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Area farmers concerned for hunting dogs left unleashed

Landowners seek solution from NRC

Some Preston County farmers have been concerned for years about bear-hunting dogs running unleashed across their lands. A legislative effort to address the issue last session fizzled, but the state Natural Resource Commission is still looking at a possible solution.

Preston farmer George Street has been the leading voice in seeking a solution. “It’s been a big problem for landowners and farmers in Preston County.”

State law allows bear hunters to train their dogs year-round.

“If you happen to live in one of the areas where they like to run them, there’s no break. You’ve got these hounds running through … they run wherever,” Street said.

Street raises lambs that are guarded by Great Pyrenees sheep dogs. When the hunting hounds come along, the dogs and their wards get stressed out, he said. Also, the dogs can run for miles and cross many properties without the owners’ permission.

He has good fence, so he’s lost no livestock, he said. But one incident triggered his campaign to seek change. One day, the hunting hounds were running right along his fence line and the sheep were all jammed together on the opposite side.

He had been tolerating the unleashed dogs for two or three years, he said, but this time he decided to go speak to the hunters. One hunter got confrontational and threatened him.

So he began seeking a solution. Part of the problem is geographic, he said. The determination of where bear-hunting dogs were allowed to train year-round unleashed was made back in the 1990s, he said, before Preston’s population had grown.

The problem is more pronounced west of the Cheat River, he said, where most of Preston’s bigger towns lie and the population is denser than it once was. And he doesn’t propose to ban year-round training east of the Cheat, just on the west.

He’s approached the West Virginia Farm Bureau, the Division of Natural Resources and the Legislature about the issue.

Farm Bureau Government Affairs Director Dwayne O’Dell said he’s aware of the situation and heard past reports of instances between dog owners and property owners. Property may be posted but dogs can’t read signs.

The Farm Bureau is seeking no specific legislation regarding bear hunters, he said, but recommends a general change to state dog law. Its policy book says, “Unrestrained dogs are a nuisance and a source of property damage for farmers, and many urban families.”

The bureau, the policy book says, would like to see a leash law put into effect for the period of March 1 to May 30 of each year during which time dogs must be tied unless accompanied and controlled by their owners. This would correspond to the season for birthing livestock.

Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, introduced SB 836 last session to try to solve the problem. The Dominion Post talked with him at the time he introduced the bill in mid-February and again last week.

He said, “Over the past several years I have received communications from several farmers and sportsmen about their concerns of trespass related to hunting bear with dogs. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, the farmers’ concerns are greater during the spring of the year when calving and lambing.

“It is entirely within the legal purview of the DNR to regulate the hunting of bear with dogs,” he said. “However, I learned through my research, that the DNR is prohibited from regulating when the training of dogs on bear may take place. SB 836 simply provided the legal authority for the DNR to determine when training of dogs on bear may take place.”

The bill was referred to the Natural Resources Committee and never got on an agenda. Sypolt said he has no plans to reintroduce it in 2021.

“The unfortunate part to this whole story is that a very few disrespectful individuals may very well cause the rest of the sportsmen to suffer,” Sypolt said. “I would much rather see the bear hunters groups police their own members to at least reduce the friction with the concerned landowners.”

Dave Milne, of Bruceton Mills, is one of seven members of the DNR’s Natural Resources Commission. He said the commission has nothing to do at this point with dog training, but it can control where bear hunting with dogs can take place and could divide Preston in half.

The commission, he said, has been collecting public comment on the topic and will vote in May on where bear hunting can take place in the various seasons.

At the time Sypolt introduced his bill, the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association did a short Facebook post opposing it and urging members to politely contact Sypolt. The Dominion Post contacted the association and had a brief exchange but was unable to arrange an interview on the issue.

This story has been updated to correct the misspelling of Street’s last name.

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