Landowners, dog owners square off

Published 11:55 am Saturday, January 2, 2016

In early 2015, Del. David I. Ramadan (R-6) of Loudoun and Prince William counties submitted two pieces of legislation to the Virginia General Assembly that would place restrictions on hunters — one of which was in regard to the right to retrieve animals used for hunting without permission from the landowner. The Virginia Landowners Association — a self-proclaimed group dedicated to preserving and protecting landowner rights — backed the bill, though it was ultimately killed by a House subcommittee.

The VLA has since advocated for new regulations on hunting deer with dogs, citing an increasing population, smaller plots of land and conflicts between hunters and landowners as reasons for better governance. The most recent push calls for a dog permit system that would require mandatory registration of clubs or individuals planning to hunt deer with dogs.

“It’s a simple permit system, similar to a [Harvest Information Program] registration to where the club is permitted,” VLA Executive Director Aaron Bumgarner said. “The club goes to [the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries] or online and gets a permit, and the permit number is associated with the club, all of the hunters and all of the dogs. Say, for example, the permit number is ‘10.’ There’s a ‘10’ on the dog, a ‘10’ on the hunter and a ‘10’ on the hunter’s truck — the ‘10’ is tied to the whole club. So if I say I don’t want dogs [on my land], then it’s a tool for me to hold that club accountable.”

Bumgarner said he started the group so that landowners could have a voice on what happens on their property, but he acknowledged his main concern is dog hunting.

“I’m not able to enjoy my land. There’s dogs on my property almost every day,” he said. “I can’t take my own two dogs out on my land without conflict during the general [hunting] season and even during spring turkey season.”

When asked if he had specific incidents with deer hounds or nearby hunt clubs that have driven him to pursue this agenda, Bumgarner declined to comment.

VLA member and Fairfax County native Ricky Montgomery echoed that sentiment, and added, “Trespassing is trespassing, whether by ATV, hunting dogs chasing deep on property not authorized or dog hunter vehicles blocking driveways. There must be a means by which dog-deer hunters can enjoy their sport without infringing on property owners’ pursuit of life, liberty and happiness on the property they bought, spend money to manage and pay taxes on.”

Virginia’s right to retrieve law, however, permits hunters to enter posted property with intent to locate and retrieve hunting dogs, falcons, hawks or owls without permission from the landowner. Doing so is not considered trespassing.

Under the proposed registration system, the first complaint filed by a landowner would result in a warning to the hunter or club, and each subsequent complaint would come with fines. It could also escalate to the hunter or club losing their hunting license should the problem persist.

“It’s not meant to penalize clubs,” Bumgarner said. “The biggest thing it does is it forces clubs to change how they hunt and to adapt to a changing world. You oftentimes hear tradition and heritage and this is the way we’ve been hunting for 40 years, but the fact is that the community has changed.”

Burgess Willis, whose father founded Orbit Hunt Club in Windsor, is a lifelong deer-dog hunter and farmer. He argued that the proposed system is imperfect and would allow for false complaints.

“This system has been put in place in other states and now deer hunting with dogs in those states is almost nonexistent,” Willis said. “If someone buys 150 acres in the middle of three, five or 10,000 acres that is hunted with dogs and decides that these clubs are being a nuisance, then all that landowner has to do is copy down the number that is tagged on the dog hunters truck and call in a complaint, valid or not. If that person does that enough then that will be the end of that hunt club. This system is not the answer for hunters and landowners.”

The biggest fear for many hunters, including Colt Pulley of Seven Pines Hunt Club in Ivor, is that Bumgarner and the VLA are trying to do away with dog hunting altogether, and that putting permits on dogs is just the first step.

“They’re trying to impose rules that aren’t necessary,” Pulley said. “You don’t try to do something like this without an agenda.”

Bumgarner and other proponents, like James Rae, claim that this is simply a property rights issue. Rae, who lives in Radford County but owns property and still-hunts in Southampton County, said that he just want his property to be respected. The term still-hunt means to use stealth while hunting.

“When dogs run though the land where you’re still-hunting, it ruins your hunt,” he said. “I think they should aim their dogs in a different direction. It just boils down to respect. Do what you need to do to keep them on your land.”

Pulley agreed with the latter notion, and said, “If you remain respectful toward the landowner, then there are no issues.”

Hunters like John Rawls Jr., president of Indiantown Hunt Club, who have said they’ve never had an issue with landowners while hunting with dogs, believe that these restrictions are unnecessarily adding additional requirements to do what they love.

“We are not in favor of the permit system, and the reason is that everyone in Southampton County is already required to register their dogs with the county,” Rawls said, referring to a general dog and rabies licenses. “They’re asking me to take an additional step, and the county already has everything necessary to tell whose dog it is.”

Those who want to end hunting with dogs altogether typically point to conflicts with hunters as the reason why. Many asked to remain anonymous, including the administrator of the Facebook page “Make Dog Hunting for Deer Illegal in Virginia,” for fear of retaliation to their family, property or livestock.

“The issue we have with deer hunting with dogs is the owners [are] unwilling or unable to control their dogs and keep them off other people’s property,” stated the administrator, who also claimed to be a former member of the VLA.

“I disagreed with Aaron because he wants to keep deer dogs and just have some rules about trespassing. I disagree and feel that hunting deer with dogs can never coexist.”

Former Virginia Game Warden Mitch Copeland — who owns 158 acres in Isle of Wight County, is a member of the VLA — said he sees the potential for issues, but hasn’t had a problem with any hunters or hunt clubs since he moved back to his family’s farm in September 2014.

“The thing about growing up here is that you know everyone who hunts around here,” Copeland said. “If you have dogs on your property, you just call and converse back and forth to solve it. There are bad apples in any group, though, so I could see where the problems could lie.”

Some hunters, like Tyler Mentzer of Bucks Branch Hunt Club in Capron, have compromised with landowners that don’t want dogs on their property.

“I’ve never had landowners come to me and say that they had a problem with my dogs,” Mentzer said. “In fact, we have an agreement with a guy near us who is an outfitter and has people still-hunt on his property. He doesn’t like that the dogs sometimes run on the property, but he understands it. He’ll let us on his property to retrieve our dogs at certain times of the day, and we don’t go in with any weapons or anything. We just go get the dogs.”

Mentzer also said that living in the region his entire life would make possible conflicts with adjacent landowners easier to resolve.

“All of a sudden, these people that have lived in the city their whole life come into the county and have a dog on their property and it’s a problem,” he said.

Bumgarner, who operates a forestry and wildlife consulting business in Courtland, and has owned property in Southampton County for two years, said that neither he nor the VLA are attempting to eliminate hunting with dogs.

“I don’t care what the deer-dog hunters do on their land. When it comes on to my land as an extension of their hunt, that’s where I draw the line,” he said. “I’m not against dog hunting. I’m just against the hunt being extended over to my property. In my opinion, the biggest threat to dog hunting is not fixing the problem. We don’t want them to lose their tradition of deer dog hunting. We just want them to look at the way they are operating with a fresh set of eyes.”

Isle of Wight resident Larry McKee said that hunters won’t change their outlook without the law being amended because they defend their actions as tradition.

“It may be true, but neither should trump common sense and landowner rights,” McKee said, noting that he hunts deer, turkeys and bears without dogs. “Hunting with dogs is a choice, a hobby and a style of hunting. When that style or hobby encroaches on the ability of a landowner to peacefully enjoy their property as they see fit, something needs to change. Some deer-dog hunters say the deer dogs cannot be controlled — they go where the deer go. Some say they can be controlled with today’s technology — GPS collars, etc.

“If there is no possible way to control the dogs and keep them on the property they have permission to be on, then the sport should end,” McKee continued. “On the other hand, if GPS, etc, offers near 100 percent control, then that is the price deer-dog hunters should have to pay to ensure their hunt remains on their property.”

Jack Randall, attorney and board member of the Manry Hunt Club in Courtland, said that many landowners don’t understand the law as it is written.

“What they’re trying to do is restrict rights and change public policy. This would not only impact deer hunting, but hunting in general, and it’s just because a small minority is offended that these dogs come onto their property. These types of groups are reckless and dangerous, and many don’t understand right to retrieve.”

Rawls made a similar statement, and said, “People who say that [the dogs roam freely nonstop] don’t know what they’re talking about. I do realize that sometimes in life people do things the right way and others do things the wrong way. The ones that don’t do it the right way make it more difficult for those who do. If we’re not having issues, why change? What might work in another county in Virginia might not work in Southampton County. Southampton County is still a very rural county, and that’s why I have a disagreement with groups [like the VLA]. We don’t feel one state ordinance can govern the entire state.”

Bumgarner and other members of the VLA in October appeared in front of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to request the aforementioned restrictions be implemented for the 2016 hunting season.

“Because the legislative code mandates the rules, we’re not sure the board could even take such action or what kind of authority they even have,” VDGIF Communications Manager Lee Walker said. “With the public interest being as consistent as its has been, they’ve requested some background information on hunting with dogs, the history and laws associated with it and the issues that the different agencies, hunters and landowners have faced.”

The VDGIF will reveal its findings at its Jan. 21 meeting in Henrico. If it ultimately were to have the authority to make such a change, requiring permits for hunting dogs would have to be recommended by a board member and go through subsequent public hearings.

Kirby Burch, president of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, which oversees 450 hunt clubs with a membership of nearly 30,000 people, believes that there aren’t any issues associated with dog hunting.

“The organization that claims to be a landowner group is principally made up of people who led the Sunday hunting fight and want commercial hunting,” Burch said. “They’ve tried to convince the game board that there are problems and complaints [with deer-dog hunters], and I’m not aware of any increase in tickets or court cases. In fact, they’re diminishing.”

Captain Tim Whitt of the Franklin Police Department said that he has not received any complaints about hunting dogs trespassing on property in the city in the last two years, while Major Gene Drewery of the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office said his department lets the VDGIF handle complaints involving hunting. Walker, meanwhile, explained that the VDGIF only keeps records of trespassing, not whether dogs were involved, and therefore could not confirm Burch’s assertion. Isle of Wight’s Chief of Animal Control Larry Wilson also said that the county does not keep track of complaints with regard to hunting dogs because the law allows hunters to retrieve their dogs.

“There may have been one or two general inquires in my three years here, but they explain to the landowner that there is nothing they can do,” Wilson said.

Bumgarner, who said he will speak during the public comment period at the VDGIF’s January meeting added, “We look forward to working with dog hunters, the VDGIF, legislators and landowners to create a meaningful solution that allows deer dog hunting to continue while respecting the rights of landowners. They’ve been very receptive to listening to us and very responsive. They recognize there’s an issue. The challenge has always been how to fix it and go about it.”