RICHMOND, Va. — In a state considered the American birthplace of hunting with hounds, George Washington's favorite sport has become a target for some Virginia landowners who say baying dogs and their owners are trampling property rights.
Even other hunters object to a Virginia right-to-retrieve law viewed as the most absolute in the nation: Hunters have free rein to chase after dogs that stray onto posted private property.
Proponents are rising to protect their right to hunt, mindful that other Southern states have already limited or eliminated certain forms of the sport because of complaints from property owners.
Courtly fox hunters and down-home bear and coon hunters — an unlikely coalition — contend their heritage is at stake.
"If we have a major defeat in Virginia, I think it would hurt hunting with hounds in every state. Therefore, we will fight it at every turn," vowed Kirby Burch of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, an umbrella group for 450 hunt clubs claiming more than 30,000 members.
A big part of the friction involves loss of rural habitat due to development. In Virginia, land is being developed at more than three times the rate of population growth, according to "Hunting with Hounds in Virginia: A Way Forward," a state-commissioned report.
The upshot: More dogs are running on private lands, riling property owners.
Bans are spreading
Forms of hound hunting have been banned from Washington state to Massachusetts, and Southern states have followed suit — in part because of opposition from animal-rights groups, but also from landowners. Texas banned hunting deer with dogs in 1990, and Alabama, Georgia and Florida more recently have restricted the sport.
Those actions have prompted officials to examine the sport in Virginia, where approximately 180,000 hunters use dogs. Game officials here say they hope to deal with the issue before problems mount.
Some hunters say the criticism comes from outsiders unfamiliar with the sport's heritage, but that's not always the case.
"An awful lot of what we consider 'new people' are sons and daughters of Virginia but don't have the tradition of the land," said Rick Busch, assistant director of the wildlife division of the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "It's not necessarily Yankees piling into our Southern states."
Hunting with hounds in Virginia dates nearly 400 years ago to the founding of Jamestown, America's first permanent English settlement. Dogs are used to hunt bears, deer, fox, raccoons and rabbits.
Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among its earliest enthusiasts. Congressman John Randolph, who represented Virginia in the early 19th century, was known to enter the House of Representatives with a pack of hounds at his heels. The sport flourished among the Southern plantation culture and spread to Appalachia with Scots-Irish immigrants.
That was back when the same land supported far fewer people. Hunting enthusiasts and opponents alike wonder whether there's still enough room for the specially bred, high-priced dogs to run.
On Oct. 23, the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries is to consider proposals that seem to satisfy neither side. The proposals do not, for instance, recommend changes to the right-to-retrieve law, disappointing property owners like Ben Jones.
He became so weary of hunters traipsing after their dogs on his 165 acres about 40 miles southwest of Richmond that he billed the state $4,750. The bill was ignored.
"The Constitution says government can't take property from the private sector and place it in the public sector without just compensation to the property owner," Jones, a self-employed contractor, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
The dog retrieval law is especially contentious when it comes to hunting deer, because such hunts can cover thousands of acres. Wildlife biologist Ben Fulton, a member of a state advisory committee that has studied hunting with hounds, said deer hunters with dogs disturb his own hunts on his 200 acres in Cumberland County. The right-to-retrieve law, he said, is an open invitation.
"All you have to do is go on somebody's property and just say, 'I'm looking for my dog,'" Fulton said. "I would like to see the law changed to where they had to gain permission."
Burch, of the Hunting Dog Alliance, said that alternative surely would be more irritating.
"Do you want me knocking on your door at 3 a.m. in the morning and saying I want my dog? C'mon," Burch said.
David Birdsall, 68, lives on a 500-acre farm in Gloucester County and has hunted deer since the 1960s. He also shows his Black and Tan Coonhounds.
"To hear these dogs run and chase is what it's all about," said Birdsall, a retired veterinarian.
When he hunts these days, he moves up Virginia's Middle Peninsula near Chesapeake Bay to a less populated county.
A little common courtesy, he said, goes a long way.
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