Elk and deer are crazy for salt, and that craving, exploited by unethical and illegal hunters, is getting the animals killed, according to conservation officers at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
But poachers aren’t the only ones taking advantage of illegal salt baits that attract deer and elk like yellow jackets to a plate of picnic food. Predators such as wolves, mountain lions and bears have learned staking out a salt lick leads to an easy meal and the diner is almost always open.
“Folks really get upset with predators and what wolves are doing to our wild populations, and justly so, but when you put an illegal salt out, what you have done is made predators — including wolves — very effective,” said Barry Cummings, senior conservation officer at Moscow. “While a hunter may take an elk or deer off that salt in a year, predators are hunting it year-round.”
In Idaho, it is illegal to hunt deer and elk over salt or other baits. But it is commonly done and has been for decades. Conservation officers say it seems to be more closely associated with the archery hunting season that is open now in many areas.
“It is a pervasive problem. It is spread all over,” said conservation officer Lucas Swanson at Powell.
Officers frequently conduct stakeouts of their own on illegal salt baits. Sometimes they do so in person, but the advent of trail cameras has made it a little easier for them to bust violators. Last year, Cummings busted a father-and-son hunting team from Potlatch. They ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges, were fined hundreds of dollars, had their bows and tree stands confiscated and lost hunting privileges for a year.
Some people who place salt blocks to attract animals hunt right at the site. Others target nearby game trails.
Both are illegal.
Swanson said the sites, because they are so attractive to deer and elk, have a huge potential to spread disease. The animals congregate and they all lick the block or the soil once the salt leaches into it.
“If we get chronic wasting disease in the state, it is going to get spread through the state very quickly because of these illegal salt baits.”
They also tend to tear up the ground and cause substantial resource damage. For that reason, it is also illegal under federal law to place salt baits on National Forest land or property under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.