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Dog hunters and landowners argue over trespassing bill

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RICHMOND, Va. – Hunters may have to pay a fine if their dog enters private property under a bill in front of the House of Delegates.

A revised version of HB 1900, introduced by House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford County, passed the House Rules Committee on Tuesday.

The bill springs from tension between landowners and hunters who use dogs to chase deer.

Hunters could be fined up to $100 for a first offense and up to $250 for a second offense if their dogs trespass on private property.

For the fines to apply, landowners would have to either post signs to keep dogs out or inform the hunter in writing to keep dogs off his or her land. The law would be enforced by animal control officers, conservation police, and other law-enforcement officers.

“This is an agenda to outlaw hunting with dogs,” said Kirby Burch, CEO of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance. Its members held a rally at the Capitol last month to protest the bill.

Burch told the Rules Committee that according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, dogs were involved in only about 5 percent of hunting complaints in Virginia from July 2014 to June 2015.

“Where’s the beef?” Burch asked, if such a small percentage of complaints have to do with dogs.

Rob Nicholson, a landowner who supports the bill, said the beef is that he couldn’t bring his dogs to his farm during rifle-hunting season, and he was worried about his 18-month-old daughter because “every single day the dogs ran through my farm.” Nicholson hunts on his property, without using dogs.

“Why in the world would someone say we’re trying to take away your ability to hunt when we’re just saying, ‘Please keep your dogs off our property’?” Nicholson asked.

The bill also would allow a landowner to stop a trespassing dog long enough to confirm its identification. Dog owners argue that the dogs are just pursuing deer and don’t intentionally trespass and that landowners should not interfere with the hunt.

“To say that a dog in pursuit cannot be stopped is absolutely the most ludicrous thing,” Nicholson said.

Burch said the hunting dog alliance’s main concern is landowners potentially having the right to restrain dogs to identify them.

“Who’s going to do that identification?” Burch asked, arguing that sheriffs and game wardens don’t have the resources to answer calls to identify dogs. He said hunters are worried that landowners would be able to hold dogs until a law enforcement official was available.

Nicholson responded that he would only restrain a dog to take a picture for future identification.

Burch also defended the current law’s provision allowing hunters the right to retrieve a dog that has crossed a property line.

“This (bill) negates the right to retrieve,” Burch said.

If a hunting dog strays onto another person’s property, the hunter has the “right to retrieve” the animal, even if the hunter has been previously asked not to trespass.

“The right to retrieve law is an unconstitutional law,” said Donald Wright, a landowner and hunter in the Virgilina community in Halifax County. Wright, who supported the bill, said it “restores property rights to people like me.”

Under the current law, it’s a misdemeanor to intentionally release dogs on another person’s land to hunt without the consent of the landowner. However, if a dog is found on another’s property, there usually is not enough evidence to prove the intentional release of that dog.

While the House Rules Committee approved HB 1900 on an 11-4 vote, it awaits action on the House floor. If approved there, it would go to the Senate.

A Senate committee killed a hunting-with-dogs bill Wednesday.

Senate Bill 1545 would have held hunters liable for damages to the property their dog entered, if they let them onto private property intentionally.

The bill, introduced by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax County, would have made it a Class 3 misdemeanor if a hunter or dog trainer knew, or should have known, about an imminent trespass while hunting or training.

The Senate Committee for Courts and Justice voted unanimously to table SB 1545.

By Julie Rothey with Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.