Hound hunt ban
Bill would outlaw use of hounds in bear, bobcat hunts
When a howling pack of aggressive hunting dogs wearing radio collars chases a fleeing bear for miles through the woods and, finally, up a tree, an ancient and natural relationship is unfurling.
So says Josh Brones, president of the California Houndsmen for Conservation, a statewide group that advocates for the use of trained dogs in a recreational sport called hound hunting.
“[Hound hunters] get to witness an ancient relationship between the hound and the black bear,” said Brones, who has bred and trained hunting hounds for 28 years.
But conservationists and animal-rights activists say hounding, as many call the activity, is cruel and disruptive to wildlife and a sport whose time must end. And in California it just might. Senate Bill 1221 has already passed a Senate vote and been approved by the state Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.
Authored by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), the bill would abolish the use of dogs in the pursuit of black bears and bobcats in California, while allowing hunting of the animals to continue. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill, as he may do later this month, thousands of California hunting dogs trained to follow the scent trails of predatory mammals will be retired from the sport.
Already, of the American states that permit bear hunting, Montana, Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington do not allow bear hunters to use hounds.
Brones says the vast majority of hound hunts do not involve shooting the animal. Rather, the dogs are set loose once they detect an exciting scent. Then, a chase that can last three hours and cover many miles of rough terrain follows, often ending with a bear or bobcat scrambling up a tree. Rather than shoot the animal, Brones said, most hunters simply leash up their dogs and leave the scene.
“This allows us to get the fulfillment we’re looking for, like a catch-and-release fly fisherman,” said Brones, who claims he hasn’t shot a black bear in a decade. “The focus is all on the pursuit.”
But some bears fail to escape a pack of hounds and are mauled or killed, with the dogs themselves sometimes suffering serious injuries in the skirmish. Just how such a pursuit can be legitimized when disturbing wildlife is otherwise so often illegal is what maddens many opponents to hound hunting.
“It’s just reckless wildlife abuse,” said Jennifer Fearing, the California director of the Humane Society of the United States, one of many groups that support the bill and an end to hound hunting.
“Even if they don’t intend to kill the bear, there isn’t such a thing as benign catch-and-release hound hunting,” Fearing said, noting that many city, county, state and national parks prohibit unleashed dogs.
“And yet we allow this narrow field of people to not only run their dogs off-leash but with the express purpose of chasing wildlife,” she said.
Local Assemblyman Dan Logue (R-Loma Rica) has expressed strong opposition to SB 1221. He warned that the bill would banish a cherished American outdoors tradition. It will also deliver an economic blow, he said, as dog-assisted bear and bobcat hunters—who must pay for licenses, species-specific hunting tags and, if they hope to kill their quarry, weaponry—abandon hunting entirely, once deprived of the assistance of their hunting dogs.
SB 1221 would exempt the use of retrievers by bird hunters. It would also allow hound hunting in wildlife research and in depredation hunts of “problem” bears and mountain lions, and it would not prohibit ranchers from training and keeping guard dogs.
According to the state Department of Fish and Game, California is home to roughly 30,000 black bears, though official counts have varied. Every year as many as 1,700 of these black bears are killed during the autumn hunting season. Less than half are killed by hunters using hounds.
Lieu, who authored the bill earlier this year, says that 83 percent of Californians recently surveyed said they would vote, if they could, to end hound hunting today. Lieu opposes the activity for the sake of both the dogs, which he said are sometimes neglected and abused by their owners, and their quarry. Too often, he said, bobcats and bears are killed by dog packs in what are intended to be catch-and-release hunts.
“Hunters may be trailing behind their dogs, and they really don’t have control of them,” Lieu said.
He is also skeptical of the assertion that hound hunting is a natural relationship between species.
“Animals may have been fighting with each other for time immemorial,” he said. “But I’m not sure that means it’s something we should encourage.”