Points North: Wolf Bait, Popple Palaces and an Ugly Truth

"Not so long ago, deer stands were simple platforms built in trees..."

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News from the Minnesota DNR last week included the revelation that some deer hunters will be able to use bait while they are hunting in November. Wolf bait, that is. Hunters participating in the state’s new wolf hunts can use baits to entice the elusive animals into shooting range. Hopefully, wolf baits won’t be attractive to deer.

“You can’t take deer over bait intended for deer,” said DNR enforcement spokesman Rodman Smith in a teleconference last week. “You have to use something (as wolf bait) not intended to entice deer.”

The distinction is important, because while it is legal to bait wolves, baiting for deer in Minnesota is very much against the law. That said, in recent years, baiting for deer has been one of the most common hunting violations in Minnesota’s wolf country.

So what kind of bait will deer hunters possessing a wolf license be able to use? Smith didn’t elaborate, saying “all of the baiting stuff will be spelled out” in the new wolf hunting rules. He was emphatic that wolf hunters can’t use corn, a popular deer bait. However, Dan Stark, DNR large carnivore specialist, said the bait options are unlimited, because wolves have a widely varied diet. He suggested rotten deer and beaver carcasses.

Whatever bait wolf hunters choose has to comply with existing rules for using bait and animal parts, Smith said. A quick perusal of the hunting regulations synopsis reveals a tangled web of applicable rules, including those related to the sale of animal parts, the disposal of deer carcasses, bear baiting restrictions and trapping-related restrictions to using bait. Pity the conservation officers who must negotiate this maze of regulations and their application to baiting wolves, especially during the deer season.

Why bait wolves? The short answer is that it may prove to be the only consistent way for hunters to kill Minnesota wolves. In dense forest cover, the chance of seeing a wolf is happenstance at best. Drawing in wolves to a pile of road-killed deer, or some other bait, is one of the very few ways to better your odds of seeing the wary animals. We know baiting works, because wildlife photographers use bait to take pictures of wolves.

Most likely hunters or wolf hunting guides will set up their baits on the upwind edge of an open area, such as a clearcut, field or frozen waterway. The hunter’s stand will be located where it can be quietly approached without disturbing the bait. Once in position, all the hunter has to do is watch and wait.

It is possible Minnesota wolf hunting will soon acquire all the charm and ambiance of shooting your neighbor’s dog out the kitchen window. In other words, it will differ little from modern Minnesota deer hunting. Last week I talked with Bob Kreps, the St. Louis County land commissioner, about the problems he has with supposed deer hunters on the county’s public forest lands. I say supposed, because what is going on out there in the woods pretty much removes the hunt out of hunting.

Kreps is trying to address the problems associated with the increasing prevalence of what he calls “elaborate, overbuilt deer stands” foresters are finding on county lands. Not so long ago, deer stands were simple platforms built in trees. Today, those platforms, even on public lands, have walls and roofs.

“If you are going out with a few 2x4s to build a platform, that’s one thing,” Kreps told me. “When you put up a deer shack on stilts, that’s something else entirely.”

This spring, county foresters found a deer stand with pine planking on the outside, tongue and groove paneling on insulated interior walls and shutters on the windows. Another shack on stilts was accessed via three flights of stairs. Not surprisingly, some of these shacks have locks on the doors.

“The locks send a message that public land is being treated as private property,” Kreps said.

Very often, these popple palaces are accompanied by landscaping. Hunters cut down trees and brush to create long shooting lanes branching out like spokes on a wheel from the stand. In one instance, a hunting party built eight stands, each with shooting lanes 18 to 30 feet in width and up to 700 feet in length. While foresters tolerate a little brush clearing to improve hunting visibility, they frown on wide shooting lanes that take land out of timber production.

Recently, some hunters have begun taking landscaping to a new level. They till up ground in recently harvested areas and plant food plots to attract deer. In one location, someone picked all of the rocks out of a road through a cutting for 150 yards to create what foresters assume will be a massive food plot, though it has yet to be planted.

Surprisingly, St. Louis County doesn’t have policies in place to address the popple palace problems. Kreps said county commissioners have been reluctant to address the issues, not only in St. Louis County, but in other northern counties, too. He hopes to have policies crafted this year to address the more egregious cases of food plots and shooting lanes. He wants to penalize hunters for lost timber and require them to replant their clearings with trees. Food plots discovered by foresters will be treated with herbicides, just the same as any invasive plants.

Believe it or not, Kreps may have a more difficult time coming up with a policy to address the popple palaces. Ironically, if you were caught dumping building materials on county lands, you’d be fined for illegal dumping. Get caught using the same material to build an unauthorized shack in the woods and you’ll simply be asked to remove it. Even if the county comes up with a better policy, Kreps says it is possible northern Minnesota legislators will attempt to overrule it in the next legislative session.

This leaves us with a sad but likely scenario. When the state’s first wolf season opens on November 3, someone will be savoring a cup of coffee in a warm popple palace, gazing down a long shooting lane toward a pile of wolf bait and waiting in comfort for a wolf to appear. Call it a travesty. Call it another example of poor political leadership. Unfortunately, an ugly truth remains. In Minnesota, we call it hunting.

Airdate: July 20, 2012

Photo courtesy of cljo via Flickr.

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