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Bear dog hunters share their side and respond to previous story about farm damage

Several bear hunters spoke with The Dominion Post recently to give their side regarding an April 19 story about efforts to end year-round bear hound training or hunting with bear hounds on the western side of the Cheat River in Preston County.

“We love what we do. I’ve been doing it for 35 years,” said Don Radcliff, past president of the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association and a member of the board of directors. He came up from his Kanawha County home to participate in the conversation.

Hunters care for their dogs year-round and keep them trained and exercised. “Every opportunity that we have to train these dogs, to get them in shape to do what we love to do, we take that opportunity.”

As reported in April, Preston landowner and livestock owner George Street has been leading the effort to limit the training or the hunting. He said that the unleashed dogs can roam for miles and frighten livestock.

He has spoken to Preston state Senator Dave Sypolt, the Farm Bureau and the Division of Natural Resources Commission about his concerns. A Sypolt-sponsored bill to allow the DNR to determine when bear hound training could take place went nowhere, and Sypolt later said he has no plans to reintroduce it.

However, Dave Milne, of Bruceton Mills and one of seven members of the DNR’s Natural Resources Commission, previously said that the commission has nothing to do with dog training but can control where bear hunting with dogs can take place and could divide Preston in half. It will vote this month on where bear hunting can take place during the various seasons.

As reported in April, Street said his efforts were sparked by a confrontation with a bear hunter. The hunters took exception to Street’s version and said he was confrontational and threatening. He says he was at the edge of his acreage, the hunters say he was well away.

Apart from that, the hunters also defended what they do. Radcliff said he leases nearly 24,000 acres in Wetzel County to hunt bear, and hunters typically have permission from almost all the landowners in the areas they hunt. Preston has no more complaints from landowners than anywhere else.

Farmers generally want the bears killed, he said. “You take away the most effective means of controlling the bear population — the bear hunters — and your bear damage complaints are going to go through the roof.”

Among the fees bear hunters pay to the DNR is a $10 bear damage stamp; half goes to the DNR bear damage fund to cover property damage and half goes to black bear research programs.

In 2015, he said, Preston saw 150 bears killed and the count has consistently been over 100 for the past five years.

Pat Zuchowski leases 2,000 acres in west Preston and has written permission from 35 families and farms to hunt. He echoed Radcliff, saying his brother had 47 hay bales torn apart but never turned in a damage report. If the commission stops hunting on the west side, there will be more damage and complaints.

Also, he said, coyote hunters, rabbit, raccoon and squirrel hunters all hunt with dogs; so it’s fundamentally unfair to single them out.

Bill Williams said Preston County stands to lose a significant sum of money if the hunting is stopped in western Preston. Hunters buy soda, food, gas. “If we don’t have a reason to be there, you’re not going to have a reason to spend that money there.”

Zuchowski also pointed out that a hunting ban in western Preston would make it illegal for him to hunt on his own land.

Mickey Conner lives in Grafton. He has a passion for hounds and has hunted for 25 years, he said. “If you do it, you love it. It’s not an easy job.”

He referenced Sypolt’s comment in the April story that complaints could be averted if bear hunters policed each other to weed out the occasional bad apple. Conner agreed. “We’re policing by helping these guys out.”

Bear hunters help each other, he said, and help the landowners. They often prevent trouble. He fears that a successful effort to ban hunting in west Preston could start a domino effect and lead to more grounds being taken away.

Eric Beck is president of the association and didn’t make it to the meeting but spoke to The Dominion Post by phone. He estimates, based on the number of bear damage stamps sold statewide and averaged out per county, that Preston loses about $17,000 per year from bear damage — that much more is paid out than taken in through stamp sales.

And the imbalance will grow if hunting is banned in half the county and the stamp sales are reduced, he said.
About 60-65% of bear hunters use dogs, while the rest are nontraditional. If 60-65% of the bears remain, he said, there will be that much more damage.

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