On Jan. 3, the Utah Wildlife Board approved changes to the state’s Black Bear Management Plan, and also agreed to have the Division of Wildlife Resources review language governing “pursuit” seasons, in which hound hunters train their dogs by chasing and treeing bears, but don’t kill the bears. The changes fall short of requests in a December letter from the Grand County Commission to the DWR. In addition to specific revisions intended to clarify and strengthen existing regulations, Grand County recommended a reduction of the maximum number of hounds allowed in a pursuit; the elimination of the fall pursuit season; and the elimination of permits for nonresidents. However, the agency and advocates for change are aligned in wishing to strengthen and clarify pursuit policies.
Grand County officials became particularly concerned about regulations surrounding black bear pursuits after a 2018 incident in the La Sal Mountains. William Tyler Wood, an out-of-state houndsman, was pursuing bears in the La Sals along with a Utah resident who had a permit. The two allowed their dogs to chase a bear to exhaustion and harass it; they then put the exhausted bear in a box meant to hold dogs; later, Wood reportedly released the bear and pursued it again.
The hunters were convicted of misdemeanors, but Wood was acquitted of a felony charge of wanton destruction of wildlife. DWR officials have shown interest in strengthening language to make it easier for prosecutors to get a conviction in cases where a hunter clearly violates the spirit of the regulations.
“The felony was important because it’s an automatic suspension of hunting license across the country,” said former County Attorney Christina Sloan, who got involved in the case while serving as county attorney and is continuing to work with the DWR on the recommended language changes. Under the misdemeanor conviction, Wood’s Utah hunting licenses are suspended for three years.
The purpose of “pursuit” or “training” seasons is to allow hound hunters to keep their dogs trained, even when they don’t draw a permit to harvest a game animal, explained Darren DeBloois, game mammals coordinator for the DWR. Hounds are used to hunt both bears and cougars. The practice is controversial, and has been banned in many states; in others, it’s a cherished sport.
In bear pursuits, DeBloois said, usually a hunter has a mix of experienced dogs and new dogs who learn from the veteran hounds. The dogs are released to follow a scent until they find the bear; the dogs have the advantage in the chase, DeBloois said, and the bear usually retreats up into a tree.
“Then you pull your dogs, and you’re done with that bear,” DeBloois said. Hunters are supposed to call their dogs off the chase as soon as the bear is “at bay.” The definition of that term is one point that Grand County asked be clarified, so that it’s obvious when a hunter has continued pursuit or harassment beyond that point.
“This person certainly violated the intent of the rule,” DeBloois said, in reference to the Wood case. Video of the incident shows a large group of dogs lunging and nipping at a bear that’s too depleted to flee or defend itself.
Some critics say the use of hounds in hunting violates ethics of “fair chase,” a concept important to hunters and wildlife managers; advocates of hound hunting say that when practiced well, it’s not cruel, and that it’s the most effective way to manage predators. Livestock owners often support having an effective way to keep predators in check, as bears occasionally kill sheep, especially lambs. Sometimes, DeBloois said, the DWR relies on local houndsmen to help the agency deal with problem animals—for example, a bear that’s habitually coming into residential neighborhoods can be treed, sedated, and moved away from areas where it could come into conflict with people.
The parameters of what’s fair in hunting evolve along with public opinion, technology, wildlife populations, habitat and other factors.
While there’s debate around the ethics of hound hunting, the Wildlife Board agreed there would be value in reviewing the wording of pursuit regulations. Assistant Attorney General Kyle Maynard, who advises the DWR, has met with Sloan and Grand County Commissioner Trisha Hedin, and is working on tightening definitions within that policy with the goal of making the rules more clear for hunters and for juries considering alleged violations. The revised policy will likely be considered by the Wildlife Board at the end of 2023.
Other requested changes
Grand County’s letter asked for various other changes, including that the number of hounds allowed in a chase be reduced from a maximum of 16 to eight. The limit of 16 was imposed following the 2018 incident in the La Sals, and officials at the Jan. 3 Wildlife Board meeting said they felt that number was appropriate; others say it’s still too high, and can create a chaotic situation both for the animal being pursued and for other recreators in the area, including other hunters.
Sloan also advocates for the elimination of the fall pursuit season. Fall is when bears are busy fattening up before hibernating for the winter, and if they’re stressed during that time it can affect their health and ability to survive the winter, she said. Even if the bears make it through the winter, they may not be strong enough to produce healthy cubs, thus threatening the health of the population.
That’s difficult to verify—DeBloois said it’s difficult for wildlife managers to get accurate counts of bear populations.
“They’re hard to count; they’re secretive,” he said. The DWR partners with Utah State University in monitoring bears with game cameras. The agency also collects data on bears harvested by hunters—they can determine the age of the bear using its teeth—and using statistical modeling, they can project an estimated population.
While the numbers are imprecise, DeBloois said the data does indicate that the bear population is growing across the state, including in the La Sals.
Grand County also recommended that nonresident permits for pursuit hunting be eliminated, and that all participants in a hunt be required to have a permit, to avoid leaving a loophole for nonresidents to join a permit-holding resident. As hound pursuits are banned in other states—for example, Colorado doesn’t allow hunting bears with hounds—people living in those states are drawn to places where it is still legal, like Utah. Wood, the defendant in the 201228 La Sals case, is a resident of Florida and trains hunting hounds as a business.
Most of Grand County’s recommendations were not included in the approved black bear management plan. However, the Wildlife Board did vote to keep a mandatory educational course that’s required for hunters to get a permit—that requirement was up for reconsideration, and one of Grand County’s recommendations was to keep it.
The new management plan makes some changes to bear bait hunting rules: it allows hunters using bait to hunt over another bait hunter’s site, with permission. The use of chocolate in bait is prohibited in the updated plan, and the DWR relaxed a requirement that bait site locations be approved before issuing a certificate of registration. The fall bait hunting season was eliminated so it no longer overlaps with the hound hunting season (which is a different season than the pursuit season).
The plan can be revised at any time, but it’s reviewed at the end of the year; there may be new changes in 2024.