Regardless of your opinions about piling apples in the woods to attract deer, the practice spreads disease among Utah’s wild herds, according to the state’s Division of Wildlife Resources.
“Baiting is not necessarily just an ethics issue. It gets at the heart of disease transmission for many of our wildlife, specifically deer,” Riley Peck, DWR’s legislative liaison, told lawmakers last week. “CWD [chronic wasting disease] in Utah is prevalent. It does have an increased transmission rate through baiting.”
This is because apples and corn, tantamount to deer candy, encourages wildlife to congregate in unnatural ways, exposing healthy individuals to sick ones, witnesses told the House Natural Resource, Agriculture and Environment Committee in support of HB295, a bill to ban the use of bait and trail cameras in big game hunting.
A degenerative neurological disorder similar to mad cow disease, CWD first appeared in Utah when an infected mule deer was shot near Vernal in 2002. Since then, a total of 118 deer and two elk have tested positive, according to state wildlife officials.
Most cases are clustered in the Wasatch Plateau, Grand County and the Uinta Basin. Colorado and Wyoming are particularly hard hit with infection rates between 25% and 50%, according to Peck.
Utah is alone among Western states not to heavily regulate baiting by deer hunters. DWR’s mule deer committee explored baiting in 2019 and recommended a ban. But the Utah Wildlife Board largely punted on the issue, which has now landed into the arms of the Legislature.
Peck urged lawmakers to support the measure because it would help stanch chronic wasting disease. The agency is neutral on trail cameras.
In an 11-3 vote, the committee advanced the bill, now awaiting action by the full House.
“We have to recognize that technology, when coupled with traditional practices, such as baiting, is taking away at least what slim advantage the wildlife we pursue already had,” said bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Casey Snider, an avid hunter from Paradise. “We have the ability right now with technology to place apples or some other bait over a [bait] set and put cameras in that immediately send cellphone pictures to the hunter. When you magnify this across the landscape at scale, you have real significant problems.”
He illustrated his presentation with before and after pictures, taken from Utah hunters’ trail cameras, of deer being killed over bait sets.
Even so, Utah’s hunting community is sharply divided over the use of bait and motion-activated trail cameras, and it showed at last Friday’s hearing, where many hunters spoke passionately for and against Snider’s bill.
Baiting has a legitimate place in hunting, especially in archery, which sees low success rates even when bait and cameras are used, some argued. A ban would also infringe on property rights, warned prominent outfitter Wade Heaton, whose family operates a vast private hunting preserve near Alton. He acknowledged that many would find the practices Snider depicted distasteful.
“My response would be, ‘Then don’t do it.’ There are lots of options out there in ways that people can hunt. And this is just one of them. But we’re not addressing any of those other, in some cases equally distasteful, activities and methods,” said Heaton, a former Wildlife Board member who was recently elected to the Kane County Commission.
He was more concerned, however, about the rights of property owners.
“There’s an unintended consequence of this bill that puts us onto a slippery slope. When we start addressing and restricting activities on private property, this no longer is about hunting or a pile of corn or a trail camera. It’s about something much bigger than all of it. And that is just protecting basic and simple private property.”
Snider’s proposed camera ban would not apply to private land, but the prohibition on baiting would. A bait ban confined to public land would be pointless since it would enable, even encourage, private landowners to use bait piles to lure deer onto their property to be hunted at the expense of public hunting opportunities.
Hunter Ryan Carter argued that HB295 would undermine hunters’ vital role in managing wildlife.
“For our bow hunters statewide, their success rate is at 13%. That’s a really low number for guys to wait 20 years for a tag. It’s hard to understand why we want to cripple their success rates,” Carter said. “The goal is to kill an animal. We need to cull the herd. And the goal on top of that is to kill the oldest age class.”
An opposite view was taken by Utah’s most influential hunting group, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, whose president said the bill would put “the hunt back into hunting.”
“We live in a world that sees technological advances almost daily. This is also true in the world of hunting. The average hunter is better equipped, better skilled than ever before,” Troy Justensen said. “SFW’s end goal is to maintain the quality [of Utah hunting] while increasing opportunity. Bottom line, if we as hunters are not willing to show a little restraint in using the available technology, quality and opportunity will decrease.”