For those who hunt with hounds, your input is sought

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 14, 2007

The history of hunting in Virginia is as old as the history of Virginia herself and can clearly be traced back to the first English settlers in the New World.

Turns out these newcomers were only doing what the native Virginians had done for thousands of years: use the bounty of Virginia’s wildlife for food, shelter, tools, clothes and indeed, recreation.

These early hunters, both native and newcomers, valued wildlife and the opportunities it provided. It was only hundreds of year later, after the face of Virginia had changed dramatically, that this long accepted practice of using wildlife for personal benefit changed.

That change occurred in 1916, with the creation of what is now the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The unrestricted harvest of wildlife and the market hunting of certain species had driven the populations of some animals to a dangerously low level. Deer and wild turkey, those species so common and important when the English arrived, and so abundant today, were virtually non-existent in some areas of the Commonwealth.

With this new department came new laws governing the way we interact with wildlife, particularly on the consumptive use side of the equation, resulting in a new way to look at hunting.

The key to the success of this new way of managing wildlife was the end user — the hunter, angler, and trapper. It just so happened that the value of wildlife so apparent to the early hunters was shared just as fervently by the hunters in the “new” Virginia. These folks willingly bought licenses, and a bit later paid excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and other similar gear. The revenue generated by this new way of doing business provided the desperately needed funds to begin the intense wildlife management practices that have brought the results we value and enjoy.

The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is once again at the forefront of these new challenges. Loss of critical habitat, environmental degradation, human/wildlife conflicts, and a decline in areas available to hunt, fish, trap and otherwise enjoy wildlife are some of the apparent issues in the new Virginia that must be addressed.

The interstate trade in wildlife is significant, driven by any number of markets for the animals. This Department has taken a hard line on the illegal possession and movement of wildlife, specifically due to the disease concerns.

This concern was virtually unheard of in the “old” Virginia. So far, as indicated by frequent monitoring, none of the wildlife diseases so problematic in other states have been found in Virginia.

Along these same proactive lines, the Department has launched a study regarding the use of hounds in certain types of hunting in Virginia. Hunting with hounds is a long and time-honored tradition in many states, but probably nowhere any stronger than in Virginia. Our interest, as the agency charged with matters related to hunting, is to protect this heritage and the role it plays in managing wildlife.

As with all hunters, hunters who work with hounds are passionate about wildlife, about hunting in general and about their love for and use of dogs in pursing their sport. No one recognizes and appreciates that more than we at the department.

Issues related to hunting with hounds that we are hearing about today were largely unheard of in a more rural Virginia.

Our approach in this study is to involve stakeholders and, because the face of Virginia has changed, the list of stakeholders is larger and more diverse than it may have been in 1916. Hunters who use dogs, other hunters, private landowners, corporate landowners, rural homeowners, local government officials, law enforcement, wildlife managers and, of course, many other groups who enjoy wildlife are all important to this process.

By participation in local focus groups, all stakeholders can have the input we feel is important to getting the full perspective.

It is worth noting that this is the same approach we took in developing long-term management plans for deer and bear. In a simplified description of this process, we asked stakeholders at the local level what they thought the management philosophy should be regarding regional populations of these species.

In managing Virginia’s wildlife for all to enjoy, we must be diligent in staying on top of threats to these invaluable resources. We must also be in tune with what our citizens want from these resources and with their expectations of those who use these resources.

Some folks are uncomfortable with the hunting with hounds study process but clearly the information gained in the study will prove invaluable. Just as hunting not only survived but thrived after the significant changes in the early 1900s, we feel it can and will continue to do so as we face today’s challenges.

This is not about abandoning our heritage related to wildlife resources and hunting. Rather, it is all about protecting them in an ever-changing environment.