Controversy over the generations-old practice of hunting deer with dogs will roil on in North Carolina, even though a bill designed to regulate it has been stalled in a House committee since April.
More than eighteen thousand deer were taken across the state in the 2016–17 season by hunters using hounds. That's less than 10 percent of the two hundred thousand killed statewide, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, but the practice has an intense following, particularly in eastern North Carolina.
As more land is developed and hunters use more sophisticated, GPS-aided techniques, years of tension have brought clashes among hunters, landowners, and animal rights advocates. That's why Republican representatives Chris Malone of Wake County and Jay Adams of Catawba introduced House Bill 648, to create a framework for resolving some of the disputes.
The bill's title shows the tightrope sponsors were attempting to walk: "An act to provide for responsible hunting of deer with dogs in manner that protects the rights of private landowners."
"The most important thing is to look at the process and have some respect in law for the people that don't want anyone on their property," says Malone, a former Wake County Board of Education member who lives in Wake Forest. "You have concerns about the people that absolutely don't want anyone on their property. That's what sets people on fire."
HB 648 would give the Wildlife Resource Commission the authority to regulate the hunting of deer with dogs. In addition, it would require hunters to prevent their dogs from entering private property where they do not have documented permission to hunt and to put a "visible and legible tag" on dogs that hunt deer.
The bill was opposed by groups such as the N.C. Sporting Dog Association, which said on its website: "HB#648 is a terrible bill. If passed, it would RUIN deer dog hunting in North Carolina."
Indeed, supporters of hunting deer with hounds like to point out that President George Washington enjoyed the practice, although Washington's prey tended to be fox rather than deer. In the modern era, hunters set out in pickups instead of on horseback, fanning out after setting loose packs, including any of a variety of hounds—Walker, redbone, and bluetick among them.
"It's as old as deer hunting," says Wilmington hunter and hunting writer Mike Marsh. "It was a standard way of hunting in the coastal plain because the cover is so dense and the areas are so large. In some places, it's the only way you can hunt a deer and have a reasonable chance of success."
Hunts usually start early in the morning and continue all day, although some sportsmen stop for the dogs' sake if the weather gets too hot. Listening for the dogs' cry—and nowadays tracking them electronically—the hunters try to determine the deer's direction and get out in front of them, within shooting range. The chase can go on for miles, with hunters in vehicles following the dogs, which are chasing the deer.
The problem is the dogs can't read "Posted" signs and can easily stray onto land where the commotion of the hunt is unwelcome, Marsh says. Hunts can interfere with those who practice the much more common "still" hunting, or shooting from a stand. Sometimes dogs cross public roads during the pursuit.
"The dogs are more or less moving the deer around," says James B. Kea, a retired N.C. Agricultural Extension agent. "If they are on a public road, it's very easy to get fixated on a deer and not see a car coming."
At some point, it's time to gather the dogs up and conclude the hunt, whether successful or not. That process can create more trouble.
"The hunter who owns the dog may have problems retrieving the dog because he doesn't have access to the land where the dogs are," Marsh says. "The property owner doesn't want the hunt coming through there."
Marsh declares himself firmly neutral on efforts to regulate the sport. "I've been a party to some of these conflicts on my own property," he says. "But I try to be tolerant."
Among those in opposition to the practice is Erica Geppi, state director of the Humane Society of the United States and a member of the umbrella organization the N.C. Animal Federation. Animal rights advocates are concerned about the welfare of both the dogs and the deer in hound hunting.
"We think hunting needs more oversight and parameters," Geppi says. "We consider hunting with dogs a nonsporting practice, on the deer's behalf."
Trainers keep dogs lean to aid with their pursuit of deer, Kea says.
"When the dogs are running, they keep the dogs really slim or trim, they are almost on the verge of being starved," he says. "Some animal rights people don't like the way the dogs are treated. You can get a whole lot of people stirred up about that kind of thing."
Adds Geppi: "They tend to keep [dogs] chained outside 24–7. They want to keep that wild instinct alive."
Thus hunting deer with hounds raises myriad issues at a time when regulation itself is being challenged at all levels of government.
The concept of regulating this practice is so contentious that a spokesman for the Wildlife Resources Commission responded to the INDY's questions only with a resolution its leaders passed in 2011. After a long series of items beginning with "Whereas," it says: "Therefore it is resolved that the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, in official session on Jan. 13, 2011, reaffirms its unwavering support for the use of dogs in hunting in North Carolina in all circumstances where such hunting is consistent with the sound conservation of our state's treasured wildlife resources and not contrary to the protection of the private property rights of its citizens."
In other words, if all these competing interests are good with hound hunting, the commissioners are, too. As recent developments have shown, the resolution failed to resolve the controversy. Malone says the parties—perhaps the hunters specifically—would do well to adopt the framework of the bill, or some version of it.
"If not," he says, "we're going to be forced to do something that's much more stringent."
This article appeared in print with the headline "That Dog Don't Hunt."