Some Virginia property rights proponents are skeptical of a unanimous vote Jan. 19, 2022, by the Board of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to form an “ad hoc” study board or commission for yet another to look at the issue of deer hunting with dogs. Previous studies dating back at least 15 years yielded considerable rhetoric and pledges to do better when it came to deer dog trespass issues and fractured landowner and hunt club relations, but not much else. The touted “Way Forward” presented in a 2008 study group report resulted in little more than quieting things for a couple years.
In public comments received as part of the DWR’s regulatory scoping process, deer hunting with dogs was the most cited issue across the last two cycles. Attempts to change laws in the Virginia General Assembly have been stifled in committees.
Virginia hunt clubs and the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance (VHDA), which formed because of landowner challenges to the state’s controversial “Right to Retrieve” law and increasing landowner complaints, opined in 2007 that it’s a handful of bad apples who are placing their preferred style of hunting deer with dogs at risk of tighter restrictions. The law allows a person, unarmed and on foot, to access a property without landowner permission. Virginia is one of just two states with such a law. Minnesota is the other. Spokespeople for the hound-hunting enthusiasts are echoing the same refrain in 2023, professing they see few problems while asking for cooperation and dialogue.
Landowners, though, appear increasingly fed up. Complaints of unwanted trespass to DWR law enforcement have surged in recent years. A trio of landowners, led by Dinwiddie farmer Jim Medeiros, sued the DWR last year, asserting that the right to retrieve access amounted to the government appropriating a right of access to private property. This, according to the suit, constitutes a per se physical taking under a U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in 2021. In an AP story related to the case, Daniel Woislaw, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, said, “When Jim has to let deer dogs and deer dog hunters enter his property, and he's not allowed to tell them to stay away, and when they're killing his livestock and disrupting his operations, that's a taking of a valuable property interest," Woislaw said.
The Virginia DWR was granted a dismissal of the case in Henrico County Circuit Court last August, but the plaintiffs filed an appeal a month later. The case is pending, and property rights proponents are increasingly organizing and acting.
The recent DWR Board meeting saw a host of Virginia landowners, many – if not most – hunters themselves, demand action on a situation. Speakers outlined rampant trespassing of hunting dogs, primarily hounds, across their properties, as well as dog owners routinely accessing their property to retrieve wayward canines.
More than 30 people from several counties spoke in-person or online about the issue. Several speakers represented the deer-hound hunting community, spurred to attend after a VHDA “action alert” titled, “Property Rights advocates are pushing anti-hound hunting rules to DWR” was issued the day before.
A Proposal Outlined
Chris Patton, speaking as a representative of the Virginia Property Rights Alliance (VPRA), offered what he said was a solution that could satisfy both the VHDA goal of securing the heritage while protecting rights for landowners who do not allow hunting dogs on their private property.
Patton said the VPRA proposes an addition to Virginia Hunting Regulations stating, “Hunting dogs shall not be permitted to enter or hunt on prohibited land.”
“Simply put,” Patton noted, “the responsibility for containing hunting dogs to lands where they have permission to hunt is that of the dog’s owner. But,” he added, “we all know the response from dog hunters when trespassing is brought up. Dogs can’t read ‘no trespassing’ signs. And they don’t want their dogs on your posted land either, but they can’t control where their dogs run. But this is no longer a viable excuse. With GPS technology that is already widely used by dog hunters, there is a capability called geo-fencing that enables the use of GPS waypoints to fence off the boundaries of the property where their dogs are permitted to hunt. This virtual fence delivers a stimulus to the dog’s collar as the dog approaches the boundary of the fence and keeps the dog within the intended hunting area.”
Patton said this technology gives hunters the ability to comply with the rule change and reduces the instances of conflict, as well as reducing the number of dogs being hit by cars and being lost. This technology is readily available on the market, with costs are on par with GPS systems already in use, he said.
Patton said the one-line addition to the hunting regulations wouldn’t demand the use of geo-fencing technology. Hunters with adequate lands to contain their animals might not need it, but in cases where the land doesn’t contain his hounds then geo-fencing can be the solution.
Patton’s recommendation appears feasible based on a Southeast Deer Study Group 2021 published research study titled, “Is there a future for dog-deer hunting in the United States?” The study outlined the controversies associated to chasing deer with dogs. They found, as evidenced in Virginia, that dog trespass onto unauthorized properties was the most common complaint to state wildlife agencies. They also reported that, “Hunter permitting and registration requirements have made hunters more accountable and were beneficial based on the perceptions of state agencies of fewer public complaints.”
Geo-fencing seems to partially work. Study simulations indicated that hunts with dogs needed to be limited to areas greater than 1.2 miles from property boundaries to ensure 50% of the hunts would be contained on a property. When the property boundary exceeded 1.7 miles, 90% containment was possible. When limiting measures were used, such as dogs trained to stop via a correction collars, the expected distances required to contain the dogs was reduced by about half.
The study’s recommendations included: plan for communication among agencies and stakeholders; allow dog-deer hunting where the practice is accepted culturally; develop and enforce permit systems to ensure hunter accountability; and encourage or require tracking and correction collars on dogs to reduce trespass.
Board Asks for Study Group Recommendations
Region 4 Board Member George Terwilliger made a motion to assemble the ad hoc group. Terwilliger bolstered his motion, stating, "The Board and the department have a responsibility to act. Landowners have rights that have to be protected. The motion stated, “I move that the Board authorize the Director, at his discretion, appoint an ad hoc advisory committee to consider the rights of landowners and hunters and advise the Board on possible changes to regulations that might address some of the current issues.” The motion passed unanimously.
Virginia DWR Executive Director Ryan Brown said he doesn’t plant to let much time elapse before assembling the study group.
“I am hopeful that the productive tone of many of the speakers from today’s meeting will lead to good discussions among them when the stakeholder group directed by the Board is organized,” Brown stated. “We will begin work on that effort very quickly, consistent with our Board’s direction and to make the most of momentum that came from today’s interaction among those who spoke on behalf of their organizations.”
Immediately following the meeting, some VPRA members wondered about potential outcomes, whether this is just a latest “kick the can down the road” initiative or if it might represent an opportunity to make regulatory changes after decades of talk.
We’ll keep you posted. Here is a link to the DWR Board meeting materials of Jan. 19, 2023.
Sidebar - Selected Speaker Comments
Comments by property rights advocates: some paraphrased for brevity:
We have poured our blood, sweat and tears into our farm only to be reminded every year over and over we actually have no control of what happens there. Mathews County speaker
Hound hunting should not take over my rights as a property owner. Powhatan County
When you create 10-12 acres for turkey cover but then have dogs going through it, you ruin it. It (the trespassing) is 100% intentional and it’s getting worse and worse. There is no excuse for GPS-collared animals to be on my property. I’ve lost all quiet enjoyment of my property. Cumberland County
The club turns out 15 hounds on six acres; turns dogs loose on the road.
My 400 acres of land are inundated with deer hounds once general firearms season comes in. I’ve been harassed, threatened after falling out with a hunt club. Heritage does not trump property rights.
DWR strategy of dialogue is not working. Dog trespassing is not a rarity, it’s all the time. I don’t want dog hunting to be banned, but DWR needs to do something that betters regulations.
Hunters have torn down signs around my property. Dogs run day and night. Ask the board to ban deer hunting with dogs, as is the law in western part of the state, or limit dog hunting to properties with at least 200 continuous acres or limit the number of days when dog hunting is allowed.
If you keep your dogs where they are allowed, we won’t have any problems. Self-regulation isn’t working. It’s time for the DWR Board to take control and do their jobs.
We’ve had run-in after run-in with deer dog hunters since buying our properties, investing our life savings. They spook the horses and agitate our dogs. Hunt clubs tell us to take photos of the dogs’ collars.
It‘s terrifying when you’re on your horse, on your property and a pack of dogs starts chasing you. My tax dollars are going to pay for unwanted hunting dogs in pounds.
We have annual encounters with deer dog hunters on our land, far from where they have permission to hunt. They refuse to give their names, obscure their license plates.
You (the DWR Board) are the referee for this game, and you’ve been on the sidelines for too long.
Every time we hunt our private property with family and friends, we have hunts spoiled by dogs and dog hunters. The hunters come on our property, yelling for their dogs at 8 a.m., ruining our hunts. They are taking away everyone’s rights and it is just not right.
Comments (again, mostly paraphrased) by pro deer dog hunting speakers:
Dog hunting is my life. Eliminating dog hunting will eliminate small businesses and small country stores, as well as hurt people who sell dog crates and boxes and dog food.
You can’t hunt counties that have a lot of swamps and wetlands without dogs. Insurance costs will go up with increased deer/vehicle collisions.
I hear you. It does happen. I believe we have to work together. Without use of dogs, deer populations would go through the roof. Are there bad apples. Yes, there are. I don’t support it.
Dog hunting is a tradition, multi-generational.
I’ve been a hound hunter all my life. What a lot of these people don’t understand is these dog hunters are your first responders, your police, fire and EMTs.
We need longer training seasons to condition dogs to the electronic collars.
VHDA will try to help landowners solve problems.
Our club leases big properties. We don’t have any issues and I’m unaware of any complaints.
I’ve only heard of minimal problems.