TWO DEER were playing tug of war with a full white bag of corn they had dragged off a gas station pallet the other night, a goofy and laughable sight as I drove through Eagle River.

The incident reminded me of the deer feeding and baiting ban that’s in place these days in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties because a handful of deer have tested positive for chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Mostly, it brought to light the fact that hundreds of tons of corn, carrots, apples, sugar beets, sunflower seeds, alfalfa, silage, food blocks and other bait are being sold every year in the three-county area.

It seems every gas station, convenience store, grocery store, hardware store and feed store is selling one or more of these deer-feeding supplies. And they’re selling like hotcakes as consumers empty pallet after pallet.

To be clear, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) defines feeding as backyard feeding for nonhunting purposes, while the term baiting is used to describe any placement of deer food for the purpose of hunting.

So we’ve got this feeding and baiting ban in place to prevent the spread of CWD yet the department is powerless to stop property owners from buying and placing hundreds of tons of artificial bait here every year.

The dilemma, which certainly makes it appear that the so-called ban is a joke, is fueled by the fact that it’s not illegal to sell deer food of any kind to anyone, regardless of where they live or what they might intend to do with the bait.

That prompted me to call Dave Zebro, the regional warden supervisor for the 18-county Northern Region, headquartered in Spooner.

Zebro claims the department is actively enforcing the ban here and in about 50 other counties that have fallen under a CWD surveillance warning because of either fenced or wild deer that tested positive for the always-fatal disease.

He said their first priority is responding to complaints about both illegal feeding and baiting. He said they also actively enforce the ban on public hunting grounds like the national, county and state lands that are so prevalent here.

“When it comes to private property, well, we don’t just drop everything and start walking through private lands looking for bait,” he said. 

“That part of the enforcement is problematic for us. Typically, we enter private lands while following up on a complaint.”

However, Zebro said wardens statewide are not ignoring other signs of illegal feeding and baiting activity, including wide, beaten-down deer trails they find on private lands during the winter months.

Asked if he would conclude that the ban in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties has failed in effectiveness, Zebro said, “That’s up to individual interpretation.

“Enforcement of these bans is a high priority for the department and we are putting a significant effort forth to get public compliance,” he said. “Some people say we hold hunters, the baiters, to a higher standard than feeders. I disagree. I don’t know the numbers, but we write a heck of a lot of citations to feeders.”

Zebro admitted, however, that his wardens use more discretion on writing citations when it comes to elderly property owners who feed to watch deer for recreation.

“We do issue more warnings in those cases, multiple warnings sometimes, and not as many citations,” he said. “Our goal is to work on compliance.”

He said the department’s best service is given to people who call with a complaint, “no doubt to that.” He said responding to complaints from hunters is a way to level the playing field between illegal baiters and those who want to hunt in compliance with the baiting ban.

And complaints have risen quickly in November as deer hunters start placing illegal baits to prepare for bowhunting during rut season and eventually, the nine-day gun deer season that opens Saturday, Nov. 23.

“There’s been a lot of activity on the DNR Hotline the past week,” he said. “That’s the best way for somebody to make a complaint, for there is legislative confidentiality tied to use of the hotline. We cannot give out the names of those callers.”

Zebro said the goofy side of the whole issue is that vendors can sell millions of pounds of deer food to backyard feeders and hunters, and there is no violation.

“There’s not much we can do when that volume of deer feed is being sold,” he said. “I know we aren’t getting a majority of the violators.”

The whole interview tells me that a short-handed warden staff is doing about the best it can to enforce an absolutely unenforceable law. Zebro wasn’t about to call the ban a joke, but I certainly will.

What wardens face trying to conduct enforcement on private lands, without a complaint from a neighbor, is allegations of targeting and unequal treatment under the law. Backyard feeding is so prevalent, where would wardens begin? And how would that effort be fair in who gets nailed and who doesn’t?

Even on the vast public lands here, I don’t see wardens actively looking for bait piles. But they do follow up on every complaint they get, because public complaints are the department’s top priority for measuring the success of their work.

In a nutshell, the ban is having little or no impact on feeding and baiting as it relates to the spread of CWD. Just look at pallet after pallet of deer food, disappearing daily, as proof of the regulation’s failure.

Until the Legislature gets serious about limiting the sale of deer food in CWD affected counties, nothing is going to change. And I don’t see that happening. Deer feed is big business.

Zebro claims the science is there on the risk of disease transfer at artificial feeding locations where deer congregate, exchange saliva or whatever. But I’m not so sure the same thing doesn’t happen in the wild.

For certain, the CWD issue has become the department’s battle cry for getting rid of feeding and baiting.

How ironic from an agency that started this whole mess, by first legalizing the practice, almost 40 years ago. Oops!