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In Virginia, permitless hound hunting may become a thing of the past

Genl. Lafayette's departure from Mount Vernon 1784
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Genl. Lafayette's departure from Mount Vernon 1784

They say George Washington hunted with hounds in Virginia when the nation was founded, but as the Commonwealth’s largest farms get cut into smaller parcels, modern hound hunting is running headlong into property rights advocates who say they’ve had enough.

“It gets your heart pumping, you hear the dogs coming, you know somethings coming your way,” said Powhatan hound hunter John Lewis, describing his love of dog hunting, or using dogs to chase down prey and then hunt them as they come into sight.

It’s a practice that dates back generations in his family, with his grandfather and his father raising turkey hunting dogs while he and his daughter raise dogs to hunt deer and rabbits. His daughter even names the dogs they raise.

But Virginia laws that allow dog hunters to release their animals along state roads, and go onto private land without permission, have become a burden to landowners as more folks move to rural parts of the state.

Chis Patton, himself a farmer who occasionally hosts approved dog hunts on his land, is part of the Virginia Property Rights Alliance.

“Landowners are fed up and frustrated and quite done with having other people’s dogs on our farm[s],” Patton told Radio IQ.

A 2018 report from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said dog hunting-related complaints were the 6th most common among 28 counties where such complaints were tracked. But Patton argues they’ve spiked in recent years.

“It’s crazy how often you see dogs running across the road in rural Virginia,” he said.

Patton also noted the dog hunting practice has changed much since the time of the founding fathers. GPS trackers are used now to follow dogs over miles whereas in the past hunters would have to stay in eye -or ear- shot of dogs as they chased their pray.

"That’s not what George Washington did,” he said of the use of satellite tracking.

Senate Democrat Dave Marsden submitted a bill limiting hunting dog release on state-owned roads and a budget amendment to create a new permitting regime for the practice. He said the balance of power has shifted since the dispute between dog hunters and landowners first emerged and this might be the year something changes.

“It used to be the hound hunters had their way, but property owners are standing up all over the place,” Marsden said, admitting he was carrying the bill on behalf of colleagues who had realized the tide was turning on the issue but feared having their name attached to new limits on hunting.

The permitting structure is a practice other states have adopted. According to a 2020 study out of the University of Georgia, it’s among the best practices to address the needs of both dog hunters and landowners.

But Kirby Burch, the CEO of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, these efforts are the first step in a slippery slope that will see dog hunting go the way of the dinosaurs in the Commonwealth.

“It’s a vehicle to do damage to hunting dogs and the sponsor has been fighting us for years,” Burch said of Marsden’s efforts. And while Burch admitted his group could support new limits on where they can release their dogs, he was still weary of Marsden’s involvement.

“We know more than to support a bill with his name on it,” he said, noting he estimates there's over 150,000 dog hunters in the state and they love the time-honored practice.

“It’s a lifestyle for those of us who raise hounds, retriever for waterfowl, hounds for bear, coon or fox," he said.

And as of now that permitting regime has no price attached to permits, something Republican Delegate Buddy Fowler, who owns hunting dogs himself, said may further tax an already underfunded DWR.

“This idea would require DWR to keep all kinds of records on all this information,” he warned. “They've got a lot to do already.”

Marsden has since become aware of that concern and said he was open to adding an $18 charge for the new hunting dog permit. But that might be too rich for Fowler’s blood.

“We already pay lots of fees for our hunting licenses,” Fowler said.

Both elected officials said keep an eye on the budget for final rule changes.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.