Popping The Corn Myth

DNR official says feeding deer, turkey causes more harm than good; West Virginia's top wildlife official believes the state has a problem, and that problem comes in 50 and 100 pound bags

By John McCoy
Staff Writer

West Virginia's top wildlife official believes the state has a problem, and that problem comes in 50 and 100 pound bags.

"There's so much corn being fed to deer and turkeys," said Curtis Taylor, chief of the Division of Natural Resources' Wildlife Section. "Most people have no idea the problems corn can cause."

Feeding deer is legal in the Mountain State. Hunters do it to attract whitetails within easy bow or gun range, to keep deer herds from migrating onto other landowners' property, or to keep deer from starving during cold weather.

This winter's heavy snowfalls have triggered a surge in corn sales. But Taylor believes most of that corn will end up doing more harm than good.

"Corn has almost no nutritional value for wildlife," he said. "A turnip patch would be much better for deer than a pile of corn, but people don't plant turnip patches because they require work - plowing the ground, liming, fertilizing and planting. It's much easier to dump a 50-pound sack of corn on the ground and say, 'Look what a good thing I did.'"

What people don't see, Taylor added, is what he calls the "hidden danger" to setting out corn - its potential toxic effect on turkeys and other bird species.

"There's a reason why certain grades of corn are labeled 'deer corn,'" Taylor explained. "The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] won't permit it to be fed to cattle because its aflatoxin level is so high."

Aflatoxin is a toxic chemical given off by a species of mold commonly found on corn. At low levels, it can affect turkeys' ability to lay eggs. At higher levels, it can affect turkeys' health.

"The problem is that people who feed wildlife go out and buy the cheapest corn they can get their hands on," Taylor said. "They could go to a feed store and buy USDA certified corn, and it wouldn't have high levels of aflatoxin in it. But they go to big-box stores and buy something labeled 'deer corn.' You can bet it's labeled that way because the aflatoxin levels are so high it can't be used for anything else."

Taylor, a member of the National Wild Turkey Federation's technical committee, said the NWTF commissioned a study to look at aflatoxin levels in corn. "Biologists from one of the southern states went out and took samples from people's feeders and bait piles. Some of the samples had aflatoxin levels that were through the roof."

He has no research to prove it, but Taylor suspects that the enormous quantities of aflatoxin-laced corn being fed to West Virginia deer are affecting turkeys' ability to reproduce.

"That's one of my theories," he said. "If you read the literature, it's not a stretch to think that if there's that level of corn out there, you could certainly see an impact on the turkey population."

If Taylor had his druthers, baiting and feeding of deer would be illegal.

"Will we ever see that? I doubt it," he said. "There's too many people ingrained with the idea that the way to hunt deer is with a four-wheeler, a 50-pound sack of corn and a feeder."

"People didn't used to hunt that way. A lot of the people who hunt that way today saw some guy kill a big buck on some TV show, and decided that was how they could kill a big buck, too.

"It's really hurting our youth, in my opinion. They aren't learning any woodsmanship at all. They climb up in a tree and sit over a feeder or a corn pile. That's all they know about hunting, and that is sad."

Taylor believes baiting ultimately harms the public's perception of hunters.

"Let's say you're a non-hunter, some one who doesn't hunt but isn't opposed to it. It's October, and you're driving down the road behind a pickup truck with a camouflaged four-wheeler, a big old sack of corn and a feeder in the truck bed. What's your opinion of that?

"We know from surveys that the public in general thinks hunting over bait is wrong, that it's unethical. But I'm afraid it's gotten so ingrained into our culture we'll never get rid of it."

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