Elk and deer are crazy for salt, and that craving, exploited by unethical and illegal hunters, is getting them 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 that staking out a salt lick leads to an easy meal.
"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."
It is illegal to hunt deer and elk over salt or other baits in Idaho. 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.
"It is a pervasive problem. It is spread all over," said conservation officer Lucas Swanson at Powell. "Certain times of the year, like this time of year, I find out about new salt baits on a weekly basis. You can just about name a mountain ridge or a big area and I could tell you, in my area, where there is a salt bait."
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.
Cummings said officials typically write about 10 citations a year in the Clearwater region. Last year, he 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.
"Some of the guys who do this chronically know the system and how to cheat it. They won't hunt on the site but on trails coming and going from it," said Swanson.
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 Forest Service land or property under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.
It's not uncommon for bait sites to be devoid of vegetation and to be licked and churned up to the point they can be 5 or 6 feet deep. Once placed, salt can persist in the ground for years.
"There are salt licks that are so large you can see them on Google Earth," Cummings said. "I've seen salt licks half the size of football fields."
Ethical hunters also suffer when salt is placed in the wild. Because it is illegal to hunt over them or even near them, legal hunters often are forced by conscience or by fear of prosecution, to walk away from areas once salt has been introduced.
"I've talked to hunters who have hunted an area for years, and they have to abandon it once that salt gets in the ground," Cummings said.
It is such a powerful attractant it can also wreak havoc with hunting areas far away from the baits.
"It will pull all the animals from a drainage to one area, and for a guy who is trying to do it legally and not hunt over salt, it sure can be frustrating," Cummings said.
He and Swanson encourage anyone who finds a bait to report it to their local conservation officer or the Citizens Against Poaching hotline.