Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Virginia HB 2345: Liberal Hound Retrieve Comes Under Fire in Virginia

Uncollared deer hound, no owner in sight,
stops traffic on Virgina 4-lane highway. 
I have hunted in Virginia for over 20 years, and in fact, I possess a Lifetime Hunting License in the state (actually a commonwealth).  I've learned many things about hunting and property rights during those two decades.  I've learned that if I shoot a deer and it jumps a fence before dying, I cannot legally retrieve it without obtaining the neighbor's permission.   If my retriever (RIP, Roan) goes bonkers and runs across the property line to the neighbor's duck blind, I owe my neighbor an apology, then I need his permission to access his property, and then I need to hope he doesn't have me prosecuted for trespass via animal after my dog screwed up his hunt.

But if I'm hunting deer with hounds, I face no such hurdles.   I have no legal requirement to keep my dogs on the 30 acre parcel I lease, and prevent them from running onto adjacent farms, past other hunters, through herds of livestock, or into a neighbor's chicken house.   And when I get around to retrieving my wayward hound, I don't need to ask anybody.  I can pull up in their driveway and just help myself to their property.  That's the legal side. To hear it that way - the way the houndsmen tell it - one might think that Virginia HB 2345, currently under consideration in Virginia's House of Delegates, might be "too much medicine for the patient."  HB 2345 would repeal Virginia's bizarre legal standard "right to retrieve hounds without permission," commonly referred to as "liberal retrieve."  Could it really be that bad, if it's just unarmed guys collecting hounds?

Maybe not......but maybe.  That was the legal side of liberal retrieve.  The illegal side is harder for Virginia landowners to swallow - though swallow it is what they're required to do every year, as they contact game wardens about situations like the one below, to hear the game wardens say, "Sorry, we've had 5 calls like this already today, and we're investigating #2 right now."

The illegal side goes like this:  15 hounds get released on CSX railroad right-of-way (trespassing, hunting without permission).   The hounds wander onto the two posted private properties on each side of the rail bed (trespassing, hunting without permission).   Half of the houndsmen post themselves up and down the public road with loaded weapons (illegal), even though they have no permission to shoot any game animals that might approach them from the adjacent properties (illegal).  The other houndsmen walk down the railroad tracks (illegally), spotting a man in a treestand who happens to be one of the landowners.  A conflict ensues wherein the houndsmen scream that "we hunt this land until we say we don't."  

No deer are flushed but the hounds do not return.  The houndsmen leave.  They return at 9:00 at night with spotlights and loaded guns to "retrieve their hounds."  To better accomplish this, they drive (without permission) through the neighbor's fields on ATV's, destroying his cover crop.  They stay out all night, retrieving 13 of their 15 hounds.  They return the next day, without permission, and still armed, to "retrieve" the last two hounds.  They leave mud tracks up and down the neighbor's farm road and into the county road.  

That's a fictional story composed of real cases encountered by Virginia game wardens.  It's the worst case scenario (besides a landowner getting shot by an uninvited houndsman), but it's representative of what the worst 5-10% of houndsmen put their neighbors through every year, all without permission to enter others' property.  Despite a 20 year-old standpoint of "These things never happen!" with a secretive background murmur of "Damn, we have to stop doing this!" the hound hunting community has totally failed at policing the behavior of their own.  

The houndsmen have a tough ideological hill to climb, and one that inarguably deceives logic.  Are private property rights important, or are they not?  Should any member of the public (or the government) be able to enter your property at any time?  What if an ATF agent is simply retrieving his hound from your private property 10 minutes after you drive away and go to work?  Surely, that's not an issue - right?  And there's no requirement that you successfully retrieve your hound, so who's to say that Johnny ATF didn't release one (accidentally of course) on your private property.  

When houndsmen claim that "we're the good ones," one has to ask, "Do you know any lawbreaking houndsmen?" because the truth is, they do.  The next question must be, "How have you tried to mentor him to get him to stop breaking the law or being discourteous to landowners?" and the only answer I've found in that conversation has been, "Well, we don't really talk about it."

Unfortunately for the hound community, Virginia landowners decided to talk to some folks about it. We'll be watching HB 2345 to see how it progresses.


rachel said...

Although the story you have described does sound reasonable as a worst of the worst case study you have failed to mention that the actions undertaken are illegal in myriad ways that have absolutely nothing to do with hounds. Examples being, being armed during retrieval is a class 4 misdemeanor, driving vehicles of any kind without permission is a class 4 misdemeanor, access to a railroad right of way is a separate misdemeanor, firing of a loaded weapon within 100 ft of a hard surface highway is a felony.... All of these things point to a group of being that are pure idiots but to claim this change to the law would impact people such as this is naive at best. The law, as it currently exists is more than sufficient to prosecute all of these violators if the local sheriff chose to pursue charges or the landowners did the same.

Kirk Mantay said...

I don't think it's naive at all - to a point. You do raise some good points, basically, that outlaws will be outlaws regardless of laws. I agree.

However, the fact remains that in Virginia in 2015, these crimes are rarely if ever investigated or prosecuted in counties with large numbers of hound hunters. Why not? One reason is that police and game wardens are overwhelmed with calls of this nature. Prosecuting any of the crimes we're discussing becomes very difficult (meaning: likely that a prosecutor would accept the case) when there's any amount of uncertainty that the accused was or was not in a place where he/she was supposed to be (or not). Eliminating RTR would give law enforcement officers a basic, easy tool to deal with some (not all - you're right) of these outlaws/poachers.

Anonymous said...

As a former GW, your assessment is spot on. Although it is not illegal to stand one foot off the state right away and discharge a weapon in many counties. Part of the problem is the myriad of laws that counties can choose to adopt. Some allow rifles, some don't. Some say hunting from just off the road is ok, some you have to be 50 feet, others 100. Another issue, some of these clubs are huge! And with that come a lot of money and political clout. Even when we did catch them, the case was either dismissed or greatly reduced. With hound hunting there is no private property. I saw the dogs dropped in the road many times to run land they didn't have permission on. The defence EVERY single time was " we're just catching dogs". And it worked.

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks former GW. The question I always ask is, "If I stand on a US 58 bridge, hoping to shoot ducks that fly under it, I would be arrested, right?" I mean, of course I would, because it's insane and unsafe. Yet that standard doesn't apply to houndsmen, who in many counties are shooting rifles...not shotguns full of weak steel shot.

rachel said...

I must first say that I appreciate the candor in this discussion. Sadly these tend to go off the rails pretty quickly and this has been very enlightening.

Full disclosure. As a lifelong dog owner, hunter, and member of a small hunt club (20 folks in a good year) that hunts exclusively private lands either owned by us or with the written permission of the landowner my primary concerns falls under two points.

1) How does the failure to effectively enforce existing law justify a new law?

2) What is my recourse, as an owner, to retrieve my dog if a landowner denies me access? Am I still liable for the activities of my dog after that point? What if the landowner cannot be found even with diligent effort? What of landowners that do not live in the area etc?

If this is the way the cookie will crumble can we at least add an addendum requiring landowners to post legitimate contact information (Addresses, telephone #'s, email addresses, or the like) on their posted signs as opposed to what often occurs which is either no information or "John Smith". If you have no idea who john smith is and there are 10 in the phone book you wind up in quite a bind.

At the core of this issue is a combination of bad actors (which we have discussed at length above) that a change in the law will have little impact and "come heres" or folks that have moved out away from the city for various reasons but have no desire to engage the local community and their neighbors in a meaningful way.

All this being said. At the end of the day this harms the vast majority of those who conduct themselves well, rarely lose their dogs to other lands (happened to our club a whopping total of 4 times all of last season) and attempt to be good stewards of the land and their community and this push feels more of a throw the baby out with the bath water mentality that is often overkill.

Kirk Mantay said...

This is indeed a worthwhile conversation. And I am the type of guy who often says, "How will a new law solve the cops' current inability to use the existing law?"

I'm 100% with your Point #2 as it applies both to retrieving hounds and downed game. There has to be some kind of recourse for the houndsman/hunter. It's amazing that only recently has that been part of the conversation. It's where the conversation needs to go next.

To your point #1, we're arguing semantics I admit, but in my opinion the cops can't enforce the current regulations because the bad actors hide behind RTR.

And you're right, if RTR simply "goes away" the 90%+ of ethical houndsmen suffer.

Check in to this site occasionally, the ideas you've mentioned will show up in what I propose as a skeleton for future bills on this topic. Thanks for giving your 2 cents and I respect you for your differing opinion. God bless America and our ability to have and share those opinions.

Virginia landowner said...

Here's the thing. Dog hunters fought a revision to rtr (HB 2345) and got it tabled. Dog hunters and property owners have been in conflict for decades over trespassing, which leads to the problems cited in your article. In every state where this has been an issue, dog hunting has either eventually been abolished (Texas) or restricted (Florida, South Carolina). Taking away property owner's constitutional right has lead to severe problems to the point that many are talking about just abolishing dog hunting, as in the western part of the state. While Virginia has a strong history of hunting (82% of non-hunter support hunting) public support falls dramatically for dog hunting (38%). Ironically, dog hunters, in their stubborn refusal to accede to a recision or revision of right to retreive to require landowner consent prior to entering their property, are virtually assuring the abolishment of dog hunting. Dog hunters are smug in their defeat of HB2345 this year, but their celebration in winning the battle is premature. They are a minority of hunters and a very, very small minority of the voting public. Once the issue, and the abuses attendent to it, are publicized and brought to the attention of the various stakeholder groups, I have no doubt that dog hunting as we know it will either end in Virginia, or be severely restricted as in other states. Dog hunters would be well advised to cut their losses, agree to restore landowner rights, and kiss and makeup. They are going to need all the friends that they can get.

Virginia Landowner said...

By the way, a great article. I love the scenario of an ATF agent retrieving his dog after you leave for work. Or, the local deputy, or a code enforcement guy or, basically anyone. Which is why landowners are opposed to this, and dog hunters need to rethink their position.

Kirk Mantay said...

As I've said before on this blog and in other publications, dog hunting will be the end of dog hunting.

There was no legitimate purpose, aside from "greed to access more land" that precipitated the original Right to Retrieve legislation. When pressed at the time about whether the law would make "come heres" mad about hounds, the houndsmens' response was "We don't care. We've been here longer."

Yeah. Good luck with that.

Tim said...

There is nothing honorable in this method of "hunting" in the first place. There is no compelling reason to give these people special privileges that no other citizen of the Commonwealth enjoy. I have had hunt club members insist that I be arrested for trespassing on a state preserve where I had every right to be. The game warden told them this and they wanted to fight the game warden. They don't even lease the land, so they never had a leg to stand on. It is not the only example I can give, but it shows the attitudes and level of hypocrisy of the very people who insist the practice of retrieval be continued. Speaking of hypocrisy and even absurdity, the very same General Assembly who have, apparently, shunted this to a committee to die voted overwhelmingly last spring to allow recognition of a King's grant to keep canoeists and fishermen off the rivers of Highland and Bath counties. It is important to absorb this. A few privileged large land owners can have you arrested for floating a navigable river because the state continues to recognize the King of England in cases where it suits them, but "hunters" can go onto private property with no permission to retrieve hounds. This is absurd and it is a good an example of why the citizens of Virginia should never allow incumbents to gerrymander voting districts. They do stuff like this because there never seems to be any repercussions. If hunt clubs can go onto private property to retrieve hounds, I want unrestricted access to our rivers and creeks.

No Video Content For You

Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...