Hound hunting is a time-honored tradition in NH. But not everyone likes it.
After nearly 10 miles of snowshoed steps, fresh powder crunching beneath his feet, Will Staats hears the calls of his hunting dogs in the distance. The sweetest music of all, he calls it – one of a tradition that dates back thousands of years.
A retired wildlife biologist, Staats used to work for the state’s Fish and Game Department. Now he lives in Vermont, where he primarily hound-hunts for bobcats. Speaking to a full room at this month’s Fish and Game Commission meeting, Staats sought to explain hound hunting, a centuries-old practice that’s facing increased opposition today.
He talked about his Plott hounds following animal tracks and scents, wearing collars equipped with GPS so he can monitor their locations. He said being outdoors with the dogs is his favorite part of the whole experience.
“It’s not about killing game for me, it’s just not,” he said.
Tuesday’s meeting featured an informational presentation on hound hunting, and the audience included both supporters and critics. The commission isn’t currently scheduled to make any decisions regarding hound hunting specifically. Separate hearings on proposed biennial changes for the 2023-2024 hunting season are upcoming in Concord, Keene, and Lancaster.
But the New Hampshire Wildlife Coalition had encouraged opponents to attend and speak out against the sport.
Hunting with dogs is legal in New Hampshire and “a very highly regulated activity,” said Andy Timmins, game programs supervisor for Fish and Game’s Wildlife Division. Permits are required to hunt bears using dogs, and hunters in most cases must also get permits to train their dogs.
Depending on the purpose of the hunt, animals are either killed, released, or captured for research.
Timmins said the history of people hunting with dogs dates back to the animal’s domestication more than 20,000 years ago. In North America, dogs helped Indigenous hunters chase down moose and deer. European colonists brought certain dog breeds over from England, and the popularity of hound hunting grew among the colonies. Several U.S. presidents were known to be hound hunters.
At this week’s commission meeting, not everyone in attendance felt an affinity for the sport. It’s drawn more attention in recent years, particularly as conflict has mounted between hunters and private property owners.
Some just don’t like the concept at all. They picture dogs running animals to the point of exhaustion, and hunters lagging far behind unable to control them.
Donna Di Casparro called it a “barbaric sport.” In Sandwich, both she and fellow resident Anne Glavin have embarked on a nearly three-year campaign distributing signs throughout town for people to post on their properties, telling hunters and dogs they’re not welcome to hunt bears there.
Glavin said more than 300 signs have gone out in Sandwich, a response to increasing squabbles between hunters and residents.
Hound hunting is legal in New Hampshire
Dogs are typically used in New Hampshire to hunt bears, coyotes, raccoons, fishers, foxes, gray squirrels, cotton-tail rabbits, snowshoe hares, and game birds like grouse and woodcocks, Timmins said.
Bears, being a “big game species,” are more regulated than smaller mammals, and the state in recent years has seen annual bear harvests of more than 1,000 due to population growth.
Seventeen states, including New Hampshire, allow bear hunting with dogs.
Timmins estimated Fish and Game issues between 250 and 300 permits annually for a season that lasts seven weeks between September and November. Hunters also have to obtain permits to train their dogs on bears, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, and gamebirds. Dogs are not allowed to kill an animal, a Fish and Game officer added. They’re only permitted for the pursuit.
Aspects of hound hunting have been identified as beneficial, Timmins said, including wildlife population control, curbing invasive species, and research. There is social and moral value, too, he said, in the tradition and heritage, companionship, community, and challenge of the sport.
Staats spoke about the joy he finds in the strategic chase, and raising dogs from puppies to become seasoned and trained hunters.
When he hunts, Staats said, he thinks about “fur clad Indigenous peoples” in the Arctic, possum hunters down south, and New England woodsmen snowshoeing. It’s “all part of that tradition we feel a part of.”
Concerns about animal welfare, ‘fair chase’ hunting
Ahead of this week’s Fish and Game Commission meeting, the New Hampshire Wildlife Coalition sent out an email blast urging people to speak out against the practice.
“Hounding involves hunters and guides using packs of powerful, GPS-collared hounds to pursue wildlife until the exhausted, frightened wild animal seeks refuge in a tree – if they are able to climb – or turns to fight the hounds,” the coalition wrote. “…Animals like coyotes and foxes who are unable to climb, are chased to exhaustion until the cornered animal is ultimately descended upon by the hounds.”
The coalition contends that hunters don’t have complete control over their dogs and are “often miles away in their trucks monitoring their hounds on their GPS devices.”
Weldon Bosworth, a retired environmental consultant with the New Hampshire Wildlife Coalition, said the group supports “fair chase hunting,” essentially defined as the hunter and animal having equal chances in the pursuit.
He said the idea of fair chase has been “degraded over the years” as hunters gain more advantage with emerging technology, including the use of GPS-collared dogs.
“When people first started hunting, they needed to be woods-savvy and have endurance,” Bosworth, of Gilford, said. “Dogs domesticated and as we grew to use dogs, they became a companion to help run down game. But that was during times when that was necessary for subsistence.”
Some critics take issue with hunters in New Hampshire not being required to report coyotes, foxes, and raccoons, for example, meaning the data is limited on how many are killed each year using hound pursuits. In addition, because there is no closed season for hunting coyotes, they can be hunted year-round and without any permits. Bosworth feels they’re a “persecuted” species that are often hunted for fun, and then disposed of.
“What harm would it do to the hunting community if we had a law to disallow dogs hunting coyotes?” Joan O’Brien, an Amherst resident, queried commissioners on Tuesday.
Rights of private property owners
Hound hunting has caused tension when dogs hunt on properties where they’re not wanted. Some residents are upset by the noise, while others don’t want animals being hunted on land they own.
The town of Sandwich “becomes a little haven for hunters with dogs, for whatever reason,” said resident Di Casparro.
Following an approach taken by Tamworth residents in the early 90s, some Sandwich residents have started a campaign to educate property owners.
Glavin said they’re paying for ‘no trespassing’ signs out of their own pockets, and Di Casparro called it a “very successful” effort that they expect will continue.
Signage doesn’t always work, though, noted a Hillsborough resident who spoke at the commission meeting. His property is posted, and yet a bear was still treed by hounds on it. Dogs can’t read, he said.
In response, Staats told attendees that hunters can download aerial map technology that distinguishes property lines and who owns what. It wasn’t clear if such technology also tells hunters which properties are posted for no trespassing.
Commissioner Albert DeRosa, of New Durham, who said his ancestors used dogs to hunt, cautioned people against questioning an entire practice “based on the ethics of one person.”
“Some people have had negative experiences,” he said. “The ethics of a single person can’t be used to judge an entire population in the state.”