House panel shows little appetite for hunting law changes

Snare and steel-jawed trap bans among six bills rejected

By: - February 3, 2022 12:04 am

(Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)

A House subcommittee on Wednesday methodically struck down a series of bills that would have altered Virginia’s hunting laws, with numerous votes deadlocking despite a Republican majority on the six-person panel. 

Among the six proposals that failed at the House Natural Resources Subcommittee were bills to limit or ban the use of steel-jawed or snare traps in hunting, to allow hunting on Sundays on certain state-run lands, to prohibit hunting contests intended to kill large numbers of predators like foxes, coyotes and bobcats, and to allow the use of smaller-caliber rifles for deer hunting. 

The subcommittee still has to take up proposals related to Virginia’s controversial “right to retrieve” law, a 1938 statute that allows hunters to go on other landowners’ property without permission to retrieve hunting dogs. 

Right to retrieve has become an increasingly hot-button topic in rural eastern Virginia, where increasing development and population pressures have clashed with traditional practices of using hounds to hunt deer. 

Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, pointed to two incidents since 2020 of hunting dogs in her district around the Northern Neck being caught in snare traps for her legislation to limit or prohibit the use of snare traps in Virginia. 

“What’s happening in my district, we’ve got people that are buying up large properties of land putting snare traps all over their property,” she said. “They do not own livestock. They aren’t trying to kill nuisance species. They are doing it with the intent to try to catch something else.” 

Richmond County Sheriff Steve Smith said that since he became aware of snare traps being used in his jurisdiction in 2018, two hunting dogs have been killed and two others freed from the traps. 

“The western part of the state is a big supporter of [these traps]. And I understand that. They have vast areas of land. They have very unpopulated areas,” he said. “But on the east side of Virginia, there’s a difference. We don’t have the mountains. We don’t have the vast lands.” 

Prohibiting snare traps east of Interstate 95 or statewide “will make my citizens happy,” Smith told the subcommittee. 

Farming, property rights and some hunting groups, however, opposed restrictions on both snare trap use and a ban on steel-jawed traps proposed by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke. 

“Farm Bureau’s had a longstanding policy opposing any anti-trapping laws due to the severe damage our farmers face all across Virginia on both sides of the state from wildlife damage, whether it’s coyotes killing livestock or groundhogs or foxes destroying crop fields,” said Stefanie Taillon, a lobbyist for the Virginia Farm Bureau. “They really do need the ability to protect their property at all times.” 

The Nature Conservancy said trapping prohibitions could hamper the group’s efforts to protect migratory birds on the Eastern Shore, work it carries out in conjunction with U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. 

Exemptions added to Gooditis’ bill on steel-jawed traps that would permit their use by government agencies, researchers and farmers who had been unable to control predators by other means still failed to garner the proposal sufficient support. Nor did pleas from animal protection groups including the Humane Society. 

Snares are “inherently inhumane” and the risk they pose to pets like non-hunting dogs and cats is “unacceptably high,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute. Linda Greaves, a Great Falls resident who serves as the Virginia lead for Trap Free America, called steel-jawed traps “barbaric, outdated methods,” saying that more humane methods of predator control are available. 

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Director Ryan Brown said that while the agency shares concerns about improper or illegal use of traps, both snare and steel-jawed traps are widely used for predator control and are regulated by DWR.  

Steel-jawed traps are “the number-one device that’s out there,” he said, while snare traps “are a primary tool used in addressing particularly coyote concerns that farmers have.” 

Gooditis’ bill banning steel-jawed traps died on a 4-2 vote, while both of Ransone’s snare trap bills deadlocked and according to chamber rules are considered to have failed. 

One snare trap proposal does remain alive: companion legislation to ban the use of such traps for game animals east of Interstate 95 during deer hunting season cleared the Senate earlier this week. 

Also dividing the two chambers are proposals to allow Sunday hunting on some or all public lands, another issue that has been a regular point of contention in the General Assembly for decades. While a broad bill allowing hunting on Sundays on all public lands in the commonwealth passed the Senate with a 29-11 vote in January, a House proposal from Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, to permit Sunday hunting in wildlife management areas deadlocked before the subcommittee Wednesday. 

Two other hunting bills that died before the House panel included a proposal from Del. Scott Wyatt, R-Hanover, to authorize the use of a .22-caliber centerfire rifle for deer hunting and one from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, prohibiting predator hunting contests for fur-bearing animals like coyotes, bobcats and foxes. (An amendment to the latter bill stripped out a prohibition on contests involving coyote, which is generally seen as a “nuisance animal” in Virginia.) 

Matt Knox, who described himself as an “avid deerhunter” from Bedford County, opposed Wyatt’s bill. Knox said the change wasn’t necessary, given that “Virginia’s current .23-caliber regulation has been in place for the last 64 consecutive years with no problems or issues,” and warned it would result in “more wounded and crippled deer” in the state’s forests. 

Virginia DWR “historically has said, ‘OK, well, you have to draw the line somewhere.’ And the .23 caliber and larger criteria has been in place for a long time and has served us well,” Brown told the subcommittee. “We just haven’t seen a reason to disturb the current standard.” 

Keam’s bill to ban certain predator hunting contests focused on animals like foxes sparked more debate and left lawmakers again evenly divided on the question. According to Molly Armus of the Humane Society, at least a dozen such competitions occur annually in Virginia. Eight states have limited such activities.

Such a prohibition would “hopefully send … some message to the broader community out there that we welcome hunters, we welcome fishers, we welcome wildlife folks that want to come and enjoy it, but let’s be careful about what we do,” said Keam. “If it’s wildlife management, absolutely. But if it’s just purely for the fun of shooting animals and then leaving the carcasses all around, that’s the thing that we’re trying to limit and reduce.” 

The idea faced opposition from not only hunting and agricultural groups, including Virginia Farm Bureau, but DWR itself, with Brown saying a three-month agency review of the issue had not led to any recommendations for changes to the current system. 

Edmunds sided with Democrats in supporting the bill, saying he “philosophically” had an issue with cash prizes being offered for the harvesting of non-nuisance animals. Nevertheless, the proposal died on a 3-3 vote.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.