Keswick Hunting Club hounds with huntsman Paul WIlson. (Graham Moomaw / Virginia Mercury)
Virginia’s controversial “right to retrieve” law allowing hunters to go on other people’s property without permission to retrieve hunting dogs will remain on the books unchanged after two bills that would have slightly tweaked it failed in the Senate.
Both pieces of legislation were killed Tuesday by the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee.
House Bill 1331 from Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, would have prohibited anyone who racks up a trespassing conviction from exercising their right to retrieve for five years. House Bill 1344, also from Edmunds, would have required the hunter to attempt to notify a landowner prior to going onto their property to retrieve a dog if the property was posted with contact information.
“This is not the rural Virginia of 50 years ago. Land ownership is changing and has become much more fragmented,” Edmunds, himself an avid hunter, told the committee. “There is a higher sensitivity today for private property rights than in years past.”
Both bills were opposed by the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, the most vocal state group defending the right to retrieve.
John Morrison, an alliance member from Chesapeake, said the current law prohibits hunters from driving a vehicle or bringing a gun onto another person’s property to retrieve their dogs, and requires them to provide identification if asked by the landowner. Data collected by the group found that in 2021, only 14 summonses related to right to retrieve were issued.
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“Bottom line is, folks, I think the current code section is efficient,” he said. “It’s worked for years.”
The Virginia Property Rights Alliance, which includes in its official positions the statement that it “is past time for dog-deer hunting reform in Virginia,” supported the trespassing bill but said the notification bill didn’t go “far enough to protect property rights.”
“If our land is posted and we don’t want the trucks and we don’t want the hunters and the dogs and the guns and everything else that goes along with this great tradition, we are probably not going to want a call from somebody that we don’t know to remind us that there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Judge Charlton, a Charlotte County resident and alliance president.
Right to retrieve has become more and more contentious over the past decade in eastern Virginia, where hunters who continue to practice the tradition of hunting deer with dogs are increasingly coming into conflict with populations spilling into rural areas from more urban ones.
A 2016 report by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (then called the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) concluded that “trends of increased land development, reductions in forested parcel size, and decreased agricultural uses will undoubtedly continue to strain the compatibility of traditional hound hunting with changing cultural expectations.”
Some of that strain was evident in other unsuccessful bills this session from Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland, that sought to limit or prohibit the use of snare traps in Virginia. During a hearing in February, Ransone told lawmakers that in her district, some property owners were putting snare traps on their property not to catch nuisance species, but “with the intent to try to catch something else.”
Richmond County Sheriff Steve Smith testified during the same hearing that since 2018 two hunting dogs in his area had been killed by snare traps.
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