News: CJ Exclusives

Wildlife Commission Considering Major Changes in Hunting Rules

Limiting use of dog packs to hunt deer, increasing feral swine hunt among proposals

A generations-deep tradition of hunting deer with dog packs would be outlawed in Orange County if opponents of the practice get their way. Advocates of deer hunting with dogs fear an Orange County ban could spark a domino effect elsewhere in the state. They say fostering cooperation among dog hunters and landowners would be a more reasonable, less punitive approach

The two sides faced off Wednesday at a North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission public hearing on 55 proposed changes in state hunting, fishing, and trapping regulations for 2012-13. One proposed change would expand the use of dogs to hunt deer to Sundays in certain counties where it already is allowed the other six days of the week. That would make the law uniform with other counties that allow deer dog hunting any day of the season.

The lively discussion showed that the issue, which captured statewide interest during the 2011 session of the General Assembly, is still simmering. A bill introduced by state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, to ban deer hunting with dogs in Orange County, failed to get out of committee.

Some 3.4 million people, including nonresidents, participate annually in hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching in North Carolina, according to a 2006 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the most recent data available. That survey concluded the industry has a $2.7 billion economic impact statewide.

“We continue to grow here in North Carolina,” Walter “Deet” James Jr., hunting heritage biologist with the commission’s Division of Wildlife Management, said Wednesday during a telephone interview.

“The numbers are much larger than they were five years ago” in terms of annual license sales, Harvey R. White, assistant section chief in the commission’s Customer Support Services, said by telephone.

Wednesday’s hearing was the second in a series of 10 public comment sessions being held around the state. The full commission is expected to review testimony from the hearings at its October meeting and vote on the proposals in November. A hearing schedule and rules changes can be found here.

Among the 55 proposals are several rules changes increasing the allowable harvest of deer, bear, and feral swine in some areas of the state. In those areas, growing populations of these animals are creating problems with humans, other wildlife, and habitat carrying capacity.

During comment on the Sunday dog hunt expansion, Bonnie Hauser, representing the rural grass-roots organization Orange County Voice, called dog deer hunting in northern Orange County, where it is allowed, “a dangerous situation.”

“Our parcels are too small, hunters are illegally shooting from the road … the dogs are trespassing onto private property” and threatening livestock, Hauser said. “I’m sure you know this is happening in other counties of North Carolina.”

Valerie Foushee, a member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, lamented that the county has been unable to get legislative approval of dog hunt bans. “Twice our board has voted on this and we have sought through the legislative process to have this done. Any consideration we could get we would appreciate,” Foushee said.

But Julius Andrews of Guilford County viewed the matter as an attack on dog hunters’ traditions. “The onliest thing I’m scared of, and we’re seeing it, is people are trying to do away with our dogs,” Andrews said.

Of the dozens of dogs Andrews has owned, “I haven’t seen one yet that can read this trespass sign,” he said to a ripple of laughter. He encouraged dog hunters to talk to neighbors, “get a rapport with them. If you’ll talk to me, I’ll do anything I can to accommodate you.”

Hauser attempted to get a commitment from the wildlife commission “to petition the legislature to move the line” where dog hunting is unlawful to include all of Orange County or to give counties more authority in setting the rules.

But Gordon Myers, the commission’s executive director, gave a terse response. “The commission has made it very clear they strongly support the tradition of hunting with dogs in many forms, but they do not support trespassing,” Myers said.

After the meeting, he said moving the line that divides dog hunting counties from those where it is not allowed “would be a very complicated process” that likely would take years to push through the General Assembly.

Henri McClees of Oriental, representing the North Carolina Sporting Dog Association, did not support expansion of dog hunting to Sundays. Her organization opposed Kinnaird’s Senate bill outlawing dog hunts in Orange County.

“We are opposed to hunting on Sunday, [with] dogs or otherwise,” McClees said. All or parts of Rockingham, Guilford, Alamance, Orange, Chatham, Wake, Lee, Randolph, Montgomery, Stanly, Union, and Anson counties would be affected by the proposed rule change, which covers archery hunting only.

“We support dog hunting and we believe that when you expand hunting to Sunday you infringe [on] the rights of people who enjoy the game lands for things other than hunting,” she said. “If you have a pack of dogs that go through the church parking lot on Sunday you have a lot of enemies. You don’t need more enemies, you need more friends.”

The wildlife commission also is being asked to add feral swine to its hunting rules. There would be no closed season and no bag limit to allow for maximum harvest statewide. Feral swine are a non-native species that “create all sorts of problems for other wildlife,” said David T. Cobb, chief of the Division of Wildlife Management. “They root up all the vegetation” and, more ominously, carry a number of diseases that could infect the state’s livestock.

Harold Dorsett of Efland, a member of the North Carolina Trappers Association board of directors, expressed concern about the swine proposal. “I would like to request that the commission consider implementing temporary rules … that would allow these activities,” Dorsett said. “I was unaware until tonight that trapping them was not allowed without a depredation permit.”

He said the lack of opportunity to kill hogs at night after Oct. 1 is something “that a lot of people feel is a step in the wrong direction of trying to control the population of feral swine in the state.”

Thinning out the deer herd is the goal of proposals to increase the either-sex deer season from conservative to moderate on Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Land and in Polk County, to allow additional archery and muzzleloader deer hunting on Sandhills Game Land, and to increase the either-sex deer season from moderate to maximum on Neuse River Game Land. A conservative season has the fewest days of hunting for either sex; a maximum season allows taking either sex the entire season.

“The deer season proposals were all a reflection of the increased deer herds” in those areas and an insufficient number of deer being culled by hunters, Cobb said. That has led to problems that include interaction with humans.

“There’s increased motor vehicle accidents statewide” involving deer, Cobb said. “We have more people, we have more roads, we have more people on the roads, and we have more deer.”

The deer herd numbers an estimated 1.1 million. In 2010-11, hunters harvested 175,157 deer, according to wildlife commission data.

A bear population that has grown to about 10,000 statewide provided the impetus for proposing a longer bear hunting season in Greene, Halifax, Lenoir, Martin, Northampton, and Pitt counties, and opening a bear hunting season in Edgecombe, Harnett, Johnston, Nash, Stokes, Vance, Warren, Wayne, and Wilson counties. If the proposals are adopted, the bear season would be opened in previously closed portions of Cleveland, Burke, and Surry counties, and the season would be changed in Yadkin, Iredell, Alexander, and Catawba counties.

Although some 2,500 bears are harvested by hunters each year, Cobb said “good habitat, a lot of food, and very little mortality” has helped the bear population to increase. The wildlife commission hopes expanding hunting opportunities and seasons in these counties could limit further expansion of bears into the Piedmont, where more people live.

“We’ve been bothered with them here in Guilford County, Alamance County,” Andrews said in supporting the rule changes. “Those bears are just trying to save their butt[s]” by roaming to where food supplies exist.

Ramon N. Bell of Guilford County, president of the North Carolina Bowhunters Association, also endorsed the proposals and advocated a special bear archery season.

“We think the population could stand a week of archery-only hunting without affecting the population,” Bell said. He asked the wildlife commission to consider “maybe allowing us to use a scent or a lure that does not have food value. But no bait,” he added, “unless everyone is allowed to use bait.”

There were 1,048,137 annual licenses sold for the fiscal year ending June 30, White said. Those include hunting only, inland fishing only, saltwater fishing only, and various combinations of those three. There were an additional 469,999 active lifetime license holders as of June 30.

Dan Way is a contributor to Carolina Journal.