TWO DEER were playing tug of war with a yellow 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 well after dark.

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 involving fenced game farms.

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 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 Chris Bartelt, the regional warden supervisor for the three-county Woodruff area.

Bartelt 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. “Typically, we enter private lands while following up on a complaint.”

However, Bartelt 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.

“One of our most effective tools are baiting and feeding flights, especially this time of year,” he said. “We have some great pilots who are really good at spotting deer bait and feed from the air. One of them identified a pecan pie that was tossed out in a food plot for deer.”

Asked if he would conclude that the ban in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties has failed in effectiveness, Bartelt said it has not.

“It’s better than no ban at all, helping stem the tide of what would be far more baiting and feeding without it,” he said.

He acknowledged that enforcement and fairness regarding who gets a ticket is always a difficult issue that “eats at us a bit”, yet it’s no different than the State Trooper who issues a ticket to somebody going 65 mph in a 55 zone when many others are doing it who don’t get cited.

“CWD has a more ecological impact, but take fireworks enforcement for instance. If it leaves the ground or explodes, it’s technically illegal in Wisconsin. Yet these fireworks are being sold here all the time,” he said.

He said some chronic backyard feeders who’ve been cited two or three times seem to think an annual citation can just be part of their feeding expenses, yet in some areas wardens are convincing the courts to issue fines up to $1,000 for repeat offenders.

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. 20.

“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 by law, their identity is protected,” he said.

While the department can’t do anything about the volume of deer feed that is being sold, Bartelt is hoping that over time, people will realize they aren’t helping the deer herd but instead causing negative impacts with feeding and baiting.

The whole interview tells me that a short-handed warden staff is doing about the best it can to enforce an absolutely unenforceable law. 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.

DNR biologists claim the science is there on the risk of disease transfer at artificial feeding locations where deer congregate, exchange saliva or whatever. 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, more than 40 years ago. Oops!