By Shawn Perich
Some things stick with you. When I was a kid – grade school age — I remember seeing a pile of four or five dead dogs at a wayside overlook along Highway 23 south of Duluth. They’d been unceremoniously dumped there by state game wardens, who shot them for chasing deer in Jay Cooke State Park. The dogs were able to run on the frozen March snow and catch deer, whose sharp hooves broke through the crust.
As I recall, we’d heard about dogs chasing deer near the park on the news. Jay Cooke was one of my father’s favorite places, so we’d taken a Sunday drive through the park and happened upon the dead dogs. A couple of the dogs looked like German shepherds or huskies. The others were medium-sized dogs that looked like family pets.
I hadn’t thought about those dogs until talking recently with Gerald Hanson, who hunts Minnesota coyotes with an American foxhound and is a member of the Minnesota Trailhound Assoication. He is concerned about a long-standing law in the Minnesota and Trapping Regulations booklet, which reads: “No persons may allow their dog to chase or kill big game.
Between January 1 and July 14, a dog that is observed wounding, killing,
or pursuing in a way that endangers big game may be killed by any person.
A peace officer or conservation officer may kill a dog that endangers big
game at any time of the year. The officer or person is not liable for damages
for killing the dog.”
Hanson wants to close this public “dog season” and leave the lethal control of dogs to law enforcement officers. Hound hunters are often out of sight of their dogs as they legitimately trail coyotes, foxes, raccoons or bobcats. He worries that hunting hounds are vulnerable to being shot by someone who may assume they are chasing deer.
“A member of the public doesn’t even have to report they shot a dog,” Hanson says. “The dog owner may never know what happened.”
The “dog season” has been on the books for decades. Hanson points out that during this time, big changes have occurred in Minnesota’s predator population. When the law was passed, the state had lots of red fox and a few wolves. Now coyotes and wolves dominate the landscape. Whitetails are familiar with these canine predators. And, in wolf country, fewer people allow their dogs to roam free because they are likely to be killed by wolves.
Hanson can’t provide statisitics about if or how often dogs are getting shot by members of the public. However, Minnesota DNR Enforcement Division director Ken Soring does have some numbers about how often conservation officers file reports regarding dogs chasing deer. He says complaints about dogs chasing deer most often happen at this time of year. Usually, the officer can determine where the dogs are coming from and then contact the owner, perhaps issuing a ticket. Soring provided me with the following data:
Documented contacts for dogs chasing big-game:
Warning Civil Citation
2013 1 4
2012 8 1
2011 8 15
As far as conservation officers shooting dogs, Soring says, “It is extremely rare for an officer to shoot a dog.” He can recall a northeastern Minnesota case from the early 2000s that received media attention after a conservation officer killed two dogs.
Although it is unlawful for a member of the public to shoot a dog for chasing deer between July 14 and January 1, dogs are occasionaly killed by deer hunters. Last November, a black Lab named Daisy belonging to Tim Yotter of Day (near Olgilvie) and her pup, named Maggie, belonging to one of his friends, were shot by a deer hunter after they wandered off a property he rents for farming. Yotter and his friend confronted the hunting party in order to get the bodies of their dogs returned to them. He was so upset with the incident that he reported it to the county sheriff. The hunter was charged with animal cruelty. The case is still pending.
“It’s frustrating,” Yotter says of his experience. “I get it that dogs aren’t people, but they have a personality and are good to have around, especially when you live alone like I do.”
Like Hanson, Yotter believes the state-sanctioned “dog season” gives hunters and others who might be inclined to shoot a dog a reason do so, regardless of the time of year or if the dog is actually chasing deer. He, too, would like to see the rule change.
Since the law is a state statute, it is up to the Minnesota Lesgislature to make the change. Hanson asked his state representative, Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, to introduce legislation to do so. Rep. Newton replied via email that he is carrying the measure, but “The chair of the environment committee will not hear the bill.”
One group opposing the change is the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. In an email, exectuve director Mark John explained why. “MDHA is opposed to changing the current law,” he wrote. “To change current law provides virtually no chance for a deer-chasing dog to be stopped as it only allows law enforcement officers to shoot a dog that is chasing. During late winter, when dogs can run on top of the snow crust and deer plunge through, many people forget what affect that chase can have on pregnant does or winter stressed deer that manage to get away.”
No doubt Johnson represents a viewpoint shared by many of his deer-hunting members. But Hanson presents a valid challenge to that point of view. In the decades since the law was enacted, the role of dogs within our society has changed as people have come to treat them as companions. Today’s hunters invest hundreds, even thousand of dollards in their dogs. Even a mongrel may be a valued family pet.
Conservation officers appear capable of dealing with deer-chasing dogs using nonlethal means by finding the offending animal’s owner and issuing a citation if necessary. In contrast, allowing the general public to shoot dogs seems like an outmoded form of vigilantism. Perhaps it is time to close Minnesota’s “dog season.”