Senate bill would regulate bear hounds
As it is now, we’re just giving people a false sense of security.
— Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife
MONTPELIER — Five months after a pair of hikers and their puppy were attacked by bear-hunting hounds in the Green Mountain National Forest in Goshen, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy has taken up a wide-ranging Fish & Wildlife omnibus bill that includes, among many other things, language intended to clarify bear-hound regulations.
S.321, an “act related to miscellaneous fish and wildlife issues,” in its current iteration runs to 42 pages. It contains a brief section that would define “control of dogs,” protect property owners from unwanted trespassing by bear hounds and shorten the bear-hound training season.
“We have a statute/rule that fails to provide for the simple, agreed-upon, condition that when bear hounds are hunting, they are under the control of the hunter/handler,” said Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Bristol, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee.
On Oct. 19, former Ripton resident Meryl Siegman, 65, and her husband, Ron Scapp, 64, who have hiked in the area for more than 30 years, were walking on the Catamount Trail with their puppy when they were attacked by five bear hounds wearing GPS-enabled tracking collars. According to the couple’s estimate, the attack lasted 30 to 40 minutes before the hunting party showed up and took control of the hounds. Afterward, Siegman and the puppy required emergency medical attention.
The owner of the bear-hounds, Wayne Newton, was 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.” Newton was fined $262, with a five-point penalty on his hunting license.
During an extensive investigation of the incident last fall, the Independent found that no one could explain exactly what “control” of dogs means, or how a bear-hound hunter — or the Department of Fish and Wildlife, for that matter — knows when they have lost that control.
According to the Vermont statutes that govern bear-hound hunting, “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.”
The statute is meant to list any activity associated with bear-hound hunting that requires control of dogs, said Fish and Wildlife general counsel Catherine Gjessing in a phone interview with the Independent in November. However, engagement in those activities would not be interpreted by the department as implying control.
When asked what would imply control, legally, Gjessing referred the Independent elsewhere.
Butch Spear, president of the Vermont Bearhound Association, said in November that he uses GPS to track his dogs, though he acknowledged that his dogs can sometimes get as far away as three or four miles.
Mark Scott, Director of Wildlife for the Fish and Wildlife Department, has said that determining what “control” means is really up to the bear-hound hunters, themselves.
According to Lt. Justin Stedman, a state game warden supervisor, it’s up to dog owners to police their animals, which can be tricky.
“These dogs don’t operate within the vision of hunters,” he told the Independent in 2016, referring to dogs that are legally used to hunt coyote and bear. “The dogs can cross posted land. That’s something that can cause issues.”
Dogs can’t read, he added.
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter has proposed circular logic on the matter.
“We issued a criminal ticket to Wayne Newton for failing to be in control of his dogs, and by agreeing to pay the fine he has agreed that he was in violation,” he told the Independent during a phone interview last week.
Fish and Wildlife documents obtained by the Independent last fall are littered with complaints from Vermonters describing situations where bear hounds did not seem to be under the control of their owners — trespassing on property where they were not wanted and chasing the wrong animals, including pets.
The department insists in those documents that there isn’t anything it can do, and that the bear-hound hunters are not violating the law.
Documents also show that during the five years previous to last October’s attack, Fish and Wildlife never once cited a bear-hound hunter for not having control of their dogs — or for any other reason.
Sen. Bray raised concerns about the definition of “control of dogs” last summer when the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules discussed updating the deer and bear hunting statutes. This was before the Goshen attack.
“(The legal definition) doesn’t match any layperson’s understanding of what we mean by control,” Bray said in a phone interview with the Independent last week. “‘Locatable’ is not a meaningful interpretation of the law.”
The proposed language in S.321 came out of last summer’s committee discussions, Bray’s own personal conversations and from testimony taken by the Natural Resources Committee last month.
The following language on bear-hound rules appears in the current version of S.321, much of it new:
• “A person hunting black bear with dogs … shall be in control of the dogs at all times.”
• “ ‘Control’ means that while a person is hunting black bear with dogs, the person maintains visual contact with the dogs at a distance not to exceed 528 feet (one-tenth of a mile) from the person.”
• “Hunting black bear with dogs includes: transporting dogs; loading or unloading dogs from a vehicle; or handling, pursuing, catching, restraining, or releasing dogs.”
• “A person hunting black bear with dogs shall not allow the dogs pursuing a black bear to enter upon the property of a private landowner unless the person hunting black bear has in his or her possession the prior, written approval of the landowner.”
For a first offense, a person “shall not be issued a permit to hunt black bear with dogs, shall not train dogs to hunt black bear under this chapter, and shall not be authorized to accompany a person holding a permit under this chapter for five years from the date of the violation.”
For a second offense the punishment is a lifetime ban.
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Porter opposes the changes.
“This is an effective ban on the use of bear hounds,” he told the Independent in a phone interview. “There is no way to remain within 528 feet and have visible contact with the hounds. There is no way to do that with this type of hunting.”
Porter believes the current definition of “control” is satisfactory, he said.
Chris Covey, president of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, agreed.
“The sections (of S.321) on bear hounding should be stricken in their entirety,” he told the Senate Natural Resources Committee during a Feb. 27 hearing. “They are a de facto closure of the season for hounds. It’s impossible to run hounds under those conditions. Furthermore, the proposed penalties for failure to meet those conditions are draconian.”
At the hearing Bray asked Covey for suggestions.
“Is there a reasonable definition of control that’s something more than that you can locate an animal based on its position through a GPS collar?”
“I am the wrong person to answer that question,” said Covey, who is not himself a bear-hound hunter. “I don’t want to try to answer it and be incorrect.”
In a phone interview with the Independent, Covey called the proposed rules “purely discriminatory.”
“It’s cultural bias,” he said. “It’s discrimination against a certain portion of the population. The question we need to be asking is, why are we singling out one group?”
Acknowledging that there has been opposition, Bray said that he is open to compromise
“I asked Commissioner Porter what he thought a reasonable distance might be, but he gave no answer,” he told the Independent. “Bear-hound hunters think this distance is too short. Then what’s a good compromise?”
The Independent asked Covey for his thoughts.
“It’s discriminatory,” he said. “There is no reason to compromise.”
MAKE IT COUNT
“We either need to make ‘control of dogs’ mean something in the statutes or we need to admit that hound hunters don’t have control of their dogs, because they don’t,” said Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife. “Because as it is now, we’re just giving people a false sense of security.”
Siegman and Scapp, the couple who were attacked last fall, expressed similar concerns in written testimony to the Natural Resources Committee, which was read aloud in a hearing last month.
“We have absolutely no doubt that the dogs were not under (Wayne Newton’s) ‘control,’ especially given the fact that he could not hear our calls for help and did not arrive on the scene for over half an hour,” they wrote. “Part of his apology included stating to Ron that he and the rest of the group were as much as a mile away, tracking the dogs via GPS, and only came to our location because they thought the dogs had cornered and were attacking a bear.”
They questioned the logic and fairness of regulations that strike them as “inherently unsafe and a sure set-up for exactly what happened to us.”
Because tracking at such distances is typical — and allowed under the statutes — Bray said he’s not convinced that it was even legal to issue Newton a citation.
“This fall’s incident occurred with the hounds in question legally ‘under control,’” he wrote to the Independent in an email. “Citizens very reasonably expect that a hound under legal ‘control’ could not also attack them or their pet. That is the main problem we are addressing in this section of the bill.”
Bray said he’s hopeful that S.321’s provision about “control” will survive.
“But it will require compromise,” he said, “just like everything else we do as legislators.”
The Natural Resources Committee will hear more testimony on the bill this week, Bray said, including from two or three bear-hound hunters.
The bill, which also addresses issues of wanton waste, department funding, the structure of the Fish and Wildlife Board, and regulations on feral swine, is expected to pass out of committee by crossover, March 13.
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