Hound-hunting at issue

Published 2:13 pm Wednesday, September 3, 2008

FRANKLIN—More than just about any other issue, hunting with dogs has come to represent the clash in Virginia between rural traditionalism and suburban transformation.

As residents of the commonwealth’s biggest cities move to the country seeking refuge from the traffic and blight that so often define urban life, they increasingly encounter traditions, value systems and even institutions that are unfamiliar.

In a place like Southampton County, where newcomers soon learn to share even the narrowest roads with tractors, the discord between new and old can lead to a backlash against “outsiders,” in general.

Strange as it may seem, the issue of hunting dogs is now at the nexus of that debate, providing discussion points on such widely disparate topics as property rights, hunting traditions and animal rights.

Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a legitimate threat to the centuries-old tradition of using dogs to flush deer from the woods.

Having seen the practice severely curtailed in other states, however, and facing a growing body of complaints here in Virginia, even hound hunters are looking for a way to compromise.

“You cannot come to this table and not be ready to give something up,” Capron resident John Rawls Jr. said Tuesday.

Rawls was discussing his service on a committee organized by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to develop a list of recommendations for addressing the growing number of concerns with hound-hunting in Virginia.

A hound-hunter himself, Rawls said his commitment to the sport has not waned in the year or so he has served on the committee. But his appreciation for the complaints of non-hunting landowners, especially from other parts of the state, has increased, he said.

“Around our area, we have very minor problems,” compared to the rural areas that surround the Northern Virginia region. Landowners in Southampton tend to be more willing to work with hunters, and hunters are more likely to treat landowners respectfully.

Both traits, he said, are important if the two groups are to learn to coexist.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do anything,” Rawls said. “It’s about giving and taking.”

Rawls attended a focus group meeting last fall in which he spoke out against tougher laws regulating the use of dogs to hunt deer.

Since then, he said, he has gained a broader understanding of the problems that landowners, especially those who might be new to the rural setting, have with the practice.

He has shared those concerns with other hunters, he said, advising them that if they wish to save hound-hunting in Virginia for the long term, they should look for ways to compromise with still hunters and non-hunting landowners.

He’s got a 5-inch-thick three-ring binder with comments that have been sent by email or regular mail for consideration, he’s got the results of surveys done online and on paper, and he’s got the minutes of public comment sessions that have been held.

“It’s a whole lot bigger than I thought it was,” he said of the issue.

And he’s not completely satisfied with the committee suggestions, which do little to directly address the major complaints of landowners: Virginia’s right-to-retrieve law and the need for a dog training season separate from the hunting season.

The right-to-retrieve law gives hunters the right to enter private property to retrieve wayward dogs, though they must not carry firearms or bows and arrows when they do so.

Many property owners consider the law to be an affront to their rights of privacy and free use of their property. In fact a Crewe landowner, Ben Jones, announced last week he had billed the VGDIF for 19 years of back payments “for placing his property in the public domain without compensation and for denying him the right to privacy,” according to Jeff McDermott of the advocacy group Virginians for Hound Hunting Reform.

Though the department has declined to pay Jones’ bill, asking for the payment has helped Jones keep the right-to-retrieve debate alive going into two weeks worth of public hearings around the state.

Those hearings are designed to elicit public comment on the committee’s nine “recommended strategies” and two “proposed strategies” regarding hound-hunting.

The recommended strategies, which were all agreed to by the committee, include improving law enforcement, better VDGIF record-keeping, more funding for law enforcement, increasing penalties and fines for violations, establishing statewide minimum setbacks for hunting from roads, requiring external hound identification, improving education and training for both hunters and landowners, establishing a code of ethics for hound hunters and requiring accountability of those who violate game laws or act in unsportsmanlike ways.

Significantly, the committee was unable to reach a consensus to support two proposed strategies: to repeal or modify the right-to-retrieve law and to provide a training season for deer hounds.

“A lot of people on the committee came into this with a very open mind” regarding the right-to-retrieve law, but they were met by a group of landowners that seemed unwilling to compromise, Rawls said.

He expects those two issues to be at the forefront of discussions during the committee’s last scheduled meeting in October. No matter what happens, though, hound-hunting in Virginia is not going away anytime soon, he said.

“I’m a diehard hunter,” he said. “My daddy did it; my granddaddy did it. It’s something that has just been done since forever.”

The nearest VDGIF public hearing will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at King’s Fork High School, 351 King’s Fork Road, in Suffolk.

More information on the process and on the recommended strategies can be found at www.dgif.virginia.gov.