Last week, Virginia House Bill 1329, expressly penalizing those hunters who intentionally release hounds on "prohibited lands" - land where they have no permission to hunt - sailed through the esteemed Virginia House of Delegates with a 99-0 vote. A companion Senate Bill will be proffered in the next week or so, and is expected to sail on to similar success in a rather atypical wave of uncontroversy.
Virginia property rights advocates, long tired over the 30 year history of unenforced hound trespass on rural lands, have bemoaned HB 1329 because it includes the word "intentionally." Citizens testified to have the word stricken, to no avail. And that word is important when creating a punitive statute, because it conveys intent. In our legal system, intent is important. At first glance, the wording seems to favor sloppy houndsmen who operate "right outside the law" by releasing hounds on a small parcel with the unstated intent to have those hounds hunt other "prohibited" properties nearby. I'd wager that a large percentage of the rapidly growing number of annual complaints about deer hounds surrounds this type of hunter. And if my hunting, my food plots, my peace and quiet, or my livestock were impacted by hounds in that scenario, I'd be mad too.
But I think these angry landowners, many of them becoming engaged in the legislative process for the first time in their lives (look out, hound lobbyists!), are missing the point in their depression and frustration over HB 1329's wording around criminal intent. These folks, new to politicking, think that "long term" means a 2017 or 2018 revision to this soon-to-be-law, ostensibly to muddle the "intent" phrasing. And that's fairly likely to happen.
I propose a deeper and more long term view, though. Virginia's hound lobbyists have promised for decades that their heritage and their way of hunting could not be undone. That their hunting practices, not unlike Yankee fox hunts in DuPont country of eastern Pennsylvania, will simply never need to comply with "the laws of man" regarding private property rights. The leaders of Virginia's hound hunting community don't want to compromise and don't believe they need to compromise. For decades, they experienced great success in legislatively obtuse behavior toward this end. But that changed in the last five years.
In 2013, Virginia became the 45th state to enjoy limited Sunday hunting for deer, waterfowl, and small game, over the intensive lobbying of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, the houndsmens' premier lobbyist organization. It should be noted that VAHDA's lobbying was noted openly - and with great approval - by animal rights organizations. The houndsmen didn't care - they couldn't lose. But they did.
In 2014, those same animal rights organizations brought national funding to Virginia to ban fox pens, which were a keystone in Virginia houndsmens' culture. The houndsmen again brought great resources to bear, ultimately to see a state-wide permanent ban on new fox pens enacted, and a 2054 deadline to close all existing fox pen operations, statewide. Hound lobbyists tried in vain to call this compromise a "success" for hunters. But in reality, the houndsmen lost big in Richmond, for the second year in a row.
Which brings us to 2016, and HB 1329. Houndsmen have laughed off this law while lightly opposing it, because many of them are law-abiding hunters, and a good percentage of others are savvy enough to work around the "intent" wording of the law, so "who cares?" As I mentioned above, the indignation hasn't escaped the ire of landowners, which is (legally) meaningless for the moment. But come July 1, it will be the law, and for the third year in four, laws specifically targeting hound hunting's special privileges (fox pens, lack of still hunters in the woods on Sunday, lack of penalties for obvious, intentional hound trespassers) will be passed into law.
Prior to 2015, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries did not track citizen complaints specific to "deer hounds," so deer hounds represented less than 1.5% of game warden responses in 2014. At the request of landowner advocates, that has now changed, so deer hounds represented almost 5% of game warden responses in 2015. Depending on whose lobbyist you're listening to, it either means that "it's just a small problem," or "the problem increased 300% in one year."
As landowner rights lobbying and continued media attention (on all sides) continues to shine light on the conflict of hunting dog heritage in a quickly suburbanizing countryside, more laws will come. None will favor houndsmen. And I suppose this is the take-home lesson for HB 1329. It's a small law with limited consequence, on the heels of two big laws with enormous hound hunting consequences in 2013 and 2014.
I'm not sure I embrace the theology of the Church of the Holy Virginia Landowner, but I'd recommend that local hound hunting leaders be ready to come to the Church's pot luck dinner and be ready to talk about compromise in a pretty big hurry. Because the Church's next fundraiser will be a doozy, and it'll be at deer hounds' great expense.