Opinion: How bear hounding impacts the New Hampshire landscape

By DONNA DI CASPARRO

Published: 06-23-2023 6:00 AM

Donna Di Casparro has been a publisher in the Lakes Region for over 30 years. Her work has highlighted life in rural New Hampshire: the culture, people, traditions, and history. Now retired, her writing and research is focused on sustaining healthy ecosystems and the value of our wildlife.

On a warm summer morning as soft light begins to filter through branches of towering white pines, a bear and two cubs quietly saunter through an open field foraging for insects, nuts and berries.

A slow pace is necessary to handle the heat, temperatures are on the rise. Occasionally the cubs mimic their mother, standing on their hind legs to look over the land. The sow lifts her nose catching a scent in the air, all along watching for danger. She is there to protect her young. Soon, six baying hounds will be heading in her direction, forcing her to run with cubs in tow trying to escape the inevitable.

The New Hampshire landscape would not be complete without the American black bear. To visitors and residents alike, seeing a bear in the wild is a cherished experience. While hunting bears may be necessary for population control, the use of dogs to hunt bears is “sport” that continues to challenge “fair chase” values, leading numerous states to ban hound-hunting (aka hounding).

Critics of hounding claim it not only gives hunters an unfair advantage over the bear, the practice negatively impacts the physiological aspects of the animal in pursuit. Free-running dogs can potentially threaten and cause unwarranted stress to all other species they encounter.

Training season begins in the heat of the summer, a notoriously lean time for bears that have reemerged from hibernation a few months prior. With training and hunting seasons back-to-back, the harassment of black bears spans nearly six months out of the year.

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With the use of up to six strong and agile hounds, a black bear is chased for miles to exhaustion where it is treed or cornered. During hunting season, a bear treed can be taken, even if it is a sow with cubs.

Since it is legal to kill a sow in New Hampshire, any cubs orphaned will have a low survival rate. Abandoned cubs are likely to be taken by predators, die from starvation, or suffer from a weakened immune system from blood loss due to ticks. Without the presence of their mother to groom them, cubs can be overrun with parasites causing anemia and seizures.

Bear harvest in New Hampshire indicates there are more females killed as a result of hounding than there are males. (NH Fish and Game, 2022)

Dogs outfitted with GPS collars can be tracked from miles away. Although these electronic devices facilitate the hounders keeping track of their dogs’ location, increasing the distance between the handler and the dogs makes it difficult to control unforeseen issues. Since New Hampshire law does not require dogs to be within sight at all times, handlers may be unaware of conflicts with pets, livestock, or other wildlife species, or whether hounds have traveled onto posted land.

Well-documented studies show the physiological impact of hounding significantly challenges their overall well-being and survival. While the added stress and energy expenditure resulting from fleeing hounds impacts the well-being of all bears, sows still nursing cubs born that winter are at greater risk since they have depleted fat reserves from nursing. Researchers further conclude, if an adult female bear is frequently disturbed by hounds, she loses weight and condition which may alter her reproductive success. Bears use more energy running than other mammals.

According to a study conducted by the International Association For Bear Research, black bears are vulnerable to heat stress and hyperthermia during the summer months because of their dark fur, subcutaneous fat layer, and lack of functioning sweat glands.

As stewards of our wildlife, it is our responsibility to protect the well-being of the bear, the sows, and nursing cubs, as well as non-target wildlife which hounding jeopardizes.

Of equal concern, an increasing number of New Hampshire landowners are affected by dogs chasing bears. The chase can pass through numerous properties, compromising private lands that can ultimately lead to criminal trespassing. Even if land is posted with “No Trespassing” or “No Trespassing With Bear Dogs,” signs, during hounding season landowners find they have to secure their pets and livestock at all times. The unpredictability of an encounter with either the bear or a pack of dogs offers no other solution to landowners potentially impacted by this practice.

Looking forward, it is time to embrace the conservation principles that reflect the current values of our society, including good sportsmanship, fair chase, and prioritizing the landowner’s right to not have their land, pets, and livestock overrun by unsupervised hounds.

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