Editorial: Hounds and what 'control' means

Right from the start of reporter Christopher Ross’s series of stories on the bear hounds that attacked a couple and their black, furry puppy in the U.S. Forest off the Ripton-Goshen road in mid-October, it was apparent any solution would revolve around maintaining control of the dogs.

It was also apparent that having “control” of a hound on the scent of a bear or any other prey is in the eye of the beholder to some, and an oxymoron to others.

By its very nature, bear hunting with hounds allows the dogs to run free of their owners’ direct control (it would be impossible to keep up with them in the wild) while they’re on the scent. Because the hounds can get up to 3-4 miles away from the hunters, who follow and tract them via a GPS collar on the hounds, it’s not unusual for hunters to be 30-45 minutes or more before catching up to the pack which may have cornered or treed their prey.

Figuring out how to write regulations for such a sport is trouble enough; imagining a way to enforce such regulations adds another layer of difficulty to a problem that, at first, seemed to be a very rare occurrence. It the Independent’s second story of the series, the hound attack was described as so unusual it was akin to being hit by lightning. Area hunters and game officials all described the incident as unacceptable, the said they hadn’t heard of anything similar in decades.

And neither had we. In the 35 years here as editor, this may be the first time we’ve heard of bear hounds attacking hikers and their dog.

And when that’s the case, there’s a valid argument to be made to not try to legislate for the equivalent of a lightning bolt striking you on the noggin.

But, it turns out, there have been more complaints than we at first knew, and the story in the Addison Independent sparked others from throughout the country who have been attacked from bear hounds to tell their stories and list incidents of others. (See the story, Page 1A, for accounts around the country.) It’s not so rare, after all, that hound dogs on the scent get caught up in the moment and attack other dogs and, sometimes, the humans with them (who instinctively try to protect their dogs.)

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The other part of the story that has come to light since our initial report is the volume of complaints from landowners across the state upset that hound dogs can run at will through land that is posted against hunting. These may be people who are managing their land for the preservation of wildlife, only to have that objective nullify by hound dogs on the scent of prey. That’s a conflict without a clear solution. As the game wardens wryly note, dogs can’t read…. and their owners are too far away to keep them from running through those posted lands.

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter all but throws up his hands at finding any solution, other to ban the sport.

In response to a complaint from a Vermonter whose posted land had been frequented by hound dogs in 2017, and was told that wasn’t illegal and nothing could be done about it, then-Sen. Clair Ayer (D-Addison) forwarded the complaint to Commissioner Porter. In an email reply to Ayer, Porter explained that Fish and Wildlife typically asks hunting associations to reach out to those responsible when there are people who are not treating landowners with respect.

“I do not know of a legislative solution, unless the use of dogs for hunting were to be banned,” he wrote. “Even then, non-hunting dogs would be likely to cause the same issues if they were loose.”

Mind you, in those particular incidents, the dogs were just running through the property — not causing injury to pets or people, so if the response by Porter doesn’t reflect the potential of a dog attack, that’s because it was said in a different context.

Even so, Porter misses the point by offering a false equivalent. Most domestic dogs when walking with their owners don’t stray far and are usually under voice command, if not on a lease. And most domestic dogs are not in a pack hunting prey. On the contrary, most dogs are mindlessly looking for a place to leave their scent, not focused on picking one up.

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If there is a heartening aspect to this story, it’s that most hunters we talked with were truly shocked by the attack on the couple and the trauma caused to them and their dog. And, similarly, that most hikers and outdoor enthusiasts here in Vermont weren’t opposed to hunters pursuing their sports, with dogs or otherwise. They appreciate the hunting tradition and the value that brings to Vermont, but, understandably, wanted a measure of control to help prevent such future attacks.

We also gained a greater appreciation for the use of bear hounds for the public good, when used to chase bears — which have grown accustomed to residential garbage and fixings — back into the wild. And we appreciate hunters whose real joy is working with and training the dogs. Training dogs at that level is an art and skill, though it is a sport often at odds with others who share use of the land.

Whether it is possible to craft a solution will be left up to the Legislature. But what’s also known is that those folks within the enforcement community will have to exercise more oversight if any regulations are to be effective. In researching five years worth of complaints filed against owners of bear-hunting hounds, our reporter found that only one violation was issued. For all others, they said nothing could be done.

If that approach continues, one might imagine the public will react strongly enough to do what Porter suggested was the only viable measure: ban the sport. If that’s not what the Fish and Wildlife Commission and bear hunters want, then their best move would be to join forces with legislators to help solve the problem.

Angelo Lynn

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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