© October 2008 John Jeanneney
The politics of Tracking Dog Legalization never cease to amaze and confuse me. And I am supposed to be an expert, involved in this since 1976 when New York State permitted me to begin an experimental program. Now there are 17 states that have legalized leashed tracking dogs under various regulations. And of course some use of tracking dogs has existed in the South and in Texas, where states simply gave official recognition to an existing practice that had grown out of hunting tradition.
To a hunter from Georgia or Louisiana, it is hard to explain why there was initially such an uproar of opposition to what would seem to be a logical conservation activity. Europeans find this equally confusing. In much of Europe it is illegal to hunt big game UNLESS a tracking dog is available. In the United States, north of the Mason Dixon line, the closely held traditions of deer hunting developed in their own way. Back in the early 1900’s deer were all but wiped out. There were many factors involved, but hunting deer with dogs got most of the blame. In reaction, laws and regulations were passed stating that dogs were not to be involved with deer hunting in any way. These rules became articles of faith.
The success of the leashed tracking dog experiment in New York State led to a law and regulations establishing a licensed, closely regulated system in New York State. This turned out to be good public relations with the non-hunting public and did not lead to deer jacking cases by outlaws using tracking at night as a cover for poaching. The New York story went a long way toward opening the door in other states, where Fish and Game departments were open-minded to change.
Some states were holdouts, and the most notorious of these was Pennsylvania. It did not matter that the wheel had been invented and successfully used in other states. Pennsylvania would have to figure things out for itself, when the time was right. And of course the time was never right. There were always too many other issues catching fire on the front burner of the Game Commission’s political stove. The biggest of these issues, of course, were the introduction of antler restrictions and the heavier harvest of does in areas where the deer population had outgrown the browse supply in the woods where the under story had been stripped clean.
As the dust began to settle from the antler restriction wars, the Game Commission wanted to avoid any another issue that might be controversial. To brush aside the tracking dog annoyance they had an “expert” write a report maintaining that the presence of leashed tracking dogs in the woods would terrorize the deer and make hunting difficult. They chose to ignore all the experience with leashed tracking dogs that had been gained in other states. They raised other theoretical possibilities of what might go wrong in Pennsylvania, even though no such problems had arisen in other Northeastern states.
In Pennsylvania the Game Commission and the State Legislature are not always on the best of terms, but the House of Representatives cooperated with the Commission in keeping two enabling bills bottled up in Committee until they died a silent death.
Contributing to the problem of getting tracking dog legislation passed in Pennsylvania were the policies of the sportsmen’s lobbies. They were reluctant to stick their necks out. For example United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania did shift from a position of neutrality to one of “support”, but they did not take a public stand and lobby for it. As in many other states, bow hunters in Pennsylvania feared that overt support for leashed tracking dogs would be bad PR. “You bowhunters are such lousy shots that you have to call for a dog to find your deer.”
In 2008 Pennsylvania, with nearly a million deer hunters, is the major holdout of the leashed tracking dog movement. If you are a Pennsylvania resident and this situation troubles you, contact Andy Bensing from Reading, who is President of United Blood Trackers (610-926-7778). To win in Pennsylvania, Andy knows that concentrated pressure from outside the system will be required. The Game Commission and the Legislature seem unlikely to move on their own.
Where are the anti-hunters in all this? This time they are not the troublemakers. In all of the 17 legal states organized anti-hunters never tried to block a leashed tracking dog bill. One of these antis told me, off the record, “Tracking dogs make deer hunting a little less bad. Until we outlaw hunting, we’ll leave you tracking dog guys alone.”
United Blood Trackers never expected to see much progress in New Jersey, Pennsylvania’s neighbor to the east. For a long time the official position of New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife was that they didn’t have any wounded deer. Check Station searches with metal detectors had demonstrated that wounded deer were not a problem in New Jersey! This was not very good science, but it was a good political way to hold off the anti-hunters in a state where they are very aggressive.
The UBT leadership was amazed to learn recently that even New Jersey is advancing past Pennsylvania in investigating the feasibility of using leashed tracking dogs. Under special permits a small number of trackers and their dogs will be used to find any wounded deer shot in controlled hunts on certain designated areas of New Jersey. The man who had the right combination of contacts and diplomatic skills to get this moving is John Hoinowski, owner of a Catahoula tracking dog. John attended the United Blood Trackers Trackfest last spring and fed off the enthusiasm of that event.
The door has been opened just a crack in New Jersey. It sounds a good deal like the opening that came in New York State back in 1976.
List of 17 states that have legalized the use of leashed tracking dogs to find wounded big game: Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin.