Bear-hound attack shocks hunting community
Editor’s note: This story is second in a series. The first, "Bear-hunting hounds attack hikers and pup," was published on October 31, 2019.
VERMONT — Members of the bear-hound hunting community, along with state officials, have expressed shock over an Oct. 19 incident on the Catamount Trail in Ripton, in which five bear-hounds attacked a couple and their puppy.
Such an incident has never happened before, say supporters, who characterize their sport as having a positive culture with strict practices and high standards.
Brandon resident Wayne Newton, whose bear-hounds were involved with the incident, has been charged with a criminal violation of 10 App. V.S.A. § 7.63a, which reads, “A person shall not take black bear with the aid of dogs unless the person is in control of the dog or dogs.” According to Vermont statutes, “Control of Dog/Dogs” means “the transportation, loading or unloading of dogs from vehicle(s); the handling, catching, restraining or releasing dogs; and the use of telemetry/GPS to locate or track dogs.”
“This aggressive behavior of the dogs represents a failure of the dog owner to properly handle and restrain the dogs,” wrote Vermont Game Warden Dale Whitlock in his incident report.
Newton has been fined $262 for the violation, with a five-point penalty on his hunting license.
In recent exchanges with the Independent Newton was thoughtful and apologetic, but he ultimately declined to comment for this story.
Forrest Hammond, a wildlife biologist and black bear project leader at the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, was shocked to learn of the incident.
“I’ve been in bear management for 40 years, working with houndsmen, and I have never heard of a bear-hound biting a person,” he told the Independent. “The hounds are usually very focused on treeing bears and they usually ignore everything else” — including other dogs.
Hammond compared the incident to someone getting struck by lightning.
“I view this as an aberration, and so I’m not too worried about it.”
Butch Spear, president of the Vermont Bearhound Association, has been hunting with bear-hounds for 15 years — and with hounds generally for 57.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” he said. “Bear-hounds like people.”
For more than a decade, the Vermont Bearhound Association has participated in the annual Dead Creek Wildlife Day in Addison, and Spear has brought his dogs along.
“A thousand kids touch them and there’s never been a problem,” he said.
Vermont Game Warden Dale Whitlock interviewed Newton the day after the incident.
“(He) said he wished it had never happened, and that his dogs had never done this before,” Whitlock wrote in his incident report. “Wayne said his dogs are friendly and he did not believe they would harm anyone.”
In an Oct. 26 phone interview with the Independent, Whitlock, too, expressed surprise.
“I’ve been a game warden since 1996 and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
“If you want to know the truth about bear-hound hunting, call me and I’ll take you out,” Spear said in an open invitation to the public. “Because you won’t know until you go. Even if you only want to find something bad about it, come and see.”
Spear, 66, lives in Orange County and tries to hunt four days a week during the season. Much of the pleasure of bear-hound hunting comes from working with his dogs — and of course the thrill of the chase.
“The dogs are always excited to go,” he said.
On a typical hunting trip, Spear explained, he’ll load up to six hounds (the maximum allowed by law) into the custom-made plywood “dog boxes” on the back of his pickup truck and drive around back roads until the hounds detect a bear scent.
Alternatively, “if there’s an oak ridge or a beech ridge where I know a bear has been working, I might walk the dogs into the woods,” he said.
When they’ve picked up the scent, the hounds will bark in a different way.
“Sit in the front seat of this truck and you’ll know when those hounds smell a bear,” he said. “You’ll be asking ‘What the (heck) is going on?”
When they’ve picked up a “hot” scent, Spear lets the hounds loose so they can follow it.
Like many bear-hound hunters, Spear uses a handheld GPS device to follow the hounds, which all wear tracking collars.
Spear’s bear-hounds have occasionally gotten three or four miles away from him, but he usually tries to keep them close — “within a mile or two,” he said.
Bear-hound hunting is the only hunting sport that’s “catch-and-release,” Spear explained.
Once the hounds have driven a bear up a tree, the hunter has the ability to assess whether or not it would be appropriate to kill that particular bear.
“If it’s a young sow with cubs, then no, we wouldn’t take it,” Spear said. “In that case I’d simply take a photo and walk away.”
But the Humane Society of the United States, on its website, tells a different story.
“Biologists have found that hunters misidentify the gender of approximately one-third of treed bears,” the society writes. “And in some pursuits, hounds confront bears while they are on the ground; in the melee, hunters may not take the time to try to determine the bear’s gender before shooting.”
The Humane Society of the United States and other critics have insisted that hunting with bear-hounds violates “fair chase” ethics.
According to the Montana-based Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded in 1887, fair chase is “the ethical, sportsmanlike and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, big-game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper or unfair advantage over the game animals.”
Spear answers critics by pointing out that hunting with hounds is the only hunting sport “where you’re telling the animal that you’re coming for them.”
Vermont’s bear-hound hunters see themselves as carrying on a proud tradition that dates back to the arrival of the first white settlers.
The state has two bear-hunting seasons. For state residents — with or without hounds — the early season runs from Sept. 1 through Nov. 5. Nonresidents with bear-hounds may hunt in the early season starting on Sept. 15. The last bear season this year runs Nov. 16–24. A hunter may only kill one bear during the year.
There is also a bear-hound “training season,” which runs from June 1 to Sept. 15. Killing bears is prohibited during training season.
A list of bear-hound hunting regulations can be found by visiting eregulations.com/vermont/hunting/bear-hunting.
Over the last decade, Vermont Fish and Wildlife has issued roughly 100 bear-hound hunting permits per year, though recently those numbers have edged upward. In 2019, the department issued 113 resident permits and nine nonresident permits.
Currently, Vermont’s entire black bear population stands at around 5,000, Hammond estimated, which is near the low end of the range that Fish and Wildlife has identified as ideal.
In 2018, bear hunters — with or without hounds — killed 683 bears during the two seasons. Bear-hound hunters typically account for 12 to 14 percent of those numbers.
Bear-hound hunters are a critical tool for the Fish and Wildlife Department, said Hammond, who has joined many bear hunts and hound-training expeditions, and uses hunting season results to develop bear population estimates.
State game wardens also call on bear-hound hunters to “haze” or drive off nuisance bears, using nonlethal methods.
“Houndsmen get involved fairly regularly in nuisance cases,” Hammond said, especially when bears get into cornfields in August.
“Bears love corn and they do well with it,” he explained. “If they get into a cornfield away from prying eyes they can basically live there.”
Overall, Hammond says he has a great appreciation for bear-hound hunters.
“Houndsmen are an important part of our hunting heritage and I would hate to lose them.”
Brenna Galdenzi, president of Vermont-based Protect Our Wildlife Vermont (POW), vehemently opposes bear-hound hunting.
“It’s inherently violent and unsportsmanlike,” she told the Independent. “I wouldn’t even put it in the same category as ‘hunting.’”
POW, which has roughly 2,000 members, was founded in 2015 with a focus on opposing animal trapping, but the organization has since expanded its activities to fight bear-hound and other types of hound-related hunting.
“This wasn’t something that we wanted to spend our time on, but now that we know about it, we cannot turn a blind eye,” she explained.
Galdenzi accuses Hammond and other Fish and Wildlife officials of being “apologists” for bear-hound hunting.
“You are supporting a pastime that separates sows from cubs, causes bears to overheat and lose vital calories and hydration, as well as violates landowner rights,” she wrote to Hammond in an email last spring. “You should not be selling this to the public as a wildlife management tool when you have no science/studies to back it up. If bear-hound hunting was so well understood and supported by biologists, then why do the majority of states not allow it?”
Currently 17 states, including Vermont, allow bear-hound hunters to kill bears.
Protect Our Wildlife has begun to gather and organize bear-hound-related concerns from citizens around the state, some of which, Galdenzi said, may not have been recorded by game wardens because “no laws were broken.”
On Oct. 31 the Independent filed a public records request with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and expects to review and summarize those records in a future article.
Public opinion about bear-hound hunting in Vermont does not appear to be improving, and both Hammond and Spear said the writing is probably on the wall.
“It may not happen in my lifetime, but my nine-year-old grandson — who really enjoys the sport — may see it go away,” Spear said with regret.
Vermont’s land is getting divided up into smaller and smaller parcels, Hammond said, and more and more landowners are prohibiting hunting of any kind on their property, which doesn’t bode well for the sport.
“I think that eventually houndsmen will lose their rights.”
Reach Christopher Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Next week the Independent will look at bear-hound hunting regulations and the sport’s image problem.