it’s the cost to deer.

Under normal conditions, deer stay relatively spread out. They have social groups, but the limitations of food, water and cover keep the groups dispersed across the landscape. That isolation serves them well because it minimizes the potential for diseases to spread from deer to deer.

Last summer, we got a lesson in what happens when deer get too cozy with one another. Extreme drought statewide forced deer into close proximity around shrinking water sources. Midges – little biting flies that breed in moist places – suddenly had access to an abundance of food, and they feasted, flying from deer to deer. In the process, they spread the viruses that cause hemorrhagic diseases, creating the worst outbreak in years.

Hemorrhagic disease probably kills some deer every summer. Outbreaks are worse in drought years and in areas with dense deer populations. But hemorrhagic viruses have been around for as long as deer have been, and whitetails have developed a degree of resistance that allows disease and deer to coexist. That isn’t true of every disease.

Unlike hemorrhagic disease, chronic wasting disease (CWD) kills every deer it infects. Left unchecked, it spreads slowly but steadily. Wisconsin detected its first case of CWD in free-ranging deer in 2002. Eight years later, 23 percent of mature whitetail bucks harvested in the core area had the disease.

Missouri caught the CWD outbreak in Linn and Macon counties early, and we have the benefit of Wisconsin’s and other state’s experience in combatting the disease. The Conservation Department is taking decisive action to contain the outbreak. I am hopeful that we can do it. But hoping alone is not enough. CWD is a game-changer, and if we want to win, we have to change our thinking and our behavior toward deer.

CWD spreads mainly through nose-to-nose contact. Anything that brings deer together in unnatural concentrations increases the chances of nose-to-nose contact and tilts the playing field in favor of CWD. Artificial feeding brings deer together in artificially high numbers.

It isn’t just about CWD. There are other diseases, such as bovine tuberculosis, that could cause problems for Missouri’s deer herd. The bottom line is that while artificial feeding is fun for people, it’s bad for deer.

That is why I won’t be baiting around my trail camera anymore. Instead, I will think less like a rancher and more like a hunter, placing my trail cam at trail crossings and other high-traffic areas to increase my chances of catching deer on camera. I urge you to do the same. It’s one thing we can all do to protect our deer.

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