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The Dog-Hunting Debate

The Dog-Hunting Debate
This early 1900s photo shows a classic scene: a happy deer hunter taking a break with his pack of deer hounds. Hunting deer with dogs has been a tradition in the U.S. since around 1650, and certainly today it is a cherished part of the hunting scene in many parts of the Deep South where it is still legal.

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.


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.


The Tar Heel State is one of the primary battlegrounds on the issue of dog-hunting. "Our hunting heritage is under attack in North Carolina," warned Keith Loudermilt, president of the North Carolina Sporting Dog Association. "Animal rights fanatics raise huge sums to undermine our property rights and the right to hunt with dogs. We are assaulted with increasingly restrictive laws and regulations proposed by state and local governments."

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) knows that there appears to be no easy way out of the dog-hunting controversy. "Many issues associated with dog-hunting in North Carolina . . . are not likely to subside," concluded David Cobb, chief of the NCWRC Wildlife Management Division.

North Carolina's dog-hunting regulations represent a kaleidoscopic crazy quilt of state rules and overlapping local ordinances. About half of North Carolina counties (all in the eastern area of the state), allow dog-hunting. The rest of the counties, located generally west of North Carolina Route 742, do not permit any dog-hunting. But even in the eastern counties, dog-hunting rights appear to be eroding, due in large measure to a sizeable influx of "Yankee" retirees.

Eastern North Carolina landowners can rattle off a familiar litany of complaints against dog-hunters, including rampant trespassing, harassment of livestock, and even threats of bodily harm to landowners. In response, dog-hunters assert that the number and severity of complaints are exaggerated, and contend that landowners sometimes shoot deer dogs found on their property.

Some eastern North Carolina counties are considering the adoption of dog-hunting ordinances modeled after the regulations used in Florida and Georgia. Specifically, these new ordinances could require minimum allowable acreage for dog-hunting, written landowner permission to hunt, and the registration of hunters and their dogs.


If there is one state where dog-hunters appear to hold the winning hand at this point, it's South Carolina. According to Jae Espy of Clemson University, "Many dog deer hunters seem to feel that their political position with certain members of the state Legislature is strong. They seem confident that these state legislators will not vote for any legislation that dog-hunters did not support, or that will ultimately kill dog-hunting."

South Carolina arguably has the most permissive dog-hunting regulations in the U.S. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) divided the state into six geographical hunting zones. Dog-hunting is not permitted in zones one and two, which are fairly rugged and hold comparatively few whitetails. The 28 counties that make up zones 3 through 6 are located in the coastal plain region. Dog-hunting has been practiced in this area for hundreds of years.

There is no specific dog-hunting season in South Carolina, so dogs may be used in conjunction with hunting bows, muzzleloaders, deer rifles and shotguns. There is no requirement for dog registration or identification, and errant dogs may be legally retrieved from private property. Much to the chagrin of South Carolina landowners, the SCDNR has no legal authority to act on dog trespassing complaints.

The SCDNR seems comfortable in taking a "hands off" approach to the political hot potato of dog-hunting. "Dog-hunting is not a biological issue," explained SCDNR deer biologist Charles Ruth. "It is a cultural issue, and the SCDNR is a biological department."

However, South Carolina landowners are not without powerful friends in the state Legislature. In 2007, and again in 2008, bills were introduced to impose a modified "Georgia model" regulatory regime on dog-hunting. While the bills were ultimately defeated, in 2008 the state Legislature directed the SCDNR to form a Dog Deer Hunting Stakeholder Working Group, coordinated by Jae Espy.

According to Espy, "The Working Group was charged with the task of developing legislative recommendations to address concerns with the hunting of deer with dogs, while also preserving this hunting tradition for those who legally and ethically hunt." The Working Group was appointed by the state Legislature and the SCDNR, and two-thirds of the members were dog-hunters. After conducting seven meetings over the course of five months, the Working Group reported that it was unable to reach a consensus on a set of specific legislative recommendations.

"At the root of the problem," Espy wrote, "is a competition of values between dog-hunters and landowners. While dog-hunters are aware that issues of property rights are involved, many dog-hunters feel that such rights are not as important as preserving a Southern tradition. . . . These competing values reflect changes that are taking place in South Carolina. Abundant wildlife, picturesque scenery, relatively low property values, a generally favorable climate, and a high quality of life will continue to attract Americans from other parts of the country. . . . Consequently, the clash between dog-hunters and landowners . . . should be expected to increase."


It can be credibly argued that Virginia is the birthplace of dog deer hunting in America.

The English hunters who landed at Jamestown in 1607 quickly learned about hunting "Virginia deer" from the local Indian tribes. They continued the European tradition of hunting wild game with trained canines. It is now estimated that Virginia is home to approximately 1 million whitetails, or about twice the number that inhabited the state in the early 1600s.

"Hunting with hounds is as old as Virginia," said Kirby Burch, President of the 31,000-member Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance. "It's the most effective way to control unmanaged deer populations, and when hounds are used, wounded game is less likely to escape."

Under Virginia hunting regulations, dog deer hunting is only permitted in the Central Piedmont and Tidewater counties east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Dog-hunting is also only allowed during rifle and shotgun season.

Virginia is one of only two states in the nation with a so-called "right to retrieve" law, which permits hunters to retrieve their hunting dogs from private property without the permission of the landowner. The law is a particular irritant to Virginia landowners, but it could only be amended or repealed by the General Assembly, and such action is not considered likely in the foreseeable future.

In 2007, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) unveiled "Hunting with Hounds: A Way Forward," an ambitious two-year effort which the VDGIF said would explore "diverse opportunities for hunting with hounds in Virginia in a manner that is fair, sportsmanlike and consistent with the rights of property owners and other citizens." A dog-hunting Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) was formed. It was composed of hunters, non-hunters, corporate landowners and private landowners.

The SAC was asked to formulate a set of dog-hunting reform recommendations for submission to the General Assembly and the VDGIF.

Unlike its South Carolina counterpart, the Virginia dog-hunting SAC was able to agree upon a package of legislative and regulatory recommendations. Unfortunately, the proposals and the VDGIF study process were roundly criticized across the spectrum of dog-hunting stakeholders. The Hampton Virginian-Pilot newspaper editorialized: "Both hunters and landowners largely agreed that the study has been a failure, doing little more than throwing gas on smoldering coals. The study even put a wedge between groups of hunters (dog-hunters and still hunters) who employ different techniques."

For now, the SAC recommendations remain in limbo, lacking strong support from the Virginia state government or the dog-hunting stakeholder community. "We are currently in a holding pattern with regard to implementing the recommendations from the (SAC)," said Nelson Lafon, VDGIF Deer Project coordinator. "Several of the recommendations would require legislative action. . . . The VDGIF does not intend to move forward with any recommendations that are purely regulatory until important legislative issues (are) addressed."


An old aphorism holds that the best solutions are those that leave all interested parties equally unhappy. As we have seen, there are plenty of unhappy dog-hunting stakeholders across the Deep South. The visceral disagreements between dog-hunters and landowners cannot simply be papered over. It is clear that there are elements of class warfare between the modern-day dog-hunting "peasants" and the "feudal lords" who control vast expanses of hunting land. Such resentments run deep, and they cannot be legislated or regulated out of existence.

But Florida and Georgia seem to have set the example for how to reconcile the conflicting interests of dog-hunters and landowners. In both states, legislators, regulators and stakeholders moved quickly to formulate and implement "rules of the road" that all interested parties could tolerate, at least for the foreseeable future.

While the 21st century has imposed unimaginable pressures on our natural resources, most notably hunting land, it has also ushered in technologies and conflict-resolution options that never existed before. Dog-hunters and their supporters must keep their eyes on the prize, which is continued dog-hunting in the U.S., even if it means accepting more pesky regulations and restrictions. For dog-hunters and those of us who seek to preserve their sport, there can be no more melancholy sound in the world than a silent forest, a forest in which the distant baying of approaching hounds is never heard again.

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