Hounding Bears Hunting With Hounds May Become A Lost Art
Dale Denney had planned to join his bear hunters at 5 a.m. But the Colville hunting guide was asleep in a living room chair when the doorbell rang.
“Sorry,” he said, limping to the door in his bathrobe. “We were out until 2 a.m. trying to find a dog.”
The owner of Bearpaw Outfitters looked down at his swollen ankle. “I slid down a cliff. Didn’t get a bear. Never did find the dog.”
Californians Kathy Cho and Brian Kim, the two customers who had been with him during the 20-hour epic, were still asleep.
But a Western Washington hunter, who was dressed and ready, came in from the bunk house, slapped Denney on the shoulder an gave him a few 800 mg tablets of Motrin.
“We’ll go at 7,” Denney grinned, as his wife, Tara, started making breakfast for six hunters plus the Denney family of five.
Cho and Kim had paid $1,000 apiece to hunt black bears with Denney and the several guides he employs.
After five days, the acupuncturists from Los Angeles had seen a good chunk of the Colville National Forest, but no bears.
“I guarantee a hunter a chance to get a bear,” Denney said. “But that doesn’t mean you’ll do it on the first hunt. We’ll let them come back the next year if they don’t get a shot.”
This year, however, that guarantee might not hold up.
Voters could end hound hunting for bears in Washington and Idaho on Tuesday. Washington voters also could ban hound hunting for cougars.
Typically, Denney would take out 15 to 20 bear hunters in 50-day season. “This year, there’s no way to accommodate everyone who wants to hunt,” he said. “We’ve been fully booked for quite awhile.
“People see what’s coming. The anti-hunters are probably going to win because the majority of votes are in the cities.
“We’ve seen the political advertising they use to pass these initiatives,” Denney said. “They came up with video footage of a poaching ring from the South somewhere that let their dogs rip into a bear cub.”
Denney shook his head.
Propagandists can use videos to make any profession look bad, he said, “including motherhood and the priesthood.”
Denney started his hound-hunting guide service, Bearpaw Outfitters, in 1977.
“We got two bears that year, and I thought I was really something,” he said.
Although Washington sold 2,945 special hound-hunting licenses last year, most of them went to amateurs who hunt their dogs a few weekends a season. In northeastern Washington, Denney is one of only two regular hound-hunting outfitters.
“This isn’t like deer hunting,” he said. “You don’t just grab a rifle, hop in the pickup and go. It’s a huge investment in time and money.”
Denney keeps 15-20 hounds of various classic breeds, including Plotts, Black and Tans, Walkers and Blue Ticks.
“Dogs are like bears,” he said. “They’re all different. Some make good hunting hounds, some don’t.”
Denney’s son, Brian, is like most 10-year-olds, except that he bagged his first bear when he was 9. “Where the Red Fern Grows,” is in his video collection.
Now that his sister is in high school, it’s Brian’s job to work the young dogs by dragging a bear hide around the yard teaching them to trail.
Instinct, however, is what tells hounds to bark and bay constantly while they’re on the chase.
“Once the bear or cougar is treed, the dogs continue to bark,” Denney said. “That’s why they’re different from other dogs with good noses.”
Ironically, the wildlife experts who have the most to contribute to the debate about Washington’s Initiative 655 and Idaho’s Proposition 2, cannot legally enter the fray.
However, poring through a 275-page environmental impact statement (EIS) on black bear management in Washington gives some scientific insight to charges being leveled against hound hunters in the current campaigns.
First, Ursus americanus is thriving under current hunting season formats, not only in Washington, but throuhout the Pacific Northwest.
While the EIS was not written to address the viability or ethics of hound-hunting, portions of the document are specifically related.
For example, the document explains that:
Hunting is a humane way to ease the ebb and rise of certain wildlife populations. Nature’s alternative is starvation and cannibalism. Adult bears and lions kill the young of their own species to keep numbers in check.
Hunting helps reduce damage bears cause to livestock, private property and pets. Timber companies rely on spring hunting to help reduce damages some bears inflict on young trees by peeling the bark for the sugary nutrition inside.
Some problem bears are captured and relocated. However, this fails in more than 70 percent of the cases, as the bears die in transit or quickly cover 50 or 60 miles to return to the same area.
Researchers found that hound hunters tree a bear roughly 30 percent of the time they let their dogs loose on hot scent. The percentage of kills is lower, since hunters can avoid shooting sows with cubs or immature bears.
Studies based on inspection of radio-collared bears, show that black bears are not physically affected by chases from hounds.
Denney loaded his dogs into the back of his pickup and set out with hunters Cho and Kim. But after taking a call on his cellular phone, he took a detour before driving into the forest.
“I got a call from somebody who’s got Jethro - the dog we lost last night,” he said, noting that his name and telephone number is clearly marked on each dog’s collar.
“The dog came out of the woods and showed up at a farm house. I asked the man to tie him up in the yard, but he said he didn’t have to. Jethro’s in the house sleeping in the living room.”
Hunters doubtless will continue to kill hundreds of bears a year even if hound hunting is banned.
Most of the bears taken in Washington already are killed by hunters who do not have hounds. They drive logging roads or use binoculars to watch avalanche slopes and huckleberry patches where bears are likely to prowl.
Or they buy a tag in case they luck into one while hunting deer or elk.
But a ban on hound hunting will reduce the number of cougars taken by sport hunters but about 85 percent, wildlife managers say.
Since Washington went to a permit system for hunting cougars in 1987, sport hunters have killed 1,213 cougars. Only three of them were taken without the help of hounds.
Based on the experience of Oregon, which banned hound hunting for cougars in 1994, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department officials expect to field more complaints of cougars threatening humans and livestock.
“Following the passage of Measure 18 in Oregon, cougar complaints and nuisance and damage activity increased 37 percent in one year,” said Dave Brittel, Washington’s assistant wildlife director.
Agency officials would not speculate on whether there will be more cougar attacks on humans if I-655 is passed.
Attacks by cougars on humans in the West were virtually unheard of from the 1920s through the 1960s. But in recent years, as cougar numbers have increased and more humans probe into cougar habitat, attacks have become an annual event.
Although a mother and daughter were victims of a cougar attack in King County in 1977, the victims in the five most recent incidents in Washington were all children.
Proponents of measures to ban hound and bait hunting say the practices are inhumane and unethical.
Opponents of the measures say these are emotional issues that cloud the more important concepts of taking away tools used by wildlife managers.
Steve Pozzanghera, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department carnivore expert, said that in the long run, it’s unlikely that Initiative 655 will result in fewer bears or cougars being killed by humans each year.
In California, where sport hunting for cougars has been banned since 1972, more cougars are killed annually in documented damage incidents that were ever killed in a sport hunting season.
In addition, wildlife officials know that landowners illegally kill cougars and bears on the spot without a permit to protect their animals, children or property.
“But as to what level or extent, we have no way of telling,” Pozzanghera said.
If hound hunting is banned, the state will have to come up with other alternatives for responding to damage complaints.
Alternatives include longer general seasons, early or spring bear seasons, hired guns to officially dispatch problem animals and issuing damage or nuisance permits directly to landowners.
Currently, bears and cougars taken under these permits are confiscated by the state and destroyed.
“That’s a needless waste,” Denney said. “The way it works now, hunters pay the state to do the dirty work. Then virtually every bear and cougar taken by a hunter goes to the butcher for processing and to the taxidermist for mounting.”
The economic fallout should I-655 pass in Washington, could cost Washington’s rural communities nearly a million dollars a year, according to figures compiled by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department.
Pat Scott doesn’t argue the numbers.
“Cougars and bears make up about a third of my business,” said Scott, a taxidermist in Colville. “That’s our bread and butter. Deer hunters outnumber bear and cougar hunters, but virtually everyone who hunts a bear or cougar wants some sort of mount.
“Hunters who travel from outside the area will leave their animal with me because it’s more convenient than packing a bloody carcass to a taxidermist back in a city.”
The average cost to mount a deer head is $250, Scott said. “But a bear or cougar runs $800-$1,000 for full mounts. They’re the big-ticket items.
“It’s frustrating to think I’m going to lose that much of business and have no say in the matter. When wildlife agents have to kill these nuisances animals, the hides will go into a dump.”
Once in the forest, Denney chained five of his dogs to a platform on the back of his truck.
They rode there, noses high and ears flapping in the wind, as the outfitter slowly drove logging roads.
“They’ll start barking if we drive across fresh scent,” Denney said.
For half a day, the dogs rode without so much as a woof.
“I’ll drive about 15,000 miles in a bear season,” the outfitter said. “Sometimes I’ll go a couple hundred miles without a strike.
“Even when you get a strike, you never know. Dogs can be fooled by getting on older tracks.”
He pointed to Lucky, a 4-year-old Plott he considers his best strike dog.
“She’s worth $3,000-$5,000,” he said. “She’ll be the first dog I put out if they get a scent. We call that a strike. If she gets a hot scent, then I’ll let the other dogs go.”
But bears are good at circling and zig-zagging to mess up the scent trail and lose even the best dogs, he said.
“That’s probably what happened to Jethro yesterday.
“We’ll just keep driving.”
Shortly after that, the dogs erupted in a hound hunter’s symphony.
Denney stopped the pickup and unchained Lucky. The dog ran down the road, made skidding turn and plunged downhill into the forest.
“That’s a good sign,” Denney said.
The other dogs were released, and the race was on.
Cho and Kim smiled uncomfortably. “He said this could be quick,” Kim said. “But we know we could be here all night.”
As the hunters drove and stopped, drove and stopped, trying to follow the song of the dogs racing through the forest, Denney responded to some of the charges made by the proponents of an initiative to ban the use of hounds for hunting bears and cougars:
Is hound hunting cruel?
“Dogs are used to tree their prey, not to kill it. We have too much time and money invested in these dogs to risk letting them fight with a bear.”
Is hound hunting inhumane?
Having a bear up a tree gives you time to pick your shot. No other type of hunter has a better record for quick, clean, painless kills than hound hunters.
“We also can be very selective. You get a bear in a tree and you can tell a sow with cubs. If it’s been suckled that year, there’s no hair around their nipples.”
Is hound hunting high-tech?
“We put radio collars on our dogs to give us a better chance of finding all the dogs before dark. They can get lost.
“Sometimes the race might take the dogs into another drainage and out of hearing. The radios can help put us on the right track, although the range might be less than a mile in hilly terrain.
“But once you get within a half mile of the dogs, it’s good old-fashioned barking that leads you to the game. It’s been that way for hundreds of years.”
Is hound-hunting fair?
“Just as fair as other hunting,” he said. Elk, deer and turkey hunters take advantage of the mating seasons, he noted. Bowhunters bleed their animals to death; bird hunters use dogs to point their pheasants; Waterfowl hunters use decoys to lure ducks and geese; fishermen bait their hooks.
“I’ve heard people complain about me guiding hunters, but those same people don’t think twice about chumming for salmon on a charterboat.
“Black bears are prolific. Salmon are endangered. Who’s the bad guy here?”
After losing track of the dogs several times, the hunters stopped and stood silently on the logging road.
Denney pointed to his ears. “I hear them,” he said. A moment later he said, “They’re staying in one spot. They’ve got one treed.”
This was to be Cho’s bear, so she and Kim took only one rifle. Denney slipped on his backpack, and the hunters plunged down into tangles of brush, slipping, sliding toward the ever-louder baying of the dogs.
“You’re rifle’s unloaded?” Denney asked.
“Yes, unloaded,” said Kim.
“We’re lucky,” Denney said after 20 minutes of bushwacking. “This one’s close to the road.”
The bear was in a huge ponderosa pine calmly looking down at the dogs when the hunters arrived.
“Do you see any cubs?” Denney asked the hunters. Looking closely at the bear, he said, “We can take it.”
But the bear climbed higher in the tree as Denney began tying off the dogs. Then it started jumping from tree to tree. Perhaps feeling surrounded by so many people below, the bear started coming down so fast that pine bark was flying.
Denney lunged after the two remaining unrestrained dogs, yanked them away from the tree and yelled, “You’ll have to shoot now!”
Cho seemed to freeze for a moment. Kim quickly but calmly took the .30-06, stepped away from a branch and killed the bear.
No one cheered.
The dogs stopped barking.
Quiet congratulaions were shared.
Then the hard work began as Denney called other guides on his portable radio for assistance in field dressing and dragging out the bear.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Color Photos; 2 Graphics: Panhandle bear hunt; Washington harvest data