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Viral video draws attention to debate over hound hunting laws in Vermont

A TikTok video by farmer Morgan Gold has added fuel to a contentious debate over hound hunting.

On Monday, Morgan Gold, owner of Gold-Shaw Farm in Peacham, posted a TikTok video that quickly went viral, with more than a million views and nearly 48,000 comments. 

The video has added fuel to a contentious debate about hound hunting laws in Vermont. 

In hound hunting, hunters release a pack of trained dogs into the wild wearing GPS collars. The dogs proceed to track raccoons, bears, wildcats and coyotes, among other animals, often for several miles. Hunters follow along in their trucks until the dogs have cornered the animal. At that point, hunters will either let the animal go, or shoot and kill it.

In the video, Butch Spear, president of the Vermont Bearhound Association, approached Gold in his driveway and asked for permission to retrieve his hounds from Gold’s property. The dogs wound up there in pursuit of a bear. 

Gold initially demanded that Spear leave the property immediately, but then agreed he could retrieve his hounds, provided he did not return to the property ever again. The video then showed Gold and Spear trekking through the woods together — along with the rest of Spear’s hunting party — to retrieve the hounds, who were barking at a black bear up a tree. 

“They couldn’t call their dogs off my property,” said Gold of the incident. “They had to physically pull the dogs away from the tree before they could settle them down and get them away from the bear.”

Gold asserted in his video that, had he not accompanied Spear into the woods, the black bear would have ended up dead. But Spear disputes that, saying he did not plan to kill the bear.

Critics of Vermont’s current hound hunting laws have two main issues with the practice. Some are primarily concerned with the environmental impact of hound hunting, and some with a perceived infringement on landowner rights. 

‘Not on my farm’

Gold isn’t an animal rights guy. In fact, he hunts and sells meat himself. His problem with hounding is that it brings hunting to his land, with packs of dogs chasing wildlife through the property. 

“I don’t want bear hunting happening on my farm,” Gold said. “As a property owner, I should be able to make that call. Even just a dog harassing a bear on my property, I don’t want to have to be a part of it.”

While Vermont does not allow people to trespass on private property, domestic animals are allowed to cross property lines without penalty. 

“I’ve never actually met a dog who is able to read a sign,” said Gold, who posts his land to ensure hunters and others are aware it’s private property.

Gold views the debate as a safety issue. A few weeks ago, a group of hunters showed up at his farm in the middle of the night because their hounds had chased a raccoon into his yard and scared the Golds’ ducks. Gold was startled awake by the commotion and ended up in a faceoff with the hunters, eventually state troopers came to intervene. 

“Neighbors of mine have hunters with guns showing up on their property, saying, ‘Hey, we have a bear, our dogs have a bear, we gotta go get him.’ It’s ridiculous,” Gold said. 

Hound hunting goes back thousands of years. Hounds have been used to track everything from mountain lions to hares since prehistoric times. Several former presidents, including George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, were avid hound hunters. The American Kennel Club still hosts hound hunting competitions today. 

Hound hunters relish the tradition of the sport, and their families have often hunted with hounds for generations. 

However, Gold doesn’t give much weight to the argument that hound hunting is a sacred tradition. 

“That’s the same argument used to protect Civil War monuments and the Confederate flag. That doesn’t sit right with me,” Gold said.

The GPS factor

Spear maintains that tradition is an important part of hound hunting. “Our forefathers brought hounds with them,” Spear said. “When I was a kid, every farm in Vermont had hounding. They’ve always been here. It’s in my blood. I love the outdoors, I love the animals.”

However, as critics of the sport are quick to point out, technology has evolved significantly since George Washington roamed Mount Vernon with his pack of foxhounds. With the use of GPS collars, hounds now roam farther from their owners during a hunt. And critics say hunters today don’t have control of their dogs because they are so far away. 

Brenna Galdenzi, president and cofounder of Stowe-based Protect Our Wildlife, has a number of bones to pick with hound hunting, but at top of the list is what she views as a lack of control of hounds. 

“When anyone thinks of what ‘control of dogs’ means, we think if you say ‘heel’ or ‘come’ or ‘stop’ or whatever, they’re gonna listen,” Galdenzi said. 

That’s not always what happens with hound hunting today, she said.

But Spear argues he is within his legal rights, and his dogs shouldn’t be classified as out of control. “Everybody thinks a dog is not in control unless he’s on a leash so you can grab him,” Spear said. “But according to state law, with GPS tracking devices, I have a very good idea of where my dogs are. I am legally in control of my dogs.”

Pushing for legislation 

That state law is exactly what Gold wants to change. He hopes the Legislature will either ban hounding altogether, or at least require that dogs be on a leash or within the line of sight of their owners during a hunt. Gold has been circulating a petition pushing for the end of hounding, and Galdenzi and her organization are advocating for the same thing. 

Louis Porter, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, says legislation requiring dogs on leashes or within the line of sight of their owners would effectively end hound hunting in the state.

The proposals “are written as if they would allow hounding, but practically they wouldn’t,” Porter said. A counter-petition has popped up online in the past week, advocating for protection of current hound hunting laws in Vermont. 

Critics cite a 2019 incident, in which a couple and their puppy were attacked by a pack of hounds on a hunt near Ripton.

Porter says that incident was a one-off and shouldn’t reflect on the sport as a whole. 

“Dogs should be trained well enough that that doesn’t happen,” Porter said.  “It’s the only case that we know of such a thing happening with bear hounds. It should not have happened.”

Other complaints cite property damage and violent animal fights as a result of hound hunting. Galdenzi claims inadequately trained hounds are more common than hounding advocates like to admit. 

Hound training season runs from June 1 to Sept. 1 each year, when hunting is not allowed, but hounds do run on private and public lands, tracking animals to ensure they are prepared for hunting season. 

“Nobody should have to be fearful on our shared public lands or on their own property that they’re gonna be confronted by a pack of rogue hounds with no owner in sight,” Galdenzi said. 

However, Spear, president of the Vermont Bearhound Association, says that even during training season, his dogs are always under control. He said he runs new dogs with older, experienced dogs when they’re training, so they’ll follow the lead of a seasoned hunting dog and not run wild. 

“These aren’t ferocious animals,” Spear said. “All anyone has got to do is prove my dogs are dangerous and I’ll get rid of them.” He said his many grandchildren play with his dogs regularly.  

Better shots for hunters

Porter, the Fish & Wildlife commissioner, claims hound hunting actually allows for more humane hunting than sight-hunting — when hunters walk through the woods and shoot game themselves, without the help of hounds.

“I would rather every time a hunter chooses to take a shot result in a quickly deceased animal,” said Porter, and he says hound hunting leads to easier shots for hunters, which means fewer injured animals, misfires, and slow deaths. 

But Galdenzi questioned how the activity can even qualify as hunting. 

“Hounding is akin to animal fighting because you’re pitting multiple hounds against one wild animal … then the hunter just drives up and shoots it. Your dogs are doing all the work for you, I don’t know how someone could call that hunting,” she said.

But Spear says sometimes, bears are able to evade the dogs, just like when any animal is on the run from a predator in the wild.

Porter and Spear also argue that hound hunting helps scare bears away when the animals are getting too comfortable around humans, preventing attacks in which humans and bears could face serious consequences. 

Vermont has been successful at restoring the state’s black bear population, and Porter describes bear hound hunters as “devoted to black bear conservation.” 

Bear hound hunters in Vermont are allowed to kill only one bear a year. Spear says he often kills a bear only every few years. In fact, this summer he has cornered 36 bears with his hounds and has not yet killed one. What he does kill, he eats. Spear and his family harvest bear meat and eat it often for a full year or more after a kill.  

“Anybody who doesn’t want me to shoot a bear for food can go out to the store, buy me a choice cut of meat and put it in my freezer,” Spear said. 

Porter says hound hunters “like to have some independence from the food delivery system. They like to procure their own food that doesn’t have chemicals or pesticides or anything.” 

‘You aren’t doing this for the bears’

But wildlife advocates argue it’s not only killing that harms wildlife.

“For anyone to claim that they are doing this for the bears is such a farce; it’s just offensive to hear anyone say that,” Galdenzi said. “You aren’t doing it for the bears when you run a mother bear for miles and separate her from her cubs. You aren’t doing this for the bears when you’re running them for hours in high heat and using vital calories.” 

Galdenzi also says there are more effective ways to prevent bear-human conflict, such as using air horns and removing food and bird seed that attracts bears.

Spear says he cares deeply about bears. The Vermont Bearhound Association educates the public on how to keep bears away from houses and yards, Spear said, and he has spent time with wildlife biologists in Vermont, observing bears in their natural habitats. 

“I have tears in my eyes when I see these bears; it’s just fantastic. It’s nature,” Spear said. “But then I kill one every two or three years and I eat it. I don’t kill it for the sake of killing it; I kill it because I eat.” 

Wildlife advocates say that bears are traumatized when dogs chase them up a tree. Spear doesn’t buy it. He says predators often chase bears in the wild and bears know how to climb trees for a reason. 

Wildlife advocates say hound hunting affects more than bears. Hounding can damage ground bird’s nests and fragile vegetation, Galdenzi says, and she asserts that hounds sometimes chase and kill non-targeted wildlife, such as moose calves and fawns. 

Porter and Spear blame incidents like that on poorly trained hounds, but if a hound hunter knows what they’re doing, they say, hounding is safe. In fact, “it’s spiritual, it’s important to people’s mental and physical well-being,” Porter said. 

“I hunt because I couldn’t when I was younger,” Spear said. “I was making a life, helping pay for raising kids and all this other stuff. I didn’t have the time then, but I make the time now. Every day I wake up at 4:30 with a smile on my face because I know I’m going hunting.”

Gold, himself a hunter, questions why hounders can’t simply hunt without their dogs and still reap the same benefits of time outside and meat for the winter. 

But none of these things are what Spear loves most about hound-hunting, his passion is the hounds. “Totally; 99% of it is the dogs. They are my buddies; they’re my kids. They’re just a little bit lower than my wife on my list,” Spear said. 

Nasty phone calls

Since Gold’s video went viral Monday, Spear said he and his wife have received threatening phone calls and anonymous emails.

“If you knew the number of nasty phone calls that we have received being called everything under the sun — Butch was called the worst names I’ve ever heard and working in a restaurant I’ve heard bad,” said Diana Spear, Butch’s wife and treasurer of the Vermont Bearhound Association.  

“You should stop hunting near a certain farm or I’ll shoot you,” someone wrote anonymously to the Spears in an email that was shared with VTDigger. 

When Gold was made aware of the harassment, he expressed sympathy. “It’s real unfortunate that people are doing that to Butch,” Gold said. “As somebody who has dealt with thousands of comments on the internet a week, it’s tough, but I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it.” 

“I know he’s gonna say he can’t tell people what they can and can’t do,” said Spear, who pointed to Gold’s social media platform, where he has hundreds of thousands of followers. “But he can incite riots. A person can start stuff just by the way they talk and who they talk to. I’m not the only person involved here.”


Grace Benninghoff

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