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Landers: Fair chase, not baiting, should be standard for deer, elk

One of the essential, and most enjoyable, aspects of deer hunting is scouting likely spots. (KHUE BUI / Khue Bui Washington Post)
One of the essential, and most enjoyable, aspects of deer hunting is scouting likely spots. (KHUE BUI / Khue Bui Washington Post)

“I feel bad for the kid that goes out with his uncle and gets a buck the first time out hunting over bait. That’s the only way that kid knows how to hunt. You learn something by not being immediately successful.”

That quote stands out after listening to numerous people for my Sunday outdoors report on baiting. The story scratched at some of the many angles in Washington’s upcoming decision on whether to restrict the practice of using bait for hunting deer and elk.

The quote came from John Andrews, a hunter, wildlife biologist and well-respected retired regional wildlife manager for the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department.

He took that stand on a volatile issue knowing he’d be a target for a growing number of vocal hunters who are hooked on baiting.

But according to random polls, he’s speaking for a clear majority of deer and elk hunters. He’s probably also speaking for an even larger majority of the public at large.

A decision on baiting for deer and elk is on the agenda for the state Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting Friday in Olympia.

Some hunters insist that Washington should stand fast with Oregon as the only Western states that continue to allow this hunting practice.

Baiting is an effective way to offer a high measure of success for youth, senior and disabled hunters, according to testimony at the commission’s March meeting in Moses Lake.

Before writing another word, I want to praise sportsmen who devote their time and energy to getting these groups into the field to hunt, as well as to fish. Just attracting these groups outdoors is a huge service. Thank you.

But here’s the deal for the Fish and Wildlife Commission: You are not a social welfare agency.

The commission’s job is not to artificially improve a needy person’s ability to put venison on the table. That’s the job of a food bank.

The commission should care about youth, seniors and disabled, but not at the expense of wildlife and not by displacing other hunters.

The commission’s job, lest we lose sight of it, is to direct the agency charged with looking after the welfare and sustainability of our state’s wildlife while providing reasonable wildlife recreation. This is a huge job of great value to everyone from the family unit to businesses and local economies.

But baiting is not in the best interests of wildlife. It’s good for some hunters, but it’s not good for the critters.

The Fish and Wildlife Department already has adopted a policy to discourage the feeding of big game because of the documented potential to concentrate animals and spread disease, increase predation, change natural wildlife movements and migrations and potentially increase vehicle collisions.

Baiting is feeding. The same issues apply, along with the potential to increase conflicts among hunters.

Where baiting occurs, the fair chase hunter in the same area gets a bum deal.

When I was a kid, my dad would say, “Let’s go hunting.”

He never said, “Let’s go kill a buck.”

We tracked deer, ate fried Spam sandwiches on rock outcroppings with binoculars around our necks. We marveled at ravens frolicking in the air and so many other things that had to do with hunting, often without killing anything.

One of my fondest hunting memories is the day my dad let me drive the Jeep through the fence gate he’d just opened.

His point was that sport hunting should always be about more than killing.

He knew how to salvage the worst day of hunting by following tracks, exploring new ground or ventilating pop cans with the .22 rifle we always had with us.

Feeding or even baiting might be a wildlife management necessity in some cases, but it should not be the routine.

With potentially catastrophic threats such as chronic wasting disease knocking at Idaho’s door and increasing occurrence of elk hoof disease in Western Washington, the state should avoid concentrating wildlife whenever possible.

If luring game to youth, seniors and disabled becomes the overriding reason to continue the practice of baiting for deer and elk in Washington, then restrict it to those groups only.

In the case of disabled, allow baiting only for hunters confined to a wheelchair, otherwise the category of “disabled” has become too broad for a blanket exemption.

A baiting permit system could be arranged to take care of special situations ranging from youth hunts to suburban big-game population management.

I shot my first deer at the age of 10 with the aid of my dad.

He’d scoped out deer movements for a couple weeks before putting me behind a stump with a good view of a deer escape route. His plan was to circle around a mile or so and drop down into the draw and hunt his way back to me.

He moved deer my direction as he went, enough to get my heart pumping on more than one occasion.

But the strategy failed the first time, and the second time and the third.

We came back. We refined my stand placement and his driving technique like a basketball team adjusting to a crushing zone defense for the second half of the game.

The success in finally bagging a deer was much sweeter, with many more lessons learned, than if I had enjoyed instant success.

This is just one of many ways hunters bag their game without resorting to bait.

The commission should make the right call and join Idaho, Montana and most other Western states in prohibiting bait for hunting deer and elk.

That decision would make some people angry, but the majority would applaud.

Enforcement would be tough for a few years, but ultimately fair chase would be the standard.

Success rates would drop for some hunters, but the odds likely would improve for others who have been impacted by baiters.

Fair chase broadens the scope of what it means to be a successful hunter.

It reopens the door to being a woodsman rather than a candy man.

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