Virginia Wildlife Resources Board Hears Public Comments about Regulations; Deer Dogs Drive Discourse
The Board of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources met Jan. 21 to hear initial details from a public comment period about wildlife regulations plus reports from committees monitoring the agency’s program. Except for a few staff members at DWR’s Henrico headquarters, most attendees participated electronically.
Public comments opened the meeting. One caller expressed concern over new access permits for DWR-managed boat ramps, complaining access had always been free, Fees are an inconvenience for people who may visit him and want to use the river. Ryan Brown, DWR director, pointed out waivers are available for certain user groups and that access fees only apply to department-owned ramps. I would add, access was never free. People who bought boat registrations and hunting and fishing licenses paid for boat ramps and their maintenance.
Kirby Burch of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, a regular at DWR meetings, spoke briefly. His statement seemed partly related to a Virginia General Assembly bill that will allow motorists to stop along public roadways to try to retrieve “companion animals.” That bill advanced in subcommittee Monday on a 10-0 vote.
Judge Charlton, representing The Old Dominion Property Rights Alliance, submitted an opposing, written comment to DWR’s Board. He wrote, “…not only does 18.2-136 (a Virginia statute) give dog hunters permission to go on anyone’s private property but this new bill may give them the legal right to use any state right-of-way, which we all pay for, for their ‘emergencies.’ There is a big difference between an animal that is internationally released and one that gets out by mistake.”
Charlton told me, “Virginians have never received tickets for pulling over to rescue an animal in danger.”
Birch said people who hunt with dogs line the roads to prevent traffic accidents and the dogs they love from being killed or injured. He said, “We are the most visible hunters and, by the statistics I would suggest we are the most law-abiding.” He added that his organization actively promotes landowner relations and doesn’t “hide behind a code of ethics.”
That segued nicely to Gray Anderson, DWR’s Wildlife Division chief, who summarized public comments received as part of the hunting and trapping regulations process. In all, 1,722 people offered comments, most using the online form. Overall, they outlined 2,038 comments.
Anderson said the staff was “neck deep” in looking at comments. About 350 (or about 17%) of the comments were related to “dog issues,” mainly hunting deer with dogs. He said comments often tend to have a “for something” or “against something” flavor but acknowledged the comment volume merited staff attention.
He cited three emerging issues: Sunday hunting on public land, the impact of lead on wildlife species, and predator killing contests, such as coyote trapping competitions.
Anderson said some Wildlife and Boat Committee members also asked for a more detailed look at all-day spring turkey hunting, all season long. This has long been controversial due to potential impacts on nesting hen turkeys. Another request was for muzzleloader hunters to be able to hunt bear throughout the two-week early season.
Board Chairman John Daniel, II noted the substantial number of comments on the dog-deer issue relative to the total comments received and asked about next steps for DWR staff.
Anderson replied the issue presents a “conundrum” with some issues raised by the public rising above the level of staff recommendations, seemingly alluding to the fact that some changes must be made by state law versus regulation.
“We find ourselves in that middle ground, trying to hold on to some hunting traditions while being sensitive to the concerns being raised,” Anderson said.
Daniel suggested the board discuss the dog-deer issue in closed session, citing possible legal issues. Brown said Daniel wanted “some brief legal advice from our counsel with the Office of the Attorney General regarding the interplay of board authorities related to hunting with dogs and code provisions, speaking to aspects of it that are beyond the board’s authority (or) could not be modified by the board. Brown explained the most notable example is the “Right to Retrieve” (fox and coon hunters going on another person’s posted property to retrieve dogs) in Title 18.2-136, but added other examples exist in Title 29.1, which governs DWR management.
Board members also received updates on Law Enforcement Division priorities, reviewed a detailed Wildlife Viewing Plan and approved staff recommendations for 2021-2022 migratory bird seasons. These now go out for public comment before final board action.
A budget review showed DWR in good shape in terms of revenue and that 25% of Virginia license purchasers in 2020 were newcomers to hunting. Holding on to these new customers is expected to be the biggest challenge.
Approval of updates to the Board’s governance manual, the debut of a new conservation license plate spotlighting the salamander, and Brown offering an overview of ongoing legislation of interest ended the meeting. The Red Salamander plate is the ninth in a series of Wildlife Conservation License Plates produced by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), in cooperation with the Department of Wildlife Resources. After the first 1,000 Red Salamander plates are sold, DWR will receive $15 of the $25 additional annual fee. The Department uses these dollars for wildlife resource management, research and educational outreach programs in Virginia.