For years hunters in South Georgia could hunt deer over bait while those in a line that runs from Bibb County north could go to jail for it.
But a vote by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources board now effectively makes hunting deer near bait legal statewide on private property. It will take effect in the hunting season this fall.
The issue was discussed in the General Assembly this year, but the legislature could not come to an agreement on whether to make the law uniform throughout the state. While DNR cannot change the law, it can change the hunting zones. The board voted to essentially do away with the northern zone, making the baiting law uniform statewide.
The state had been divided into a north hunting zone and south hunting zone, with the dividing line running through Middle Georgia. Upson, Crawford, Bibb, Jones and Baldwin counties were in the north while counties south of those were in the southern zone.
John Trussell, a Houston County deer hunter and wildlife advocate, said the law on hunting deer over bait was the only significant difference between the two zones. With Wednesday's vote, the board changed the zone lines to make only the Chattahoochee National Forest the northern zone, and the rest of the state is now in the southern zone.
Trussell said it was a good move because it makes the law uniform and will free up game wardens to spend more time on other things.
"It was a big factor for game wardens trying to track this kind of stuff down," he said. "They really need to be working on things other than that."
He said the reason for the differing law had been that there were more deer and more food for them in the south, but Trussell said the population is in good shape statewide.
Anyone caught hunting deer over bait in the north could have been charged with a misdemeanor crime, punishable by up to a year in jail. But there were some murky legal issues involved. Landowners in the north could put deer feeders on their property, even during hunting season, but they could not hunt within 200 yards of a feeder or within sight of it. However, baited hog hunting is legal year round, so hunters could claim they were hog hunting if they were caught near a feeder, Trussell said.
Dan Slagle, a Crawford County land owner and avid deer hunter, was happy about DNR's move. He said he did not especially want to hunt over bait, but he didn't see any reason why it should be a crime in Crawford County and perfectly legal in adjacent Peach and Taylor counties.
"I didn’t think it's appropriate for hunters in the southern part of the state to have different rights and privileges than hunters in the northern part of the state," he said.
He uses feeders on his property during the off season, with a special feed to supply needed nutrients to deer. During deer season he removes the feeders, so there will be no question about distances if a game warden shows up. Game wardens can go onto private property at any time to ensure hunting regulations are being followed.
People may envision that hunting over bait is easy, even unsporting, but Trussell and Slagle said that isn't the case. A buck, Trussell said, will rarely approach a feeder while doe typically come only a night due to the human scent. For that reason, both he and Slagle said they do not expect the change will result in a significant reduction in the deer population.
Winburn "Brother" Stewart Jr., president and CEO of Bibb Distributing Co. in Macon, is a member of the DNR board. He was not at Wednesday's meeting but said he supports the decision. Stewart, who has struck deer three times with his vehicle, has concerns that the deer population is too large and contributes to higher auto insurance costs.
"We do have too many deer, and I think this may help that," he said.
Last year DNR estimated the state's deer population to be 1.27 million, up from 960,000 in 2005.