Imagine ambling through Utah’s national forests and coming across piles of apples inexplicably scattered on the ground.
That is becoming an increasingly common sight during big-game hunting seasons as the practice of baiting becomes more popular, especially among bowhunters in southern Utah, where apples have proved effective in luring mule deer to places where concealed hunters can get off a clean shot.
Most Western states, including all of Utah’s immediate neighbors, ban or restrict baiting big game, yet the Beehive State allows it. That could change after the Division of Wildlife Resources began studying whether to regulate baiting.
Many Utah hunters and guides argue baiting debases their sport and detracts from the hard work of stalking wild game.
“No one is going to tell you they shot a deer over bait,” said Tim Pilling, a guide based in Wellington. “Baiting is making bowhunting easy. It’s supposed to be hard.”
Nor does baiting with apples square with Western hunting traditions, which adhere to the principle of fair chase, critics say, and it could help spread infectious diseases in deer herds.
“We have CWD [chronic wasting disease] in the state. It’s spread by saliva and nose-to-nose contact. A deer is going to leave saliva on an apple," said Hyrum-based hunter Steve Sorensen, a member of DWR’s mule deer committee. “It’s unethical. I don’t use them. A lot of big mature bucks get killed, and the only reason is because of apples.”
In other parts of the country, however, baiting big game is a long-accepted practice. But hunters in Texas or the Midwest lack access to vast reaches of public land, and they are going after white-tailed deer, a more sedentary species.
The ethical and biological considerations for the West’s elk and mule deer are much different, according to some guides and scientists.
For starters, baiting congregates deer in unnatural ways, increasing the chances of spreading disease, according to wildlife biologist Brock McMillan, a Brigham Young University professor who serves on DWR’s mule deer committee.
“The way mule deer roam, their home range is 150 miles. They travel huge expanses of land where [white-tailed deer] won’t move more than two miles from where they were born,” McMillan said. “When you manipulate that with baiting, it changes the natural way they use the landscape.”
So far, baiting is mostly used in bowhunting, whose general season ran from Aug. 17 to Sept. 13, with an extended season in some areas through Nov. 30. The nine-day rifle season starts Oct. 19. Utah bowhunters are required to complete a brief online ethics course, but it is silent on the use of bait.
Some guides want to see baiting banned on public land, but feel differently about private land.
“If it’s private land, it’s up to them how they harvest deer. But it’s a problem on public land,” said one southern Utah guide, who asked to not be named to avoid alienating employers and clients. “It’s unfair to the wildlife, and it’s unfair to other hunters.”
Tasty bait tends to move deer away from one place toward another to the advantage of one hunter over others. Is it fair for hunters using apples to expect others to stay away from animals attracted to their bait piles?
A ban would level the hunting field and render such questions moot.
Colorado bans baiting on both private and public land. It’s even illegal to shoot a deer over bait regardless of how the bait got there. Baiting is legal on private land in Wyoming, but only with a special permit that specifies a time period and the spot where the bait is placed. It cannot be used on commercial hunts, and the bait must be removed.
In Utah, there are no rules on baiting deer and elk, even though DWR officials strongly discourage feeding wildlife and regulate use of bait for hunting black bears. Besides, apples left on the range or forest floor can look like litter.
Salt blocks are also used to attract big game in Utah, but they are not effective after August, when deer can easily secure the licks’ essential minerals from natural sources.
“You are not going to kill a buck over salt," Sorensen said. "Apples, I feel, are cheating.”
They are candy to deer and other big game, especially in the fall, when the animals are craving calories in advance of winter. This is especially true in southern Utah, where forage is not as plentiful as in the north.
Visitors to Capitol Reef National Reef this time of year will notice throngs of deer gorging themselves in the park's historic orchards around the aptly named town of Fruita.
Apples have long been used to support guided hunts on the famed Heaton Ranch outside Alton, a 140,000-acre spread whose owners manage for big-game habitat and operate as a private hunting preserve. Messages left by phone and email with the ranch’s lead guide, Wade Heaton, who serves on both the Wildlife Board and the mule deer committee, were not returned.
Last month, the DWR’s mule deer committee endorsed banning bait in a split vote. That vote serves as a recommendation for the board, which is expected to take up the question of baiting next year.
Earlier this year, DWR sent a survey to those who bought a Utah tag last year, querying them on whether they believe baiting for big game hunting should be banned or allowed. Of the 9,300 hunters to receive the survey, 2,055 responded.
According to DWR big-game coordinator Kent Hersey, 43% said it should be made illegal, 35% thought it should remain legal, and 22% were not sure.
The opinions of Utah’s nonhunters matter, too, but ultimately the bait question will be decided by the Wildlife Board, a governor-appointed panel dominated by big-game hunters and ranchers.