The Connection Between Feeding, Baiting, Forests, and Deer

Lately I’ve been learning a lot from botanists and ecologists about the effects of overabundant deer on the forest ecosystem.  For a different perspective, I’ve also talked with foresters.  It’s their job to grow trees for harvest, and sometimes it’s a fine line between forestry and agriculture.  But since deer enjoy browsing on seedlings and saplings, foresters and botanists have a lot in common when it comes to deer.

Last summer I spent a day out in the field with county forester Craig Golembiewski so he could show me what he’s up against.  The photo above is from just one of our many stops that day.  This tree is trying to tell us something about the recreational feeding of deer. 

Although it’s on county land, several lake homes are just over the hill.  Every winter a few of these homeowners feed the deer.  Craig explained that their feeding, probably in amounts well over Wisconsin’s two-gallon legal limit, keeps the deer concentrated in this small area all winter long.  They bed down somewhere near here, head over to the feeders every night, and then return to browse on whatever they find.  “Basically,” he told me, “they come for the corn and stay for the salad.”  Any tender green pine seedlings poking through the snow are in big trouble.  So is any tender new growth on medium-sized trees.

Craig told me the same thing happens with baiting out on public land.  Even though it only continues for a few weeks, or at most a couple months, it’s at just the wrong time of year.  In late fall and early winter, tender pine seedlings are the only tasty green browse remaining.  Deer are concentrated by the bait, and they get tired of the corn after a while.  It’s kind of like us polishing off a bag of Doritos and still craving a little salad.

It was last summer when I went out on my tour with Craig.  Later, as deer season was approaching, I had a great idea.  Clearly, this would be a perfect hunting spot.  I was certain this was a great idea.  It should have worked, but it didn’t.  Although I’m admittedly not an expert hunter, every morning I saw many fresh deer tracks revealing one more reason why my brilliant plan wasn’t working.

Deer naturally get nervous after all the shooting starts on opening morning, and as hunting pressure increases they tend to become nocturnal.  But since these deer had been visiting backyard feeders every night, they were already well on their way.  They’d eat corn at night, and then in the daytime bed down nearby in thick brush where it was hard to sneak up on them.  You might call them commuter deer.  Or maybe Dracula deer.  Anyway…  By the time I was out hunting every morning, I could tell from the tracks that these deer had just left.  They were already home in their beds.

The photo below is one I took a few days ago.  It shows a spot about forty miles from where I took the other one.  Notice the small, spindly saplings with no branches for the first four or five feet.  Umbrella trees.  Every winter they’ve been hit hard by hungry deer. 

This is a beautiful spot with lots of tall, towering pines.  But although there’s plenty of light filtering through them, there’s no understory like you’d see under similar pines only a mile away.  Nor are there many small pines getting ready to replace the tall ones.  Only these umbrella trees, which have probably taken several decades to reach this height. 

The reason?  This location is a very small deer refuge.  It’s on private land, out on a high, rocky peninsula in a neighborhood with several large lake homes.  Although snow had fallen the night before, fresh deer tracks were everywhere.  More than one set of tracks seemed to be headed to and from the back yard of a nearby home.  Commuters.

© 2012 Al Cambronne

About alcambronne

I wander the north woods, tell true stories, and shoot luscious real estate. My latest book is DEERLAND: America's Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.
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10 Responses to The Connection Between Feeding, Baiting, Forests, and Deer

  1. Interesting, Al!

    Vermont recently banned all baiting and feeding of deer (planted food plots remain legal). Part of the concern was over concentrations of animals and the potential for disease transmission. This post adds another factor to the thinking.

    • alcambronne says:

      The disease angle is definitely another good reason to not feed or bait. I didn’t know that Vermont had recently banned baiting and feeding; I’ll have to have to go back and revise something I wrote the other day. During the past couple decades, very few states have managed to ban either practice. During that same period, however, several attempts have been voted down.

  2. In a very similar ecological scenario, the play goes like this…

    Folks in town across America are wondering, “Where did all these hawks come from?”.

    Well, look out your back door. Yes, at the bird feeding stations in YOUR backyard: yours, your neighbors and their neighbors and their …. on down the street, through town and into the subdivision(s), people feed the birds. And the birds come. So do the shadows….

    I have nothing against feeding birds. I do it myself; for a couple of reasons I’ll elucidate upon in a moment.

    Song birds, perching birds, tree climbers, and the like .. all those coming to the seeds, suet and ‘morgasbord are … themselves a delectable smorgasbord for the aerial predators known as raptors: aka, hawks and owls; and in special places – eagles.

    It’s all really no different from potlucks, social luncheons and open bars. Bring food and drink and the ‘hungry’ show up.

    Thus, when we toss out ‘feed’ for the pretty animals – luring them in to our visual realm – so they will come visit us as we sit behind clear sheets of silica, sipping equatorial delights, in the warmth and comfort of our dens; don’t forget whilst we, too enjoy munching away at snacks!; the ‘hungry little critters’ will come to feed. And we will watch with GLEE!

    ‘Where sheep congregate, so too, will follow the wolf to feed.’ It’s an old adage – but it’s also very true. When the food chain is yanked, everybody on the party-line will come to visit.

    I feed the birds in the backyard for a couple of reasons:

    1) during the harsher months (which we – in Hoosierville – have only had a few hours of this year!), I enjoy offering the avian neighbors a small outdoor cafe du graine to supplement their foraging efforts.

    2) I do enjoy watching the birds and getting some much needed ‘wrist-rocket-action’ on the local tribe of bushy-tailed-rats!

    3) And, as an added bonus, every now-and-then, I get to see one of the neighborhood ‘bad-boys’ (‘n girls) who ruffian the neighborhood bird feeders for their own dining needs. To catch but a fleeting glimpse is thrilling; no matter how many times it happens. When one of the ‘raptors-from-the-hood’ take opportunity to stop and perch on fence, swing or other inanimate viewing position – it is a special moment; a moment, thus far, when my camera and I are invariably a ‘movement-too-much’ apart..!! OH! One day. One day I shall click a fuzzy portrait of what I alone will know is a beautiful sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) or one of the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) . Oh..! For that day.

    All of this continues my, thus far uninterrupted, linear-line-of-thinking on the same path it has been traveling ah-these-many-years-now: “Most people are so clueless as to HOW, nature truly functions.” Which, quite predictably, leads to the troubles, misunderstandings, misguided intentions and out-right-stupid-actions/decisions/sentiment – we see in an unfortunately increasing amount in our society these days.

    Feed those critters. It’s OK… so long as you are …

    a) willing to pay – along with everyone else – the price of your actions. “No action occurs without cost. The only question is who picks up the tab.” … Sam Stovepipe, Sage of Gar Island.
    b) aware that your actions are – over time (and sometimes, time-frames get bumped UP!!) both beneficial and harmful to all critters concerned; no exceptions.
    c) playing – albeit for most, an unwitting part – in the greater panorama of Life and it’s OK… as long as you play within the boundaries. Which BTW, most folks are equally clueless to.. existence or execution.

    It is a play. We are all acting on the stage. Some are just better at it than others. Some are not. That is life. Your move. “. )

    • alcambronne says:

      Good analogy, and good to remember that even feeding birds has its consequences. And I suppose a lot of people figure that if it’s OK to feed birds, why not feed the deer? But to my way of thinking, the consequences of feeding deer are at a whole different level.

  3. Erik Jensen says:

    This gives me another reason to militantly defend MN’s ban on deer baiting, although some recreational feeding is allowed, which should also be banned. Baiting was banned in the early 90s, by an effort of the then DNR commisioner. He would go to the UP in MI to bowhunt every year, and saw these massive sales of bait, He was disgusted and went to the legislature and they quickly banned it as he was respected guy and no one in MN did it.

    Now it is widespread and conservation officers are writing a lot of tickets, but “good hunters” are sick of seeing it, so they are calling in a lot of the violations they see.

    • alcambronne says:

      Very interesting. Good luck defending the ban. Once a certain percentage of hunters are ignoring it, I can easily imagine calls to legalize baiting just for that reason alone.

  4. somsai says:

    There are some very good reasons not to feed deer other than biological or botanical. I’m going to branch into aesthetics here for just a second if that’s ok.

    Aldo Leopold, one of the most misrepresented conservationists of late, made remarks something along the lines of, “a wildlife manager should aspire to create as closely as possible the land as it occurs in nature” “such a good imitation that only the extremely observant and knowledgeable person can tell that the game is managed” that’s not a direct quote but the gist of it.

    Feeding deer robs them and us of their wildness. I can understand and support feeding of deer to prevent a population crash due to an unusual wether event or other disturbances, in the same way as I support careful management of predators, but not for ease of shooting or watching. And I should add the decision when and if and how should be left to the pros.

    Any feeding of game for any reason is a crime punishable by fines and even imprisonment in many states mine included. California is another one as Ted Nugent found out. Montana has some of the most restrictive laws.

    Feed cows, hunt deer.

  5. alcambronne says:

    I agree 100%. I know these aesthetic considerations might be subjective and cultural, and that in certain parts of the country shooting deer lined up in a circle around the base of a giant gravity feeder is considered a normal deer hunting experience. So not everyone will agree. (And by the way, recreational feeding, even if its intent is different, can also go a long toward turning deer into cattle.) But whatever other reasons there might be to not feed or bait, just keeping deer wild is a perfectly valid one. So is keeping hunting wild. It doesn’t have to be a wilderness experience, but it doesn’t have to be a feedlot experience, either.

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