It was opening morning of Illinois’ first firearm deer season of 2010, and I was stoked. As I loaded my 12 gauge, my guide asked, “Where’s your plug?”
“My what?” I responded.
“In Illinois you’re allowed no more than three shells in your shotgun, so you have to use a plug.”
Thankfully, my guide owned the same model gun and lent me a plug. After considering how many centerfire rifles hold five cartridges, and why it should matter anyway, I contacted the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to find out what’s behind the regulation.
“It’s been that way for a long time; the presumption is if you can’t kill a deer after three shots, you’re just going to wound it,” said DNR Conservation Officer Roy Maul.
“I don’t think they should be able to tell you three or five shells unless they can give you a good reason,” said Garrett Barger, Southern Illinois Trophy Outfitters guide and hunter. “The number of shells you can have in your shotgun makes a difference when you’re driving deer.”
This got me thinking about other dubious deer hunting regulations that have nothing to do with deer management. States have a host of regulations on the books that dictate what equipment hunters can and cannot use, hunting strategies they can use and even which colors of deer hunters can harvest. Let’s take a look at some of the more notable ones.
Hunters have long used muzzleloaders to harvest big game. Today’s muzzleloaders are made of advanced materials, and their improved designs enable hunters to ethically harvest deer at significant distances. Yet states like Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, South Dakota and Washington limit their effectiveness by prohibiting the use of scopes during black-powder season.
“Such regulations have come under attack as being discriminatory, since they eliminate the opportunity for hunters who can’t see open sights well enough to achieve proper shot placement and participate in special muzzleloader seasons,” said Toby Bridges, president of the North American Muzzleloader Hunting Association. “To use a scope, other states make hunters jump through hoops by undergoing a medical examination, at their own expense, and applying for an exemption.”
Colorado in particular has some of the most restrictive muzzleloader regulations in the country. Besides prohibiting scopes, the Rocky Mountain State outlaws pelletized powder, sabots and all electronic or battery-powered devices (e.g., light aiming systems).
“Muzzleloader season is a primitive season, so we don’t allow many modern hunting aids,” explained Colorado Division of Wildlife Public Information Officer Randy Hampton.
Muzzleloader hunters aren’t the only ones who have to abide by draconian hunting rules. In Colorado and Montana, battery-powered and electronic devices like artificial bow sights and lighted arrow nocks are no-no’s for archery hunters. Montana goes a step further by banning scouting cameras during hunting season.
“The department [Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP)] believes that cameras violate the spirit of fair chase and ethical hunting,” said Mike Korn, FWP law enforcement chief.
But is it the responsibility of wildlife agencies to decide what equipment is ethical and what isn’t? Like beauty, what’s considered in the spirit of fair chase is often in the eye of the beholder. For example, many longbow shooters believe today’s compound bows violate the fair-chase credo. And one could argue that modern equipment like electronic bow sights and scopes help hunters to make more ethical and humane kills, something all hunters should strive for.
Likewise, more and more states, including Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Maryland, have legalized crossbows for use in archery seasons in recent years as a means of expanding hunter choice and providing new hunting opportunities. In contrast, New York, long a state where crossbows have been off-limits to all but disabled hunters, just approved crossbow use—but only during firearms seasons. And in North Carolina, hunters had been required to first receive a pistol permit from his or her local sheriff’s office or possess a concealed handgun permit before being allowed to even purchase a crossbow. North Carolina repealed this peculiar regulation in April.
Little divides deer hunters more than the practice of baiting. Some hunters denounce it as unfair and unethical, while others believe it’s an acceptable and proven hunting strategy.
Currently 28 states prohibit baiting, arguing that it can spread diseases like chronic wasting disease (CWD) and bovine tuberculosis, even though no scientific study has ever found baiting increases disease transmission in the wild. Despite their stance against baiting, Colorado and Wyoming regularly feed deer and elk herds to get them through the lean winter months.
Other states allow baiting, but with a bunch of suspect restrictions that have no scientific basis. Wisconsin lets hunters bait in counties where CWD hasn’t been detected, but state statutes dictate:
- Bait is limited to two gallons for every 40 acres of private property.
- Bait sites must be at least 100 yards apart.
- Scent is considered bait and cannot be deposited where it’s accessible for consumption by deer.
- Hunters can’t put out more than two ounces of scent per day.
- Baiting cannot begin until the Friday before the opener of archery season.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also bans the use of automatic feeders.
“We consider the bait contained in artificial feeders part of the two gallon per day limit, and it’s difficult for us to access them to see if hunters are going over the limit,” said Tom VanHaren, conservation warden with the Bureau of Law Enforcement. “And over time, the feeders concentrate food in one place, which could concentrate deer and spread disease.”
Speaking of Wisconsin, the state’s Earn-A-Buck regulations, which force hunters to kill an antlerless deer before harvesting a buck, have been overwhelmingly unpopular with hunters. In response to hunter outrage over declining deer numbers, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board suspended Earn-A-Buck for the 2011 season. A bill pending in the state legislature would do away with the program altogether.
Providing public land for hunting is a major objective of state game departments, but use of the land comes with restrictions. For example, states like Illinois, Minnesota and Tennessee require that tree stands placed on public lands be removed daily, even though doing so can hurt hunting success.
“You need to set stands well before the season opener so you don’t spook deer during the season,” said Whitetail Properties co-owner and hunter Dan Perez. “This is also critical if you’re going to be hunting out of a ground blind, because deer need time to get used to it.”
What most hunters want is not a permanent stand—just a little time to hang them and let deer become acclimated to them. Indiana and Michigan take a more moderate approach, allowing hunters to set stands on Sept. 1—a month before archery season.
The Color Conundrum
While most deer are brownish in color, there are several genetic variations. Albino deer lack the enzyme responsible for skin, hair and tissue coloration; white deer have normally pigmented noses, eyes and hooves; and piebald deer have brown and white spotting patterns. These deer tend to have a lot of physical abnormalities, including poor vision, short legs, curved spines and malformed internal organs.
“There’s no biological reason to protect them,” said Brian Murphy, wildlife biologist and executive director for the Quality Deer Management Association. “Protecting them shouldn’t be regulated by the state, but be the decision of landowners and hunters.”
Preserving albino deer goes against sound deer management, but that doesn’t stop many states from doing so. Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin prohibit the killing of albino deer. Iowa goes so far as to protect any deer that’s 50 percent or more white—try figuring that out when a huge buck is standing in front of you and you have just seconds to decide whether to shoot!
“A long time ago, a legislator had some albinos on his property, and he managed to get legislation passed to protect them,” said Steve Nifong, chief of law enforcement for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Oklahoma protects albino and piebald deer out of respect for American Indian culture. Some tribes believe white animals are closer to the spirit world, and it’s bad luck to harvest them.
It can also be expensive, as one former state legislator found out last season.
Shortly after Thanksgiving last year in Oklahoma, former state Rep. Terry Harrison killed a piebald deer on his own property. Proud of his trophy, Harrison called his local newspaper to report the unique kill.
Unbeknownst to Harrison, he had killed the deer illegally, as he had not first received written permission from the state wildlife director to take such an animal. Since 1998, Oklahoma law has required that hunters receive, in writing, permission from the state wildlife director before taking a white or piebald deer—a requirement that makes such deer practically off-limits to any hunter who happens across one in the field.
Upon learning of his mistake, Harrison, who served on the state wildlife committee and helped write some of the state’s hunting laws during his time in the Oklahoma House, yet had no knowledge of Oklahoma’s law protecting albino and piebald deer, contacted a local game warden and reported his violation. He was issued a $296 fine.
“But if you have an albino deer on your property, it’s easy to get written permission from the department to harvest it,” said Michael Bergin, an information specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Perhaps, but if you see such a deer for the first time during hunting season, the written permission requirement is a burdensome regulation that will keep you from filling your tag. Members of the Oklahoma Legislature apparently agree, as a bill (HB 1314) is currently pending to repeal the need for a hunter to obtain prior permission in order to legally shoot a white deer.
In Michigan, a state law prohibiting the harvesting of albino deer only came off the books following a lawsuit and a hunter’s four-year battle to clear his name.
On Dec. 19, 2004, hunter John Ingersoll was hunting on private land in Emmet County, Mich., when he saw an eight-point buck that was mostly white, with dark patches on its head and hocks. The buck was a piebald, so Ingersoll harvested it. At the time, Michigan prohibited harvesting albino deer.
An elderly couple filed a complaint with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), claiming Ingersoll killed an albino they’d been feeding for years. The incident set off a flurry of negative reactions against the Michigan hunter. Newspaper articles and letters to the editor claimed Ingersoll killed an albino deer, which led to community outrage.
“I couldn’t go out to dinner, because people would come up to me and start yelling at me, asking why I would kill a pet deer,” said Ingersoll.
Ingersoll filed a defamation lawsuit against several defendants, including DNR officials, who allegedly made false statements against him regarding the deer’s coloration. The case went to the Michigan Supreme Court, before being thrown out.
As a result, Michigan changed its regulation in 2008, allowing hunters to kill albino deer.
When it comes to unneccesary regulations, there appears to be no shortage. In Michigan, it’s also unlawful to carry afield or transport any rifle (including rimfire) or shotgun with ammo five days before the start of deer season. Maryland law prohibits hunters from moving a deer until it’s been tagged (even for pictures). In Wisconsin, it’s legal to shoot a deer in velvet, but there’s a rule requiring that hunters get written permission from the DNR to keep the antlers. And a host of states, including Kansas, forbid the use of hounds to track wounded game, despite a hunter’s ethical obligation to do everything possible to recover his quarry.
What do all of these laws have in common? They have little to nothing to do with wildlife management or game perpetuation, and they have nothing to do with improving hunter safety. They’re just hoops for hunters to jump through—all of which leave hunters asking, “Say what?”