TO PROTECT the health of our wild deer population, would you support a statewide ban on baiting and feeding of deer?

That’s one of the questions that will be up for a vote on Monday, April 8, at the spring fish and game hearings in every county.

It’s an advisory question from the Wisconsin Conservation Congress because such a ban would require legislative approval. It’s not something the Natural Resources Board can do on its own.

New research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has confirmed the longstanding suspicion that chronic wasting disease (CWD) prions accumulate in the environment of areas like mineral licks and baiting and feeding sites where deer congregate.

“Scientists concluded that environmental reservoirs of prions could serve as additional transmission routes of CWD, which can also pass from deer to deer by direct contact,” noted the Congress’ deer and elk committee.

Before the scribbler shares the bizarre details of the nearly 40-year-old saga called deer feeding and baiting, know that there are few issues that are more socially volatile and miserably complex.

Since the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) first sanctioned deer baiting for hunting purposes in 1980, a debate has been raging on several fronts. Some of the issues are hunting ethics, the taming of wild animals through feeding, drawing deer into residential areas where hunters can’t help manage the herd, and the biggest one — the economics of selling bait and more hunting licenses.

But there’s another side to it all. Some hunters believe baiting was a boon to not only their success in drawing and retaining deer on their forested property, but that artificial feeding is a buffer to winterkill in deep-snow winters such as the one we are currently experiencing.

For the record, deer feeding is considered backyard feeding for nonhunting purposes that often occurs the year around. Deer baiting describes the placement of bait for hunting purposes.

While all this was evolving, thousands of property owners took up recreational deer feeding for mostly entertainment purposes. And it has become such a culture that the legislature couldn’t bring itself to tell grandma and grandpa that they can no longer feed the deer.

The only reason there are baiting and feeding bans today in about 35 counties is due to the detection of CWD — a lot of which has occurred on fenced game farms.

Now that the DNR has changed its mind on the merits of baiting and feeding, they have been able to use disease prevention as the basis for bans on those practices.

So what’s the problem?

One of the biggest issues is that today’s system is a total joke. We’ve got baiting and feeding bans in place in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties, yet hundreds of tons of corn, apples, sugar beets, carrots, sunflower seeds, silage and other artificial feed was purchased and placed for deer here in the past year.

We’ve implemented a baiting and feeding ban without effective enforcement, which makes the effort meaningless. Nothing will change, even with a statewide ban, if there is no enforcement.

The estimated size of Wisconsin’s hunting-related economy is $1.3 billion, and that includes millions that are spent on artificial bait from a variety of sources.

Supporters of the proposed baiting and feeding ban include hunters who dislike the practice for ethical or social reasons, as well as biologists and hunters who are serious about trying to slow the spread of CWD.

Opponents of the ban include backyard feeders, hunters who have relied on bait for decades to attract deer or get them into archery range, and the industry that produces and sells artificial deer feed.

That’s why the issue is so complex, because there are so many variables. Even some hunters struggle personally on whether baiting should be allowed, and if so, if it should be just for archery and not for gun hunting.

Meanwhile, gardens, food plots and all agricultural practices are exempt from any sort of feeding or baiting ban. Part of that is because the food isn’t placed repeatedly in the same feeder or patch of ground where CWD prions might concentrate in the soil.

So here’s my wild idea for the week, totally unrefined but still worth thinking about. If the DNR can’t or won’t enforce a feeding and baiting ban, why not consider legalizing an alternative that mimics agricultural practices?

What if we allowed baiting and feeding of deer only if the bait was broadcast in a manner that’s similar to a garden, a food plot or an agricultural field. Could we get people to do that in exchange for allowing their feeding and baiting culture to continue?

The idea sounds pretty crazy and it might be more difficult to enforce, but right now, the system is not working. People are still filling feeders or placing bait in the same locations day after day and week after week, which is risky when it comes to the spread of CWD.

Effectively, there is no feeding or baiting ban in place here. Not when hundreds of tons of artificial feed is still placed every year. So why would we stick with that plan?

Broadcasting bait or feed means throwing it around or spreading it out over a large area. It means not concentrating it in the same place day after day.

At the very least, people who continue to illegally feed and bait deer here should be responsible enough, on their own, to try to mimic the agricultural practices that aren’t under attack.

With the threat of CWD spreading statewide, why not do the right thing for the deer herd while we work on a permanent solution?