Baiting Deer – Is It Ever Ethical?
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., February 3, 2007.)
Although Pennsylvania hunters have traditionally objected to baiting deer, and most may still, baiting is now legal in certain locales.
In the modern world, deer must be hunted
for their own welfare. In some places they
cannot be hunted effectively without baiting.
Fortunately, these places are rare.
Is this a concession to modern hunters who lack the skills of hunters from a bygone era? Has the Pennsylvania Game Commission caved in to hunters who think it gives them an easy way to shoot deer? Can you think of a time and place where baiting is ethical?
To answer these questions, we need to understand where baiting is permitted, and why.
In some urban areas it has become impossible to harvest enough deer. Specifically, the counties around Philadelphia have more deer than the habitat can support, but a dense human population prevents hunters’ access to most property.
The problem is far more serious than the dietary fondness deer have for the shrubbery around suburban homes. It’s also more serious than their dangerous habit of colliding with cars on suburban freeways. The fact is that housing developments, shopping centers, and industrial parks are crowding deer out of their natural habitat.
Deer cannot pack their suitcases and move to the big woods of Potter County or to Ohio farm country. They are stuck where they are. Fortunately, deer are amazingly adaptable and can live in close proximity to man. But as they continue to breed in areas with limited habitat, natural foods become scarce and crowded conditions set the stage for disease.
In areas of dense human population deer have virtually no predators other than man. But hunting is frowned upon in these areas. No one wants high-powered rifles going off in tiny woodlots adjacent to housing developments. And no one wants to see a deer sprint through a backyard and expire next to a child’s sandbox, with an arrow protruding from its chest.
So, deer populations continue to grow in these areas and their voracious appetites destroy what little habitat man has not developed.
It is to the benefit of the deer that their population is in balance with their habitat. How can they be controlled in these limited access areas?
Baiting may be the answer. The reason it has been legalized in the southeast corner of the state (limited to the late after-Christmas season in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties) is that baiting can draw deer away from non-huntable developed areas and into huntable areas. The new law has a sunset provision to end in 2010, at which time it will be evaluated and reconsidered.
As ironic as it seems, baiting may actually benefit deer. Of course, no one argues that it benefits any individual deer that is killed at a bait site. But the ball that the Pennsylvania Game Commission must keep its eye on is not the individual animal, but the larger population. It manages that by balancing the population with the habitat that it lives in using various tools -- controlling the times, places and conditions under which deer are hunted, and the strategies that are permitted.
Doesn’t baiting give hunters an advantage? Of course it does. But hunting is much more than a contest where a predator seeks an advantage over its prey. When the population of any species is too high for the available habitat, it becomes its own enemy. Deer have no advantage if scarce food resources threaten them with malnutrition, and overpopulation increases the risk of disease and conflict with humans. Deer should not be permitted to destroy their habitat and the habitat of other urban wildlife.
The simple fact is that without predators, deer live in an artificial setting. Hunters, playing the role of predator, provide a check on the population of deer. In other words, deer must be hunted for their own welfare. In some places they cannot be hunted effectively without baiting. Fortunately, these places are rare.
Are we headed for legalized baiting across the state? I don’t think so -- not until the entire state becomes overdeveloped and there is little room for deer. That will be the day when blacktop triumphs over topsoil, and residential landscaping conquers white oaks and grapevines. It will mean that wild places are gone -- that the entire state would resemble the east coast megalopolis.
For now baiting a test. It remains to be proven whether it benefits the deer and the wildlife habitat in urban southeast Pennsylvania. If it doesn’t, deer may be doomed to extermination in that part of the state. And that will benefit no one -- neither the hunters nor the non-hunters who enjoy them -- and especially not the deer.