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A Kansas lawmaker threatens the wildlife department over deer baiting, raising ethics concerns

David Condos
Kansas News Service

A Republican lawmaker sparked ethics concerns after he threatened to cut at least a million dollars from the agency if it bans deer baiting. And he said another lawmaker that owns a hunting lodge would help him.

A Republican lawmaker threatened to strip funding from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks if it bans people from baiting deer with piles of food.

Rep. Lewis Bloom, a farmer from Clay Center, went as far as to claim the chair of the committee that oversees the agency’s budget would help him retaliate by defunding the department.

Republican Rep. Ken Corbet, the chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Budget Committee, owns a lodge in Topeka that offers deer hunting for thousands of dollars per person, raising concerns of lawmaker conflict-of-interest. Hunting lodges regularly use baiting and feeding to help their customers get closer to the deer, or to bolster deer populations or try to grow larger antlers.

“If you consider banning baiting,” Bloom said, “we're going to take a million dollars off the top of your budget immediately. And then we will go through every line item bit by bit and take off everything we can possibly find.”

Bloom’s threat came at a public hearing as the state’s wildlife commissioners consider restricting deer baiting and feeding to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease, a fatal cousin of mad cow disease that eats holes in the brains of deer.

Kansas is in a shrinking minority of states that still allow baiting. Chronic wasting disease is a key factor spurring more states to prohibit it, though state wildlife officials are also concerned about other problems, such as damage to crops and natural areas caused by high deer and raccoon concentrations around feeders.

Kansas officials haven’t made a formal proposal yet, but wildlife commissioners have indicated they are exploring a ban. Feed sellers, rural land brokers and hunting lodge owners are fighting the potential restrictions. Other state wildlife agencies that have banned or restricted baiting and feeding deer have faced heated showdowns at their state legislatures over the matter.

Bloom told state wildlife officials at a town hall meeting on deer feeding last week that he and Corbet believe they have the votes on their committee to continually make cuts to the agency’s budget. Bloom said the retaliation was necessary because a ban on baiting deer violates property-owner rights and his constituents are sick of the agency taking away their freedoms.

“We don't want to be told,” Bloom said, “what to do on private ground when we're paying for feeding the deer. It's not costing you one thing to feed the deer.”

It’s unclear if or how Bloom would personally benefit from stopping a ban on deer baiting. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Kansas is a popular whitetail hunting destination. Lodges charge out-of-state hunters upward of $4,000 per person for weeklong stays on properties where baiting and feeding ensures strong numbers of the country’s most popular game animal. Corbet’s lodge sells deer hunts starting at $3,000 per person, plus trophy fees of up to $8,000 for successful deer kills.

But biologists say putting out feed concentrates deer, which spreads disease.

The state wildlife department said in an email Wednesday that it is just doing its job.

“We have an obligation and an established standard of managing our state’s natural resources utilizing the best available scientific data,” Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Secretary Brad Loveless said in an emailed statement.

He said the agency “will always do our best to achieve an acceptable balance between what’s best for wildlife and what’s best for users.”

Right now, he said the department is trying to do that by holding public meetings to facilitate discussion.

At those meetings, the agency has been presenting scientific evidence about animal diseases and other concerns related to baiting.

Rep. Sydney Carlin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, criticized Bloom’s attack on the department.

She said she was also skeptical that Bloom, a first-term lawmaker, has the political sway to convince other legislators to defund the department. Any budget recommendations the committee makes would also need to be backed by the House Appropriations Committee, decreasing the likelihood a retaliatory cut would make it through the Legislature. Carlin and Corbet both serve on the Appropriations Committee, and could argue for or against the cuts.

Carlin also raised concerns about Corbet’s possible involvement in the ordeal. While she noted conflicts of interest sometimes come up in the Legislature, Bloom’s comments appear to take that further than the run-of-the mill legislation overlapping with a lawmaker’s personal interest.

“It sounds like a real threatening voice, in this case,” Carlin said.

When asked about Bloom’s warning of retaliation, Corbet did not endorse or object to his comments. He said Bloom can offer the proposal and see if other lawmakers on the committee will support it.

Corbet also strongly opposes a deer baiting ban and accused the wildlife department of opposing hunting. He said its policies hurt towns and businesses that rely on the sport.

He later said in an email that he and others who love hunting do more to promote it in Kansas than the state’s department that has a $100 million budget. And he’d rather see the department’s money used to bring hunters to the state than fight with landowners about deer feeders.

But he dismissed concerns that he has a conflict of interest in the issue because he owns a hunting lodge.

“There’s probably not a person in their state,” Corbet said, “that doesn't have a conflict on something.”

Even if Corbet’s personal interest was clear-cut conflict, he would not be breaking any laws.

Mark Skoglund, executive director of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, said the state’s ethics laws relating to conflict of interest are focused on lawmakers entering contracts and receiving gifts or economic opportunities. But there is no rule prohibiting lawmakers from supporting or opposing legislation for their personal benefit.

Carlin said the state might need stricter policies.

“Maybe that’s something we ought to work on,” Carlin said.

Chronic wasting disease spreads among deer and elk in close proximity. It eats holes in their brains. Over the past several decades, it has spread from Colorado to 30 other states and parts of Canada.

Wild animals in Kansas started testing positive for the disease in 2005. It’s now in most Kansas counties, and it's most prevalent in the northwest corner of the state, where biologists estimate at least one-third of 2.5-year-old bucks carry it.

Hunters are split over whether to ban baiting. The National Deer Association supports bans in areas with chronic wasting disease to help protect the animals.

But some hunters say the disease will spread no matter what, and that baiting allows young people to learn the sport and helps archers get close enough to make a kill.

A 2020 survey of Kansas deer hunters found that a little more than half oppose a total ban on using food and mineral supplements to attract game.

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter and Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is the environment reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dylan Lysen
Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.