Monday, March 9, 2015

Seven Signs of the End of Virginia's Hound Hunting Culture

This is not a hit piece on the "evils" of hound hunting, or on the "glory" of its culture and tradition.   Hunting with hounds is a confounding but occasionally inspiring method of chase, with roots that go back centuries if not millenia.   But houndsmen are under attack in the few remaining states where the practice is legal, and in Virginia, this attack has become a persistent onslaught with no end in sight - an unintended consequence of the state's ridiculous "Right to Retrieve" law (RTR).  

RTR is Virginia Code 18.2-136. Right of certain hunters to go on lands of another; carrying firearms or bows and arrows prohibited.  Fox hunters and coon hunters, when the chase begins on other lands, may follow their dogs on prohibited lands, and hunters of all other game, when the chase begins on other lands, may go upon prohibited lands to retrieve their dogs, falcons, hawks, or owls.....

Houndsmen will tell you that RTR allows them the ability to retrieve wayward dogs from private property without having to contact the landowner for permission to enter.   That's true, and it's fairly important in areas where the landowner may own 100,000 acres, and who may not even be in the United States during hunting season (heck, the landowner might not even be an American).   But RTR has a few unintended consequences that are really the focus of the current backlash - one that looks to be sustained well into the future, in a way that threatens the heritage of Virginia hounds.

First, RTR allows great flexibility to release hounds on parcels that are too small to reasonably (ethically) hunt with hounds - where the hounds will inevitably stray onto (and need to be collected from) parcels where the houndsman is not allowed to hunt.  In fact, deer on adjacent "no hound" parcels are inevitably disturbed and run out of their beds (intentionally or not) by the wandering hounds.  Some of those deer will be shot by houndsmen.  Others will be shot by still hunters.   Opponents of hound hunting and RTR point to this "oops, my dog's on your property!" as a very intentional outcome of RTR, but I don't believe that's the case.

Second, RTR creates significant doubt as to intended or unintended lawlessness when a law enforcement officer follows up on a landowner complaint.   Was the houndsman unarmed (legal)? Was his gun in the truck loaded (illegal)?  Did the houndsman drive his truck down a farm lane without permission (illegal but not enforced), or into a timber road or field (illegal)?  Was the hound chasing deer across posted land, before the deer was shot (illegal) or simply chasing a deer that had been shot on another property (legal)?  This leads to very few hound hunting cases moving from investigation, to citation, to court, to conviction.   I'm a little more willing to believe that this secondary outcome is, shall we say, "less unintentional" by the advocates of RTR.

All this talk of RTR is vexing and has caused conflict and confusion since the law was passed in 1950, and updated in 1988 and 1991.  Yet, hound hunting still exists and so does RTR.   In 2015, Virginia HB 2345 was introduced to repeal the RTR statute; it failed in committee.   Some of the issues that became public in this recent debate, however, point to a long term danger to houndsmen in the Commonwealth.   Here's my summary of why this is the beginning of the end.

1) Poor recruitment of new hunters into hound hunting.  Many will be quick to say that hunting recruitment is on the upswing, and that's true.   However, a close look at the statistics underpinning that fact reveals something problematic for houndsmen:  the categories of hunter recruitment on the rise are:  women, suburban hunters, college graduates, urban hunters, and people of color.   The largest increase in hunting tactics among these groups:  bow hunting and crossbow hunting.

Why is this an issue?  First, hound hunting is a very rural endeavor.  Houndsmen speak loudly of their disdain for bowhunters and the like from urban and suburban counties even within Virginia.   Second, hound hunting, like waterfowl hunting and other niches, has a huge start up and maintenance cost in hunting acreage (lease or purchase) and hounds.   Urban bow hunters need a bow, nice arrows and broadheads, and to sit still in a city park.  In our challenging economy, that's pretty attractive.   Of the groups I mentioned, many aren't likely to be enthralled by the "Old Boys" environment of hound hunting clubs, though I can't say I universally object to it myself. Overall, the chances of a hunter leaving the hound hunting (due to age, etc) being replaced by a new hound hunter is extremely low.

2)  In all 50 states, the average land parcel size is decreasing rapidly.  Nowhere in this country are single landowners aggregating land faster than other landowners are subdividing and developing land.  The number of people in the USA is increasing, and Virginia happens to be one of the hotspots where that's occurring most rapidly.   One obvious driver is the fact that the Baby Boomer generation, not as wealthy in retirement as their parents, is having to cash in on real estate to help fund a relaxing retirement period.   Hound hunting parcels that used to be 15,000 acres under single ownership are now split between 30 owners of 500 acre parcels.  More typically and realistically, 300 acre parcels are being subdivided into 10 acre parcels.  Statistically, the new owners are 1) not family, 2) not local, and 3) not hunters of any stripe - let alone houndsmen.  Running hounds legally and ethically in Virginia is getting harder and harder every year.  There are so many landowners to try to keep track of, compared to 30 or even 15 years ago.

3) New land markets.   Here's the thing.  If you own rural land - land in a place where land is not a huge commodity - your market for buyers generally won't be locals (as I mentioned above).  If I grew up hunting on 500 acres, why would I buy an 8 acre roadside lot in the same town, at any price above minimum?  However, the "Come Heres" are coming.  Recent retirees - the last American generation with well-funded, sustainable pensions - are moving from Richmond, Washington DC, and beyond, and carry with them some expectations of what land costs (for instance, a $200,000 one-acre lot).  Now that many of them want to retire in rural areas, they simply want to pay "less."   In remote states like North Dakota, this has had huge impacts on ranching, as land prices rose from roughly $250/acre in 1999, to over $2,500/acre in 2008 (before the Recession).  Again, these prices seem like bargains to urban exiles, but are prohibitive to most locals.   The result is a solid profit to the folks who are selling land.  The secondary result is a punishing blow to hound hunting.

4) New rural landowners.  Pursuant to #3 above, the folks moving into the smaller pieces of land aren't likely to be hunters.  In fact, less than 20% of them will be hunters.  Many of those will be bowhunters, waterfowl hunters, or upland game bird aficionados.   Many of them have been politically active for decades, visiting their elected officials, volunteering for conservation groups, etc.   When these hunters have their first hunt interrupted by wayward hounds, they will get engaged - and they have - to the surprise of the Virginia houndsmen.

For the 80%+ of new rural landowners who do not out.  These are the folks who call the game wardens on all hunters, every day, even though we're all legal.  These are the folks who will bait wildlife in an effort to draw game animals away from your hunting ground.  These are folks who have the time and intellect to understand that they can kill hunting in an entire county by convincing their County Council that a "firearms safety ordinance" needs to be enacted, limiting what hours during which guns can be fired in that county.  It's happened before.  

These are people who have spent their lives living close to other people, and now want to be away from other people.  They do not want hunters in their yards, talking on cell phones, waiting for dogs to come out of the woods. This scenario - which is bearing itself out right now - is where the honorable RTR legislation of decades past starts to look like a tool of selfish, sloppy hunters in 2015.  This is a huge weak spot for houndsmen in Virginia, yet the most unified response to it that I've heard has been "To hell with the Come Here's, this used to be my Pappy's land!"   Right.  But your Pappy sold it to some anti-hunters from Fairfax County,  and then he moved to Boca to retire.   If houndsmen really want to save the sport in Virginia, this is the demographic with whom they need to break bread.  So far....a total failure.

5) Non-hunting outdoorsfolk.   Here's another outcome of RTR that should have been common sense "future think" when RTR was enacted, that should have been obviously in the cards by the 1980s, and that should have been seen as a real threat to houndsmen (thanks to RTR) by the 1990s.  But yet, nothing but dismissal of these other user groups.   In the Mid-Atlantic, Horse Councils, birding clubs, and other groups have amassed pretty respectable followings and political clout, sometimes to my specific aggravation as a hunter.

While they generally contribute precious few funds to protecting or restoring natural resources (another specific aggravation), they feel that they are sincere, and they demand to be taken seriously.  This is part of that "80% of new landowners are non-hunters" deal.  In addition to the 20% of new rural landowners who are hunters who won't be fans of hound hunting, there's another 20-30% of those new rural landowners who are in this other group.   Many have found a recent fanaticism over "banning" hound hunting (groan), which is further stoked by the fact that a fair number of them are true anti-hunters.   I recall a Horse Council leader at a recent government hearing I attended, who stated, "I oppose this bill, but as all of you know, I oppose all bills that expand hunting in any way."

6.  Awkward Politics. Some houndsmen successfully worked for years to keep still hunters out of the woods on Sundays.  The group (and others) defended the Sunday hunting ban to legislators as a good thing - a way to make sure hunters go to church on Sundays (isn't that the role of state law?).  However, strong attempts to repeal the Sunday Hunting ban in 2012 and 2013 found some hound hunting lobbyists saddled up with PETA, HSUS, the Horse Council and other anti-hunter groups in advocating that Sunday hunting should be banned to help look after the interests of the anti-hunters who are afraid of guns. Of course I'm paraphrasing.   These hound lobbyists stated that it was  Sunday hunting - not Right to Retrieve - that was the greatest single threat to houndsmen, since Sunday hunting would aggrevate non-hunters (their theory).

In 2013, Sunday hunting was legalized anyway.  This inglorious alliance of houndsmen and anti-hunters turned out to be foolhardy in 2014, when the anti-hunters turned viciously on the houndsmen and forced a permanent moratorium on fox preserves, and a 40-year sunset on all existing fox preserves.   In the wake of that crushing loss, it's clear that the anti-hunters know and understand the power, positioning, and tactics of the houndsmens' lobbyists.    I don't think a rosy future lies ahead on this front, and as a hunter, I do not write that with any glee or satisfaction.   Needless to say, the houndsmens' alliance with anti-hunters on the Sunday hunting issue will go down as one of the dumbest and ill-conceived political maneuvers in hunting policy history. 

7.  Unwillingness to Change.   Numerous online discussions keep occurring between houndsmen and still hunters/landowners in Virginia, and whenever a possible repeal of RTR is brought up, the houndsmen universally ask, "What are landowners going to give up as a concession?"  to which the landowners respond, "You've been hunting my land for free for 30 years.  No concession."   Again, houndsmen are at a distinct disadvantage here, as landowners increasingly are non-locals who aren't part of, and don't care about, local politics......until they do.  Until they run for office on a platform of "Property rights."  

The End.  A solid number of houndsmen are fearful for the future of their sport, but they seem paralyzed, unable to informally police other houndsmen - in many cases, close friends of theirs - who are breaking laws or annoying neighbors.  Unable to propose a compromise in the RTR language that would ease feelings on both sides.   And suddenly, houndsmen are becoming a minority, however powerful, in their own communities.  Recruitment of youth hunters in rural areas has been declining for almost 20 years.   The Virginia countryside is changing - quickly.  Can houndsmen change as fast?

I predict a dire future, but not complete end, of hound hunting in Virginia by 2025.   Most counties will have banned the practice as a nuisance against landowners.   Several will not have banned it, however, significant safeguards and practices will be mandated, including labeling dogs, requiring houndsmen to contact adjacent landowners before each hunting season, laws providing a minimum size of property to release hounds upon, and laws against roadside hunting except on private roads.  I think those things can be part of a successful hound culture in 2025. But I'm not sure the houndsmen agree.


Anonymous said...

Just a fact checker comment - you state that "Was the houndsman armed (legal)?". Law very clearly states that illegal to RTR with firearm in possession. Loaded or not is irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this piece. It's time for landowners to unite and not have to look forward to the end of deer season so that we may go out and enjoy our property again.

Anonymous said...

^^^^ Sad for you to think you must "END DEER SEASON" to go out on your own property. I would tend to believe you must be against hunting period with that statement.
I have been hunting since I was 14 and I am now 38. I have never intentionally went onto someone else's property without permission....posted or not. I have on large tracts of land found myself in the wrong and immediately went back or if I ran into someone apologized for my error. I also have never hunted anything but birds and rabbits with dogs ....which are highly trained and DO NOT STRAY and are easily called back.
Since hunting in VA I FULLY understand where land owners are coming from. I have repeatedly had people and dogs come onto my little piece of heavily posted recreational heaven. I have also run into these disrespectful types who think they can go anywhere and do anything with RTR. Please don't think all hunters are like this because WE AREN'T, many of us are still the do anything for a friend or neighbor, stop and help a stranger on the side of the road type of people. I know they say a few bad apples can ruin the bunch, but if you look past and remove the bad you may just find a helpful hand. We are the same guys who will give up their hunting and family time to help you out, when a bear is killing your bees, a fox or coyote is killing your chickens or the critters and ruining your garden.

Anonymous said...

It is sad that no one has their facts straight and that this was written by someone with an agenda.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, again the issue becomes still hunter/ hound hunter/ landowner division, without any thought to what can be done to help bring folks together! Support for and demanding that local law enforcement, the CPO's from DGIF, and the local judicial system be held accountable, for violations and strict punishment for those violators, under the Code of the Commonwealth, would go a long way to resolving about 90% of the issues! This could have been a good article, but the writers "BIAS" is prevalent in the first paragraph.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% that strict enforcement of current laws with max punishment would help, but more resources are needed. I don't think general taxpayers or still hunters should have to pay the cost of that. Houndsmen should fund extra enforcement through permits/stamps, plus should police their own by kicking the bad apples out of clubs and reporting the bad actors. That is the type of agenda the VHDA needs to be pushing instead of the "we don't have a problem" no compromise approach that is going to lead to a total ban. VHDA admits most problems are caused by "bad apples", let's see a real proposal to deal with them.

Kirk Mantay said...

I'm curious that anyone would think I don't have my facts straight, especially when it comes to the major points of this blog post. Just because you don't like these trends does not mean they aren't happening. And while "Blame the judges!" has a certain allure, no one in the hunting community - and absolutely not in the hound community - has put together any organized effort (that I'm aware of) to educate prosecutors and judges about what constitutes a serious vs. minor hunting violation.

It's suspicious and unworkable when all the proposals lofted for "change" on all sides are "Someone else has to do things differently." My next post on the topic will address some ideas for solutions.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. "end deer dog trespass in Virginia" sign if you want rights to control who enters your property.

Anonymous said...

Well said. It is sad that an organization such as VHDA will not step up and be part of a solution to save the sport. VHDA members should demand VHDA meet with similar landowners groups to iron this out. Absent that, deer dog hunting will eventually cease to exist in Virginia. And they will have no one to blame but themselves.

DJinNC said...

You have hit this on the head. in so many ways. I am one of those "non Good Ole boys" hunters. Black, college educated, older and didn't start hunting until I was in my late 30's. Before that I hunted once about age 12. I grew up in Southern Virginia where my uncles hunted with dogs. All I knew. Most at least for us (blacks) running dogs was how we hunted in VA. Later I moved up North to NJ for couple years and there I learned about treestands and bow hunting. I returned South to NC and.. you are correct. Dog hunting is under attack here due to smaller parcels, suburban sprawl and growing interest in bow hunting. It is getting easier and easier to bow hunt, but tougher to find anywhere to hunt with dogs. Here in Wake county bow hunting harvests rival gun harvest. I found one club and took my sons out a few times and they loved it, but last week the oldest asked me if he could have a bow or cross bow. He wanted to hunt deer not dogs. I hope the hound heritage continues, but I can tell you, in general hunters like are not welcome in those clubs due to demographics and styles. My sons are the future and I am the face of the new recruits. I hope the end of this fine Southern tradition does not end, but writing is on the wall. Last year I hunted 100% public gamelands and city parks.... I have met many new hunters starting out most are suburbanites, 30-40's, archery or black powder. I will say this, in my observations in rural areas Dog hunting among blacks is a very social family hing and there it is strong. Overall, I think it is in decline. Ironically I think VA is one of the last strong holds the laws you are referring to have been stressing NC houndsmen for years..

Kirk Mantay said...

Thanks DJ, that is a lot to ponder. NSSF put out a nice piece last year about the changing face of target shooters and at least to your north, it is resonating. If women and people of color aren't hunting and shooting, those traditions will go away.

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