Legislators passed House Bill 277, “The Baiting Bill,” but they did little to silence the divide and emotional debate among hunters over the issue. HB 277 legalizes baiting for deer in the Southern Zone while keeping it illegal to hunt deer within 200 yards of bait in the Northern Zone.
HB 277 will become law unless Gov. Nathan Deal decides to veto the legislation. However, vetoes by the governor are rare, especially on an issue where almost 80 percent of the affected public — hunters — support legalized baiting for deer, according to a GON survey. There was no indication as to when the governor would address HB 277 or hundreds of other new laws awaiting his signature. The governor must sign or veto legislation within 40 days after the final legislative day of the session, which was April 14, or a bill becomes law without his signature.
From its original version that would have legalized baiting for deer and hogs statewide, the Baiting Bill was amended so deer hunters in the Northern Zone still have to be 200 yards and out of sight of bait. However, HB 277 makes hog hunting over bait legal year-round in the Northern Zone.
Col. Homer Bryson, WRD’s chief of law enforcement, said it’s unclear how HB 277 will affect enforcement efforts by DNR rangers, especially since it’s not law until the governor decides how to act on the legislation.
“I can’t give you a definitive answer,” Col. Bryson said when asked how the law would affect rangers’ day-to-day operations during deer season, “but I can say this, I don’t believe it’s going to be as big a change as people think it will.
“There was concern about property lines, but generally speaking, we have not written tickets in the past to individuals when bait was across the property line, unless there were extenuating circumstances, so I don’t see that as an issue.”
HB 277 specifically changes the state law so deer hunters can’t be charged with hunting deer over bait in the Northern Zone if their neighbor has feed out.
Also under HB 277, deer and hog baiting in the Southern Zone and hog baiting in the Northern Zone would not be allowed on federal or state lands like WMAs and National Forest property.
Regarding concerns over enforcement of the new laws if HB 277 becomes law, Col. Bryson said, “You can take all those scenarios and apply them to what’s going on now, and we’ve all gotten to a good understanding of what we can live with. I’m not as convinced as some that it’s going to be that big of an issue. I expect it to change our work load very little. We changed our priorities a number of years ago. Our priority is complaints. After we work our complaints, then we work general law enforcement, and that’s where bait would fall. And bait is one page in an 800-page law book. There’s an awful lot of other things we’re looking for and we’re responsible for. We’re also focused on enforcement on department-owned and managed properties.”
WRD law enforcement has been hit hard by budget cuts for a number of years.
“My biggest concern is I’ve got 40 counties that don’t have a ranger in them, period,” Col. Bryson said. “We have gone from a high of 252 rangers down to currently in the field, on the ground, we have 188. Every county has somebody assigned to it, but there are 40 that don’t have a county ranger living in them. There’s is plenty to do without worrying about bait. One of our biggest concerns is importation. That’s where there is so much potential for harm to be introduced to our deer herd. If this were to free us up any, that’s an area where we would look to increase enforcement,” Col. Bryson said.
“Our mission, our goal, is the protection of wildlife and public safety, and we’re committed to that. We’ll be able to work with this and continue to meet our mission.”