Virginia Examines Hunting with Houndsd, Again

by Chris McCotter

  The traditions of hunting with hounds for deer and bear has come under more and more scrutiny over the past 20 years as more folks move to Virginia and purchase traditional hunting lands. Conflicts between non-supportive landowners and hunting enthusiasts are increasing as a result. 

   The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) says they are committed to continuing the tradition of hunting with hounds for both wildlife management and recreational benefits. Furthermore, DWR notes it is committed to ensuring that hunting practices are consistent with and respect the rights of private property owners. 

   At the direction of the Board of Wildlife Resources, DWR has initiated a collaborative stakeholder process, and one of the main goals is to reduce conflicts between people who hunt for deer or bear with hounds and private landowners who do not want hounds on their properties.

   To support this work, DWR enlisted the help of a professional, highly respected facilitator (University of Virginia Institute for Engagement and Negotiation) to gather input through both an online survey and in-person interviews. The consultant will then convene and facilitate a Stakeholder Advisory Committee focused on solution identification. This important effort is expected to last through the end of this calendar year.

   Overall, the full timeline will be driven by the Committee itself. This stakeholder engagement process includes the following activities and anticipated timelines: Identification of interested parties and the best method(s) to solicit stakeholder input was completed in spring 2023. A

stakeholder online survey was open to the public June 5–23, 2023. Stakeholder Interviews were conducted and completed July 2023. A report of the summary of the stakeholder survey and interviews was completed in early September. Stakeholder Advisory Committee Meetings will be held August to November 2023. Committee recommendations are anticipated December 2023.

   This is not a new issue. In 2008, the DWR conducted a statewide stakeholder process on the topic of hunting with hounds which produced several reports (Hunting with Hounds: A Way Forward – Technical Report; Content Analysis of Written Correspondence; Survey Report) and Stakeholder Advisory Committee Recommendations.

    In 2016, the DWR developed a follow-up report (A Report on Deer Hunting with Dogs) to the 2008 process at the request of the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries (now Board of Wildlife Resources). A key recommendation coming out of the 2016 report was the creation of a deer dog hunter/landowner stakeholder group to establish ongoing dialogue and identify solutions.    

   In 2021, the Board of Wildlife Resources adopted a resolution to: support legislation requiring dog collars with contact information for hunting dogs; (Completed; legislation forwarded by hound hunting constituents), develop an education module on hound-hunting ethics; (Completed by DWR in 2022 with input from both the landowning and hound hunting communities) and modify dog field trial permits issued for foxhound field trials (Completed by DWR with input from both the landowning and hound hunting communities).

   So why is DWR doing this Stakeholder Advisory Committee process again?

   At the January 2023 meeting of the Board of Wildlife Resources, stakeholders representing both the landowning and hound hunting communities appeared and expressed a willingness to have discussions of ways to avoid and resolve conflicts between the hunting and landowning communities. This led the Board to direct the formation of the stakeholder committee.

     Stakeholder Advisory Committee representatives reflect various stakeholder interests regarding hound-hunting (for deer and bear) and private landowner concerns. Committee members bring the perspectives of private landowners, hound-hunters, local governments, still hunters, Native Americans, agricultural landowners, and wildlife management interest groups to the discussion; some Committee Members represent more than one of these perspectives.  

   There are 21 primary representatives on the Stakeholder Advisory Committee. Except for the At-Large Citizen representatives, each organizational body selected its own primary and alternate representatives to serve on the Committee. The representatives include:

  One representative each for 12 organizations: American Bear Foundation, Virginia Chapter

Appalachian Habitat Association, B&W Hunt Club, Property Rights Coalition of Virginia, Sporting Dog Coalition of Virginia, Virginia Association of Responsible Sportsmen, Virginia Bear Hunters Association, Virginia Deer Hunters Association, Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia Hound Heritage, Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, Virginia Property Rights Alliance, six representatives serving as At-Large Citizen Representatives, one representative from a Native American Tribe (Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe), one representative each for two local governments (Louisa County and Spotsylvania County).

    In a report released September 8 entitled Addressing Hunter-Landowner Conflicts in Deer and Bear Hound Hunting the Institute for Engagement & Negotiation at the University of Virginia noted the results of  nearly 9,000 stakeholders who participated in an electronic survey and interviews. The goal was to assist the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) in opening a dialogue among Virginia’s key stakeholder groups to address certain conflicts pertaining to hunting deer and bear with hounds. 

      This information will be used to inform a Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC), selected in consultation with DWR, to develop recommendations to resolve the issues. IEN will facilitate a series of meetings for these deliberations using a stakeholder consensus-building approach. IEN will then present the SAC’s recommendations in a final report for DWR and the Board’s consideration. 

    Three categories of survey responders were utilized to develop the following survey summary narrative: hunters, landowners, and a category in which the responder was neither a hunter nor landowner but had an interest and connection to the issue. The questions posed to survey responders for each category were similar but not identical. There also was overlap in the three categories; for example, some hunters are also landowners, and responded to questions posed to both of those groups. 

   For the hunters with hounds community, the following important, consistent, and frequent elements and themes were present in the survey and interview results: hunting with hounds has an important, historical legacy in Virginia involving generations of families and has significant community involvement: hunting with hounds is critical to overall game management; hunting with hounds provides considerable positive secondary economic impact for rural areas; in some areas law enforcement efforts are considered incomplete, and more enforcement personnel are needed; bear hunting utilizes public lands more commonly than deer hunting, although they sometimes encounter issues with landowners who own property adjacent to public land; the “right to retrieve” law is viewed as an important element to those who hunt with hounds; most hunt clubs and other hunting with hounds groups practice respectful interaction with landowners; it is acknowledged that there has been and continues to be conflict with landowners and those interactions have had negative consequences; new landowners who move to rural areas sometimes do not understand or appreciate the historical significance of hunting with hounds and are not aware of the legal framework in which hound hunters operate. In addition to pressure from new land development, this has contributed to a decrease in hunting opportunities.

      For the landowner community, the following important elements and themes constitute their perspective on the hunting with hounds issue: hunters with hounds often cross properties without permission; law enforcement personnel do not act in a consistent manner on incidents when reported; in some areas law enforcement efforts are considered incomplete, and more enforcement personnel are needed; hunters often lack communication with and respect for landowners when it comes to accessing properties, retrieving hunting hounds, or interacting with property owners; at times uncontrolled hunting hounds run freely, do not respond to commands, and cause disruptions to their properties, including harassing livestock, domestic animals, and wildlife; landowners highlighted safety risks associated with hunting hounds and hunters on their properties, including confrontations, dropping and waiting for hounds in and around public roadways, hunters carrying firearms, and potential accidents involving firearms; hunters let loose their hounds on property they do not have permission for in hopes of them running across larger tracts; the presence of hunting hounds and hunters on their properties affected their overall quality of life, including disturbances to their peace, concerns for the safety of their children and animals, ability to use and enjoy their property, and the general inconvenience caused by these issues; some hound hunters violate hunting regulations, such as hunting at night, using spotlights, and hunting in areas where it is prohibited , many landowners support stricter enforcement, revisions to the “right to retrieve” law, and better protection of landowners’ rights in relation to hunting activities. 

   Regarding the resolution of these issues, there was considerable common ground on a set of improvements. These recommendations do not consider resources necessary for implementation, political viability, or present legal or regulatory authority. Many of the themes identified by this survey and interview process match previous work identified during the 2007- 2008 effort and later processes implemented by DWR.

    The survey and interview results indicated areas of agreement, including: law enforcement staffing gaps need to be filled; communication between the groups needs to be consistent and transparent; respect and trust are paramount to successful interaction and reduce potential for conflict, educational efforts for both groups, including new landowners, need upgrading; hunt clubs could enhance communication efforts using a landowner ombudsman approach; hound identification mechanisms could be improved; electronic tracking collars should be considered statewide

  Several interviewees noted possible changes, tools, and approaches that could help to alleviate contention, very similar to those that were noted in the survey results. These include adding landowner contact information to signs for posted property to facilitate communication when hounds enter another property, more proactive use of the GPS collars to intervene before hounds enter property where they are not wanted, a requirement to call notify a landowner before entering their property, possible use of geofencing to manage a hound’s whereabouts more tightly, an increase in law enforcement and the creation of a database or something similar to enable law enforcement to know who has permission to hunt which areas.     

   Approaches used by other states, including minimum acreage requirements, hunting from roadways, and connecting violations to property (as opposed to the specific hunters) were also recommended by a number of interviewees.

   The common theme that was thoroughly expressed by many commenters was the view that hound hunting has been a deep-rooted tradition within the Commonwealth of Virginia and should remain that way. While over half of the commenters recommended making no changes to the current regulations and laws, many of those commenters also noted that they anticipate change coming to these regulations and at the bare minimum would rather see the practice of hound-hunting remain in some form in the future than be eliminated completely in the Commonwealth. 

   Both commenters who identify solely as hound hunters or solely landowners agree that a major issue is the lack of law enforcement with the current regulations in place and that increasing staffing would be a viable solution to the disparity between the stakeholder groups. 

   Another common theme that was found throughout was the notion that voluntary measures between private landowners and hound-hunters would help eliminate many of the negative occurrences by being transparent with all parties involved before going out and conducting a hound hunt. Respectful communication and recognition of relationships between private landowners and those looking to hunt their land with hounds stood out as the solution most important to those involved as it commonly led to those involved being able to solve their disputes and move on without “ill-will” between one another. Most scenarios described where a landowner or a houndhunter were frustrated with one another and appeared to be associated with a lack of communication and/or when property was damaged.

  Regarding the resolution of these issues, there was considerable common ground on a set of improvements, many of which were discussed in prior stakeholder contributions as well as the current survey and interview process. Considering the comments IEN received in the surveys and interviews, DWR’s commitment to hunters who hunt deer and bear with hounds and to private property owners, as well as the changing demographics, increasing population, and social and recreational trends, the SAC will begin with the following topics as a starting place for SAC deliberations: law enforcement, safety, use of public lands, use of technology, community engagement framework, continued work on ethical hunting practices and consideration of other state’s laws.

   Will we see yet another hound hunter/landowner stakeholder survey in six years that identifies similar issues need tending to? Perhaps, as DWR needs to show it is addressing complaints to politicians hearing from non-hunting constituents. Will anything be resolved? That remains to be seen.

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