Sunday, May 04, 2003
Bear houndsmen get key wins, so system works
By MARK TAYLOR
THE ROANOKE TIMES
"Well, I see the wild bunch is here."
A bear houndsman from Southwest Virginia overheard someone say that when he and dozens of his compatriots showed up in Richmond in two chartered buses Thursday. The hunters were there for a meeting of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' boards of directors.
The man who made the comment couldn't have been more wrong.
The 200 or so hound hunters who made the meeting behaved like ladies and gentlemen, and their courteous-but-passionate attitude is a big reason they came away from Richmond with several important victories.
Houndsmen have been up in arms since the game department announced its proposed hunting law changes in early March. Many of the proposals centered on bear hunting, and houndsmen felt most of the proposals unfairly hurt their sport.
What has happened since, from initial reactions through Thursday's board votes on the regulations, is a textbook example of the regulations system at work.
The houndsmen got involved in the process. The department compromised on some proposals but held firm on others. The panel of governor-appointed board members did a good job of weighing the information they had before rendering their decisions.
For the most part, the houndsmen were brilliant in their battle plan.
They mobilized early and made sure everyone was on the same page. They hit the department not with form letters, but with personal notes and letters, and lots of them. Board member Chuck Cunningham showed of a stack of correspondence six inches high.
They showed up en masse to public hearings held across Western Virginia and didn't just sit there. Many spoke.
They wrote letters to newspapers. One man even took out an advertisement in this newspaper, urging fellow bear houndsmen to get involved.
Finally, they headed to Richmond in the pre-dawn darkness early Thursday. So many showed up that some had to watch the board proceedings on closed-circuit video while sitting in another building.
Giving the effort legs was the fact that the houndsmen had some legitimate beefs.
Most could live with the statewide expansion of the bear archery season, and an implementation of a new muzzleloader season in some areas. After all, the new hunting area isn't traditional hound country. But they weren't happy with plans to add two weeks to the archery season, or with plans to add more muzzleloading hunting in areas where gun hunters already have a decent hunting window.
Their argument? Archers and gun hunters already kill quite a few bears. Archers alone sometimes account for a quarter of the annual harvest. Houndsmen, many of whom kill few of the bears they tree, were understandably worried that many of the bears they were letting go would end up dead.
Even before Thursday's meeting the department took those concerns to heart and backed off on the proposals.
The department didn't budge before the meeting on its intention to close a large portion of Roanoke County to hound hunting. The department said landowner complaints about hounds and hunters made hound hunting on the area impractical. Houndsmen argued about the precedent that could be set by shutting them out of the large public area because of complaints from a relatively small number of citizens.
The board sided with the houndsmen, but not without a warning that the complaint situation better improve.
The houndsmen tried their best to torpedo a proposal expanding the ban on feeding bears to private land, but it was a losing battle. There is loads of scientific evidence that feeding bears does more harm than good. Throw in fair-chase concerns and the board clearly made the right call.
After the meeting Virginia Bear Hunters Association president Danny Thorn had mixed feelings. He said in the future he would like to see the game department get hunter groups involved with the regulations process before the proposals are presented.
I have to disagree.
Hunters have the opportunity to get involved informally during the annual fireside chats hosted by the department. Doing more would unnecessarily bog down the process.
If a big effort or fight is needed, it can start when the proposals are made. Events of the past two months show that system works.