This commentary is by Lisa Jablow of Brattleboro.
While I do not meet the criteria for true “Vermonter” status, I have been in Vermont for a good while. Long enough to have witnessed dozens of spectacular foliage seasons and snowstorms.
Yet, June holds a special place in my heart. Spring is in its full glory, with flowers in brilliant bloom, trees festooned in a dazzling array of lush green hues, blue skies, glorious birdsong, and — hounds baying?
Sadly, yes. June 1 also marks the beginning of the hound training season, which lasts all summer long. The bear hunting season (including the use of hounds) commences on Sept. 1 and runs through the end of November. Now that it’s June, hounders will be driving around with their hounds until they pick up a scent, at which point the dogs are released to follow its source, sometimes for many miles.This can take the hounds across private property (hounds don’t read posted signs) where they not only may not be welcome, but may inflict significant damage to livestock, pets, and structures.
The hounders generally remain in their trucks, tracking their hounds via GPS devices, emerging only once the signal becomes stationary. If the hounds are miles away, as is often the case, it can take some time for the hounders to show up and round them up.
There have been a number of incidents in recent years in Vermont where families have been traumatized by encounters with hounds and their handlers, including a woman and her leashed puppy who were attacked by hounds pursuing bears on public land.
One particular incident is seared in my mind. In a video posted on Facebook by a Vermont bear hounder, a bear had been chased for miles during the high heat of summer and had climbed a tree to escape. The bear was obviously in great physical distress, panting heavily and drooling excessively, likely suffering from severe heat stress. This animal could very possibly have been a nursing mother, now separated from her vulnerable cubs.
The major difference between hound training and hunting season is that it is illegal to actually kill a bear during training season. But in reality, the June 1 start effectively means that bears are terrorized for fully half the year by nipping and baying hounds.
Not counting the time when they are hibernating, bears only have one month of relative peace on our landscapes: May.
Once it begins, the hounding of bears poses many dangers, not only to bears but to the public and to non-targeted animals as well. Here are some things to consider:
- Nursing mothers are targets, which means sows are separated from their tiny cubs, who are often too young to survive without her.
- Chases in the high heat of summer present a threat of hyperthermia and dehydration to bears, which can have serious health implications, including death.
- Bear/hound altercations, particularly on the ground (as opposed to driving the bear up a tree), can result in serious or fatal injury to bears, hounds, or both.
- Hounds may chase bears onto roadways, where bears or hounds may be struck and killed, also posing a danger to motorists.
- Inadequately performing hounds are often dumped at municipal shelters, abandoned in the woods or shot, and are routinely left to live outside year-round, tethered to substandard dog huts.
- Hounds pursuing bears across large spaces invariably chase and/or disturb nontarget animals, including deer fawns, moose calves, small mammals, and ground-nesting birds. Hound training season happens to coincide with the birthing season of many wild animals, putting them and their young at tremendous risk.
The question must be asked: Why is this necessary? Is it really worth the half-year of disruption and putting lives at risk to satisfy a tiny subset of hunters who enjoy this recreational activity?
The stock answer is always that this is a dearly held tradition. Sorry, but in 2023 that just doesn’t cut it. An overwhelming majority of Vermonters do not approve of treating our wildlife this way, making bear-hounding one tradition that really needs to be laid to rest.