According to archeologists and historians, man has used domesticated canines to hunt wild game for as long as 15,000 years. When European settlers reached North America in the 1600s, they brought their hunting dog traditions with them. Experts believe that the first authentic pack of hunting dogs in the colonies was established by Robert Brooke of Maryland in 1650.
But hunting with dogs in early North America represented a tectonic cultural shift away from the European style of hunting. For centuries in Europe, hunting wild game was a diversion available only to the rich and powerful. Game animals traditionally belonged to royalty and the landed gentry. Peasants caught “poaching the King’s deer” often met their fate at the end of a hangman’s noose.
In the colonies and later in the newly independent United States, wild game belonged to all free white males, regardless of their wealth or social class. Unfortunately, women and people of color had no similar rights, but that injustice was eventually rectified. The influx of Scotch-Irish immigrants to America in the mid-1700s ushered in the use of trained hounds to hunt so-called “Virginia deer” in Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
But storm clouds began to gather early for dog-hunting in America. (Note: Hunting deer with dogs is commonly referred to as “dog-hunting.”) In 1738, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law that required owners of deer dogs to keep their animals confined except when they were actually involved in a deer hunt. In 1876, Wisconsin became the first state to ban dog-hunting altogether. The bitterly debated Adirondack Deer Law of 1888 imposed tight strictures on dog-hunting in New York. By 1920, all of the Northeastern states had outlawed dog-hunting for deer.
DOG-HUNTING IN THE DEEP SOUTH
As many deer hunters know, dog-hunting can be highly effective. By 1900, whitetail numbers were at an all-time low. Thanks to conservation efforts, the ever-resilient whitetails made a dramatic recovery in the last century. Now there are an estimated 30 million “Virginia deer” spread across 45 states.
Today, 11 states still allow deer hunting with dogs. However, two of the states, California and Hawaii, have no whitetail populations, and state game management officials tightly control the use of dogs to hunt axis, blacktail and mule deer. So the last bastion of dog-hunting for whitetails is found in nine states that were once part of the Old Confederacy: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Another former Confederate state, Texas, allowed dog-hunting until 1990, when it was banned due to a flood of complaints from landowners and non-hunters. Incidentally, Texas now has an estimated 4 million whitetails, which is the largest population in any individual state or Canadian province.
Deer hunters who believe that their sport is under attack may be surprised and pleased to learn that the country as a whole still overwhelmingly supports the preservation of our hunting tradition. An extensive 2008 public opinion survey indicated that 78 percent of Americans approve of continued legal hunting for wild game. Unfortunately, the same poll showed that support for dog-hunting is dangerously low.
The following information represents an overview of dog-hunting regulations, the current status of dog deer hunting, and likely future prospects for this traditional hunting method in several dog-hunting states in the South.
Dog-hunting rights have seriously eroded in Alabama. Of the 67 counties in the state, 35 have completely or partially banned dog-hunting. U.S. National Forest Service land in 13 Alabama counties is also closed to dog-hunting. Of the counties that still allow dog deer hunting, five have established regulations to govern hunting clubs. The clubs can be placed on probation or have their dog-hunting permits revoked by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) for violation of state hunting regulations, or if the number of public complaints becomes excessive. An ADCNR spokesman said that violations of hunting regulations and the number of public complaints have been noticeably reduced in the five counties that adopted permit requirements for dog-hunting clubs.
Don Knight, president of the Alabama Dog-Hunters Association, is an eloquent spokesman for dog-hunters across the South, not just in his native Alabama. “I am fighting for all hunters,” Knight insisted. “I have eight grandchildren who I truly hope will get the opportunity to choose if they want to hunt or not. . . .
“Each year, the ADCNR closes more counties or parts of counties to dog-hunting. This makes a few people happy, but it puts more people out of hunting. This keeps young people from having a chance to see if they like hunting. In Alabama, less than 6 percent of the people buy hunting licenses, and that number is dropping each year. We all must give up a little to preserve the future of hunting. Our forefathers set our country up so that the game belongs to all of the people, not just the landowners. People who think that dog-hunting should be prohibited need to realize that they are killing off all hunting, and not just one hunting method.”
While Florida still allows dog-hunting throughout much of the state, even the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) has had to bend to the will of dog-hunting opponents in recent years. In 2005, the FWC introduced mandatory registration for deer-hunting dogs and the parcels of land where they are used. The registration permits are issued to private landowners and deer hunting clubs.
No registration is required to hunt deer with dogs on public land, such as the sprawling Ocala National Forest. Deer dog collars must display the registration numbers, and hunters controlling dogs must have registration permits in their possession. The registration permits also specify which dogs are allowed to hunt on particular tracts of land. FWC officials said that dog trespassing complaints have fallen significantly since the registration requirement was instituted.
In spite of these improvements, said FWC spokesman Tony Young, “Dog-hunting is one of the hunting methods that has the greatest potential to produce future negative legislation in the Florida Legislature.” Young acknowledged that only a small percentage of dog-hunters are guilty of unethical or illegal behavior. But he added, “Some folks’ perception is that all dog-hunters have little regard for landowners’ rights. When this happens, all hunters lose support from the non-hunting public. Dog-hunters must regulate themselves and encourage their peers to hunt ethically and responsibly. Otherwise, they could be helping to destroy the sport that they love.”
A number of informed observers of the Southern dog-hunting controversy have pointed to the so-called “Georgia model” as a possible overall solution for the problem. Prior to 2003, confrontations between dog-hunters and landowners had reached such a fevered pitch that as many as 10 counties, representing 25 percent of the state’s dog-hunting land, were prepared to ban dog-hunting outright. Fortunately, the Georgia Dog-Hunters Association demonstrated rare political savvy by brokering a deal in the state Legislature that would preserve dog-hunting by making it subject to new regulations.
On July 1, 2003, Georgia House Bill 815 (HB-815) took effect. The new law contained three fundamental provisions: 1) Landowners who want to hunt deer with dogs on their property are required to obtain a permit from the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (GWRD). 2) The permitted property must consist of at least 1,000 contiguous acres (later reduced to 250 acres). 3) All dogs and vehicles used to hunt deer on permitted property must be identified with a permit number.
Two years later, John W. Bowers and H. Todd Holbrook of the GWRD told the Southeast Deer Study Group, “The GWRD has issued permits to 358 dog deer hunting clubs, covering more than 1.7 million acres. Of those clubs, 75 percent had no significant problems or violations; 19 percent had minor problems; and 3 percent had significant problems or violations. Only two clubs had their permits revoked.”
Bowers and Holbrook cautioned that, even after the enactment of HB-815, “considerable opposition still exists and additional law changes are likely. However, the new . . . regulations hold the potential to eliminate aggressive, non-compliant clubs, thereby protecting hunting opportunities for law-abiding, ethical dog clubs, even in the presence of majority . . . public opposition.”
Dog-hunting in Cajun country has very few neutral observers. “This issue has caused and continues to cause controversy in the state,” said Scott Durham of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fish (LDWF). For purposes of deer hunting regulation, the LDWF divided the state into eight zones. In five of the zones, dog-hunting is allowed during seasons that do not coincide with still-hunting for deer. In the remaining three zones, dog-hunting is not permitted. The LDWF retains the final legal authority to establish or amend all dog-hunting regulations.
Louisiana’s most heated dog-hunting dispute centers on the 640,000-acre Kisatchie National Forest (KNF). The forest is unique, because it comprises five non-contiguous parcels (called ranger districts) that are spread across seven parishes. “The Kisatchie is a favorite hunting destination, and we are very proud of that fact,” said USFS spokesman Jim Caldwell. “We promote hunting in the KNF, and many of our hunters use dogs. We know that dog-hunting is a traditional sport in the South, but we are concerned about dog-hunting (and the public complaints it generates).”
The state’s colorful political machine appears to have lined up on the side of the dog-hunters. Governor Bobby Jindal, Senator Mary Landrieu, several members of Congress, and a number of state legislators all have expressed their support for continued dog deer hunting in the KNF. The USFS has proposed to ban dog-hunting in the KNF during the 2009-2010 hunting season, but the influential Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission (LWFC) voted unanimously to allow eight days of dog deer hunting in the KNF this season. Traditionally, it is USFS practice to follow state hunting and firearms regulations in national forests, but after the LWFC vote, the local USFS official would say only that he planned to consult with his superiors in Washington before making any statements or taking any action.