RICHMOND | In a state considered the American birthplace of hunting with hounds, George Washington's favorite sport has become a target for some landowners who say baying dogs and their owners are trampling property rights.
Even other hunters object to a Virginia right-to-retrieve law viewed as the most absolute in the nation: Hunters have free reign to chase after dogs that stray onto posted private property.
Proponents are rising to protect their right to hunt, mindful that other Southern states have already limited or eliminated certain forms of the sport because of complaints from property owners.
Courtly fox hunters and down-home bear and coon hunters — an unlikely coalition — contend their heritage is at stake.
“If we have a major defeat in Virginia, I think it would hurt hunting with hounds in every state. Therefore, we will fight it at every turn,” vowed Kirby Burch of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, an umbrella group for 450 hunt clubs claiming more than 30,000 members.
A big part of the friction involves loss of rural habitat due to development. In Virginia, land is being developed at more than three times the rate of population growth, according to “Hunting with Hounds in Virginia: A Way Forward,” a state-commissioned report.
The upshot: More dogs are running on private lands, riling property owners.
Some forms of hound hunting have been banned from Washington state to Massachusetts, and Southern states have followed suit — in part because of opposition from animal-rights groups, but also from landowners. Texas banned hunting deer with dogs in 1990, and Alabama, Georgia and Florida more recently have restricted the sport.
Those actions have prompted officials to examine the sport in Virginia, where approximately 180,000 hunters use dogs. Game officials here say they hope to deal with the issue before problems mount.
Some hunters say the criticism comes from outsiders unfamiliar with the sport's heritage, but that's not always the case.
“An awful lot of what we consider 'new people' are sons and daughters of Virginia but don't have the tradition of the land,” said Rick Busch, assistant director of the wildlife division of the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “It's not necessarily Yankees piling into our Southern states.”
Hunting with hounds in Virginia dates nearly 400 years ago to the founding of Jamestown, America's first permanent English settlement. Dogs are used to hunt bears, deer, fox, raccoons and rabbits.
Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among its earliest enthusiasts. John Randolph, a Virginia congressman in the early 19th century, was known to enter the House of Representatives with a pack of hounds at his heels. The sport flourished among the Southern plantation culture and spread to Appalachia with Scots-Irish immigrants.
That was back when the land supported far fewer people. Hunting enthusiasts and opponents alike wonder whether there's still enough room for the specially bred, high-priced dogs to run.
On Oct. 23, the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries is to consider proposals that seem to satisfy neither side. The proposals do not, for instance, recommend changes to the right-to-retrieve law, disappointing property owners like Ben Jones. He became so weary of hunters traipsing after their dogs on his 165 acres about 40 miles southwest of Richmond that he billed the state $4,750. The bill was ignored.
“The Constitution says government can't take property from the private sector and place it in the public sector without JUST COMPENSATION to the property owner,” Mr. Jones, a self-employed contractor, wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press.