SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The legality of deer hunting over bait in West Virginia is an 800 pound gorilla in the room. Nobody seems interested in tackling the subject for fear of stepping on toes. However, as wildlife management in West Virginia moves ahead, it’s a subject which will eventually mandate discussion.
Baiting is a touchy topic. It’s already ripe with ethical questions, but the state’s game laws only make it more complicated. Presently it is legal to position a tree stand over a pile of corn or apples or even a deer feeder and shoot them. It’s almost akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
I don’t hunt over bait, but since it’s legal in West Virginia, I’ve always tried to temper my comments here and on the air in relation to the practice. If a hunter is operating within the law, I’ll reserve my judgement of them–but will practice my own personal beliefs. My personal ethical dilemma becomes more challenged when I consider bear hunting in a place like Canada. Baiting there is not only legal, but because of the extremely thick habitat probably essential if you want any success. To be clear, I’ve never hunted over bait but in that situation I’m not ruling out the chances I would.
Back to the sticky situation in West Virginia. While it’s legal to hunt deer over bait, it is illegal to hunt any other wild game in such a manner. However, when deer, bear, and turkey seasons coincide the law becomes much more murky and much more difficult for law enforcement.
The matter is also starting to bubble to the surface with bear hunters in West Virginia. Bear hunters who use hounds to track them complained during the open comment section of the last Natural Resources Commission meeting they are held to a different standard than hunters who hunt without dogs.
West Virginia’s game laws in many counties allow hunting for deer and bear in the same season. Essentially, a hunter can kill whatever walks up to their stand. But, if that hunter has a pile of corn under his or her stand and they shoot a bear it’s an illegal kill. Proving they did it is nearly impossible.
Leaders of the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association asked the commission to consider a separate license for those who choose to hunt bear during deer season and those who hunt bear in the traditional season. The request called for the special license to include a provision a hunter would not be allowed to hunt over bait at all.
The easy answer is to outlaw baiting. However, for those in positions of authority, it’s apparently not that easy. The Division of Natural Resources hasn’t proposed it, the Natural Resources Commission claimed it doesn’t have the power, and state lawmakers shy from the issue. I have a theory as to why and like most things tied to politics follow the money.
Baiting is big business. Sporting goods stores now have sections dedicated to baiting. Sophisticated feeder systems generate thousands of dollars for the companies who manufacture them. Feed stores make a killing in West Virginia selling “deer corn.” In case you are wondering, deer corn is regular corn but sold in a bag with a deer picture on the package.
But don’t blame businesses, they exist to make money. Baiting wouldn’t be big business if people weren’t buying feeders and thousands of pounds of “deer corn” every year. You can see where this cycle goes next because people also have votes, and that’s what politicians crave.
I don’t expect we’ll see the end of hunting over bait in West Virginia anytime soon. However, at some point the discussion will need to happen within the framework of wildlife management. It won’t be a pleasant discussion and It will take political courage to get it started.