Ban deer feeding, baiting, before it's too late

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Ban feeding, baiting before it's too late

May 30, 2002

BY ERIC SHARP, DETROIT FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

It should be obvious to anyone smart enough to operate a screen door that we Americans have made an unbelievable hash out of wildlife management.

Outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis among Michigan deer and chronic wasting disease in deer from Colorado to Wisconsin are only the latest examples in a sorry litany of bad decisions going back centuries. We might see another chapter added to that sad record next month when the state Natural Resources Commission makes a decision on deer baiting.

It's clear that deer baiting and feeding should be banned statewide, period. Nearly every wildlife veterinarian and biologist in the country will tell you that baiting and feeding increase the potential for wildlife diseases and help sustain them when they break out.

Michigan doesn't need more deer. We have too many. This apparently is a novel concept for the NRC, despite the evidence that the Department of Natural Resources has been unable to bring the herd down to a target level of about 1.3 million from the present 1.8 million to 2 million.

This concept seems to carry the same degree of difficulty as a couple of corollaries: Our deer herd is not here to provide incomes for mom-and-pop businesses, and it's not wise to allow wildlife diseases to spread simply because some people are too lazy to learn how to hunt.

The Natural Resources Commission and the DNR created the current TB mess by failing to do the right thing seven years ago, when a tubercular deer was first found. Instead of following the dictates of good science, they pandered to the lowest common denominator among hunters, politicians and people who exploit deer to make a buck.

Many hunters want to bait and feed deer, and the NRC and DNR say they must take those desires into consideration. But if we're going to manage wildlife simply by giving the majority what it wants, why do we need an NRC? We can just do some polls and base wildlife management decisions on the results.

We like to point to wildlife successes like deer, which were brought back from near-extirpation 70 years ago; turkeys, which also have been returned to many areas where they disappeared, and the salmon that now live in the Great Lakes.

But why did deer and turkeys nearly disappear in the first place? And what happened to the original top predators in the Great Lakes that the salmon replaced? The answer is, we wiped them out.

The truth is that we outdoors people have primarily been interested in things we can hunt or hook, and benefits to other species have been largely coincidental. We've treated the wild places like a giant zoo or aquarium, and the price of such shortsighted management is things like the deer diseases, bacterial kidney disease in salmon and the extinction or severe degradation of many native species.

Hunters aren't the only ones who pay lip service to the needs of wildlife. Many farmers claim to love the land and wildlife, yet the truth is that no one has done more damage to natural ecosystems than farmers and ranchers. Changes wrought by plows far exceed those created by the hunter's gun or woodsman's ax.

And once too much corn starts disappearing down the gullets of too many deer, or too many bears and wolves eat too many calves, farmers and ranchers are quick to call for the destruction of wildlife.

If Michigan's farmers really want to see an end to problems like bovine tuberculosis, which has infected 20 cattle herds and cost the state's cattle and dairy industry millions of dollars, the farmers have to step up to the plate and help solve those problems. What we need is a system that hands out crop damage permits not to farmers but to hunters. If farmers wanted deer killed, they would be required to allow hunters with those permits onto their land.

It's time to recognize that we should manage wildlife for the sake of the wildlife, and that social management of wildlife invariably leads to headaches at best and disaster at worst.

I'm not sure Wisconsin can contain the outbreak of chronic wasting disease. I do know we should be doing everything possible to keep it out of Michigan or, if that fails, delay its spread until we find a solution.

We can start by ending baiting and feeding, practices that science tells us are excellent ways to start and sustain illness in a deer herd. How hard is that to understand?


Contact ERIC SHARP at 313-222-2511 or esharp@freepress.com.
 


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