A simple phrase left out of a 2008 rewrite of hunting laws has put the state wildlife agency in a quandary.
Does it enforce a law that has loopholes larger than a 10-point buck? Or does it allow Upstate hunters in 18 counties — including Fairfield, Newberry and Saluda — to use corn as bait to draw in deer for the first time?
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources issued an official statement Friday that some hunters feel failed to clear up the issue.
“Deer baiting on private lands is still unlawful in Game Zones 1 & 2 and remains a vital concern of the department, however, there will be less priority placed on enforcing the statute due to the confusing nature of the law and a diminished DNR work force,” the agency said.
The agency will try to get the law clarified during the upcoming legislative session, which begins about the time the deer hunting season ends.
Until then, deer hunters in the Upstate face decisions.
Do they tiptoe around a practically unenforceable law? And do they tell the truth about the intention of the bait they use when a lie likely would rule out a ticket?
Ronnie Reams, who lives in North Carolina but hunts with a group in Whitmire, has resisted requests for weeks from his fellow club members to put out corn for deer. Everybody else is doing it, they say.
“We go by the law,” Reams said. “I spent two days on the phone (calling DNR officials) and they’ve got so many different stories. You have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to figure out what they’re saying.”
After hearing the official statement from DNR, Reams still wasn’t sure what to do. “Which is it, can we or can we not?”
He said DNR officers in the Upstate have been telling hunters for weeks that they won’t be prosecuted either for baiting or hunting deer over the bait. Shelled corn can be used to draw deer to an area. Hunters often perch in elevated stands near where the corn is spread and wait for the deer to show up.
The problem has its roots in 2008, when the Legislature took over regulatory authority from the DNR for hunting on private property. (On public property and state-coordinated Wildlife Management Areas, the pre-2008 regulations are still in effect.)
Legislators intended to copy the existing deer hunting regulations, but the wording of the new law dropped a phrase regarding special rules for Game Zones 1 and 2. Under pre-2008 regulations, it was illegal “to bait for deer or hunt deer by aid of bait.”
But the second half of that phrase was left out by the legislators in their 2008 rewrite. The omission wasn’t widely noticed for several years. Some hunters recognized the omission and took advantage of it, which eventually led to rulings from a Greenwood County magistrate and then the state attorney general’s office that, while it remains illegal to put out bait for deer in the Upstate, it is legal to hunt deer attracted to an area by corn bait.
That made prosecuting the people who put out the bait nearly impossible.
Because corn can be spread for other legal purposes, including luring wild hogs, the best way to make a deer-baiting case was to catch people shooting the deer at corn piles. Now, shooting deer at the piles isn’t illegal.
The 2008 revision and the recent legal rulings “have the unintended consequence of making existing law confusing for both the public and DNR law enforcement officers and staff,” the DNR statement said.
The issue came up at the monthly meeting of the agency board last week.
“I’ve been flooded with calls about baiting in the Upstate,” board member Norman Pulliam of Spartanburg said last week.
Pulliam said his local Tractor Supply store has stacks of deer corn for the first time ever. “I asked them ‘Why do you have so much corn?” Pulliam said. “They said ‘Oh, it’s legal now.’”
At the urging of the S.C. Wildlife Federation and the S.C. Camo Coalition, Sens. William O’Dell, R-Abbeville, Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, and Floyd Nicholson, D-Lancaster, introduced legislation last session to correct the 2008 omission. But that legislation failed to make it through both houses by the end of the session.
The situation points to something that has been a burr under the saddle for many deer hunters in the state for years. Baiting for deer with corn is allowed in much of the state, but it’s not allowed in the 18 Upstate counties.
Those regulations go back to the 1950s, when deer populations in the Upstate were small and regulatory measures were enacted to limit hunting in that region. Those regulations included the baiting ban and a ban on hunting deer with dogs.
Deer were more common in the Lowcountry, so fewer regulations were required. Back then, the tradition was to hunt deer on large parcels of property using dogs. In the past 30 years, land ownership changes, mostly related to timber industry practices, have reduced the acreage open to hunting with dogs. Baiting has taken over as the primary method of deer hunting in the Lowcountry.
Upstate hunters long have complained about the differences in rules based on geography. But at least most of them had grown accustomed to the differences and adjusted to them — until this year.
“The bottom line is I haven’t ever put corn out,” Reams said. “But I went out and got some corn last week.”