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A high-stakes poker game is emerging among the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission about the future of baiting and feeding for wildlife.

During the summer, as reported here Sept. 29, a spirited discussion occurred when Game and Fish Commissioner Bobby Martin of Rogers pressed the agency's staff to declare its position on baiting and feeding wildlife, especially in regard to deer. Martin was worried that the agency is on a stealth mission to ban baiting for deer and to at least greatly curtail landowners feeding wildlife, including food plots.

After what he heard on Wednesday, Martin said his suspicions are intact.

Jennifer Ballard, the agency's veterinarian, is a key figure in the Game and Fish Commission's research division, which was created in 2017 after the agency detected chronic wasting disease in deer and elk in northern Arkansas. Ballard said the agency's staff is drafting a position paper about baiting and supplemental feeding of wildlife.

To that end, Ballard said that 16 agency staff members will evaluate 145 peer-reviewed research items on the subject. At the end of the process, Ballard said there will be no recommendations for new regulations.

The biggest problem with the process is that there is not much peer-reviewed research about the link among baiting, supplemental feeding and chronic wasting disease. Martin, who constantly challenges Game and Fish staff assertions with his own external research, has long noted the lack of established science on this subject.

It did not escape his attention that the scope of the baiting/feeding review has expanded far beyond chronic wasting disease. In addition to deer and elk, Ballard said the staff is looking at the effects of baiting and supplemental feeding on gallinaceous birds (turkey and quail), black bears, waterfowl, urban wildlife and other native wildlife.

The study also will examine the effects of baiting and supplemental feeding on individual animals and animal populations, the environment, game harvest and other management applications, social considerations, economics and benefits.

Martin said he is skeptical about attempting to draw solid conclusions and establish statewide policy on such a sketchy body of research. He also noted the differences between high quality scientific research and low quality research, and he said he is concerned that staff might regard them equally.

Stephen Beaupre, the commission's nonvoting member, said that the review process endemically discredits flawed data.

"We make sport of taking peer-reviewed articles and finding what's wrong with them," Beaupre said. "It ends up being weight of evidence when it's done."

Beaupre explained the challenges of producing reliable data that accurately reflect a wild situation versus a controlled laboratory situation. The more controls that are applied, the less "wild" the data tend to be.

"Sometimes the peer-review process does not catch major flaws, but at the end of the day, it ends up being weight of evidence," Beaupre said.

Martin also said he is concerned that the staff has not sought approval or even input from the commission over some management decisions. He cited the discontinued planting food plots for wildlife on wildlife management areas in the chronic wasting disease management zone.

"I don't remember that ever coming to us," Martin said.

Ballard said that the agency regulates baiting and feeding only in the chronic wasting disease management zone.

Martin said that does not reassure him, noting that chronic wasting disease initially appeared along an isolated river valley. It now encompasses about one quarter of the state, and it will continue to expand if CWD-positive deer are discovered outside the current zone.

Martin also said he is not comforted by Ballard's statement that the position paper will not produce any new regulations regarding baiting and supplemental feeding. It might not produce new regulations immediately, but Martin said the position paper might form the basis for new regulations later.

Martin encouraged the staff to understand the social and economic implications that future policies unfriendly to baiting and feeding will have on the state's hunters and wildlife enthusiasts. Overreaching, Martin said, might profoundly affect the public's support of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Sports on 10/20/2019

Print Headline: AGFC sides forming over baiting, feeding debate

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