Politics

The Deeper Dig: Could activists end hound hunting?

Jake Merrill, from left, Michael Jolley and Butch Spear head back to their truck after their hounds treed a bear cub in Peacham on Sept. 17. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Opponents of hound hunting in Vermont have spent this fall ramping up their calls for the state to restrict the practice. And while it’s too soon to tell if they’ll be successful, their tactics have brought statewide attention to what was once a niche hunting technique.

In early September, Morgan Gold, owner of Gold-Shaw Farm in Peacham, taped an encounter with Butch Spear, president of the Vermont Bearhound Association. Gold took issue with Spear’s hunting on his property — and was shocked to learn that the practice was perfectly legal.

Gold and other landowners are concerned the practice infringes on their property rights, and wildlife advocates say it traumatizes animals. Hounders argue it’s both a useful tool for wildlife management and a Vermont tradition. 

Gold’s video was followed by a petition to change the hound hunting laws in Vermont. He’s garnered more than 100,000 signatures. During the next legislative session, lawmakers will consider two bills that could change the future of hound hunting in Vermont forever. 

On this week’s podcast, Spear, Gold and others weigh in on the controversy. Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.


Grace Benninghoff: About a month ago this video went viral on TikTok. It was made by a farmer in Peacham, Vermont named Morgan Gold. Morgan has more than a million followers on TikTok, and a few hundred thousand on YouTube. People tune in mostly for funny, lighthearted videos. He’ll attach go-pros to his dog or cat to see what they do all day; other times, he’ll post farming tips. 

But on September 6th, he made a video that turned out to be really controversial. 

In the video, a pickup truck pulls into Morgan’s driveway and this guy gets out. He has a long white beard, wire-rim glasses and a rust-red jacket. He flashes a hunting license and says… 

Butch Spear: This is who I am, and what I’m about. Uh, we got some hounds that are treeing. 

This guy is Butch Spear, he’s a retired carpenter, a grandfather several times over, and he’s also president of the Vermont Bearhound Association. Pretty much as soon as Butch starts speaking Morgan tells him to get off his property.

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A TikTok video by farmer Morgan Gold added fuel to a contentious debate over hound hunting.

Morgan Gold: I’d ask you guys to leave the property right now.

Butch Spear: Uh well, all right. 

Morgan Gold: Leave the property right now, please. 

Butch Spear: Uh OK. 

Butch Spear asks if he can retrieve his dogs and go

Butch Spear: So, would it be sensible enough to say we could go in and get our dogs and get the hell outta there? 

So the first time I watched this, I was a little lost. I wasnt clear if Butch Spear’s dogs had run away, or if they’d been released on Morgan’s property on purpose. But I’d find out pretty quickly. 

Butch Spear: If we release my dogs 6, 7 miles from here and they end up — and the bear runs this way, they’re doin’ what they’re taught to do...

Morgan decides to allow Butch to go get his dogs, but he asks to accompany him. As the men hike through the woods together, ducking under tree branches and flattening green ferns, we learn that hunting laws in Vermont say what Butch Spear did — letting his dogs loose to chase after a bear — is perfectly legal.

Morgan Gold: When you have the tracker, you’re a couple of miles away from where you set loose your dogs. You’re not actually in control of your animal.

Butch Spear: According to state law, we are. 

Meanwhile, Morgan makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t want hounds — or hunting — on his land. 

Morgan Gold: I don't want somebody on my property hunting. So, as a private property owner, shouldn't I have the ability to do that?

Butch Spear: Well, yes and no. 

Eventually, they reach a clearing where a pack of hounds has chased a black bear up a tree. The bear is balanced between branches, looking down at the howling dogs.

Butch and the rest of his hunting party leash their hounds, and the bear scampers down the tree and runs away. Words flash over the final seconds of footage: “Help stop hound hunting on private farms and woodlots. Sign our petition.”

Morgan’s campaign to stop hounding in Vermont didn’t start with Butch, but that TikTok did help draw attention to it. After the video went viral, he got more than 100,000 signatures on his petition. Then, a counter-petition popped up. That one got 6,000 signatures. The video set in motion calls to public officials, media coverage, and harassment. For both Morgan and Butch.

But to really understand how one video catapulted a niche hunting technique into statewide controversy, we have to start at the beginning. 

What is hounding? 

Hounding has been around for centuries, which is often one of the first things a hounder like Butch will tell you about the sport. 

Butch Spear, right, tracks his hounds with GPS collars as the dogs follow the scent of a bear. Spear and his party followed the hounds by truck and on foot. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Butch Spear: In years past, every farm had a hound dog. Down south, they chase deer with hounds, mountain lions, bear. It is a recreation. It is a sport. A lot of it’s done for the meat. 

When I started reporting on this issue, I’d never heard of bearhounding—or any type of hound hunting for that matter—so I decided to go out with Butch and his friends, and see what it was all about.  

I met up with Butch at his home in Newbury, Vermont, a small town in the northeast kingdom at 5:30 a.m.

It was still dark and my photographer Glenn Russell and I climbed into the back of a silver pickup truck. Butch rode shotgun, and Mike Jolley — an 17-year-old hounder who hunts with Butch Spear a few times a week— did the driving. Another truck followed, with Harold Carleton and Jake Merrill, two bearhounding friends of Butch’s.  

There was a cooler of homemade iced tea on the seat next to me, and a pistol on the dashboard. Mike told me he had a rifle stashed under the driver’s seat. A wooden kennel filled the entire bed of the truck, where six dogs poked their heads out of large holes labeled with their names.

Butch Spear: Lil’ Sis is so little she’s named Lil’ Sis. 

Grace Benninghoff: So Rebel was ‘cus he was on the outside of the litter of puppies? 

Butch Spear: The litter of puppies he’d stay on the outside, so he was kind of a rebel to the cause, ya know? Dawg’s just Dawg but Sis was Lil’ Sis, she was a little puppy and a female. And Girl, Lil’ Girl is a mother but her name is PR Hardrock Ugly, is her registered name. 

Grace Benninghoff: PR Hardrock Ugly? 

Butch Spear: I didnt name her that, and I aint gonna make her go through life bein’ Hardrock Ugly. 

The day started off with a lot of slow driving. We meandered down back roads so the dogs wouldn’t miss a scent.  

And while we drove, we chatted. Butch told us about his grandkids, his days as a carpenter, and everything in between.

Butch Spear: She said, ‘Would you mind cutting me a piece of cheese?’ I says, ‘No, I don't mind a bit.’ Took my knife, stabbed it, she goes ‘thank you.’ And she almost got it to her mouth and I says ‘long as you don’t mind where my knife’s been.’ ‘I may have cut some sheetrock with it in this house,  may have stripped some wires with it, I may have cut insulation, I may have trimmed my fingernails, I may have castrated some pigs with it.’ She goes, ‘You what?!’

Sometimes we puttered down gravel roads, other times we veered off onto farmland and circled cornfields. The idea was to get the dogs somewhere a bear might have recently been. A cornfeld is a pretty safe bet, because bears eat corn. In fact, farmers in the Northeast Kingdom run into problems with bears eating their crops every year. It was probably only 6:30 or so when we were driving along the perimeter of a dewey cornfield. 

And then … the dogs started barking. But this bark was different from the regular yipping and howling that had been coming from the bed of the truck all morning. 

A hound is released from the back of a truck with others to pursue the scent of a bear. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Butch Spear: We listen for their bear bark, which is usually a deeper, stronger, longer bark than a normal bark, so it’s gettin’ used to the dog—like that right there is just barkin’ for some reason they wanted to bark—when it is a bear, they will tell you and you will know. It's just totally different. 

As the dogs howled from the back of the truck it became pretty clear they were on a track. We all hopped out of the truck and circled around back. Mike and Butch unhooked the dogs one by one from their posts in the truck bed, then—after telling me to stand back—they opened the kennel. 

The six dogs — Joe, Dawg, Clutch, Echo, Lil Sis and Lil Girl — shot out of the back of the truck and into the woods, but even long after they’d disappeared, their barks were still echoing from somewhere deep in the trees. 

Butch Spear: Six different personalites, attitudes, voices — when they really get it warmed up hot, that’s all you hear. 

The dogs all wore chunky collars around their necks, which turned out to be GPS collars. To be clear, all that means is that hounders can track the location of their dogs. They can't shock them, or send them signals, or control where the dogs go. A s their barks faded into the woods, Butch Spear was intently focused on his GPS tracker. 

Butch Spear: They’re 550 from us, they’re comin’ back this way again, but they’re right dead between the two roads. They’ve been face to face with it a couple of times. 

Harold Carleton: Yeah, we noticed 40 barks a minute. 

Grace: Did you say 40 barks a minute?

Butch Spear: Yeah. 

Grace: Oh, so you're counting their barks per minute?

Butch Spear: This GPS tracking device will count their. … It tells us how fast they're barking and that tells us how excited they are, which means they might be lookin’ as close as you and I at each other.

Butch explained how he’s come to understand that different tones and speeds of barks mean something different for each dog. He’s gotten good at communicating with them. 

Butch Spear: I got one old dog, he’ll sit there: boo, boo, boo, half the time can’t hear me. He’s 9 years old, going on 10 — course that’s the next number up, isn’t it.  *laughter* But, uh, no, we got a couple dogs that, you can't count ‘em. One of my old dogs that died last spring, I counted 130 barks per minute, and I'm sure I missed some of them. But he said: ruf, ruf, ruf, ruf, ruf. And I could hear him a mile away.  

With GPS trackers in hand, we hopped back in the truck and gunned it out of the cornfield,

Butch Spear: They’re after the bear, they are barking stll.

Mike Jolley: Yeah.

Butch Spear: We need to get ahead of ‘em so they don’t cross the road.

As we sped along the back roads of the Northeast Kingdom Butch Spear diligenty tracked the dogs, perodically calling out how far away they were. 

Butch Spear: They’re 450 yards away.

Pretty quickly we pulled the truck over on the shoulder of the road, where Butch Spear and Mike thought the dogs — and bear — would be headed. 

Grace Benninghoff: Yeah, I can definitely hear them. 

Butch was right. A few moments later, a mother bear and her cub crossed the road, just yards away from us. Butch Spear grabbed his digital camera and snapped a photo of the muddy pawprints the bears left on the road. 

Butch Spear: Just saw a sow bear and cub go across the road, because we’re not gonna kill, definitely, we don’t need to run ’em anymore ‘cus we’ve seen ‘em. We’re gonna catch our dogs if we can when they come to the road, so we stop harassing that bear and cub. But I think that was kinda cool, watchin ‘em cross the road. We do have firearms in the truck but unless its a large, very large bear, we would not be killin today. And I gotta interrupt because I wanna make sure we catch him.  

Butch and Mike rushed to intercept Dawg the dog as he raced out of the woods toward the road.

Butch Spear: Grab him by the tail or whatever you gotta do. 

Mike Jolley: Dawg, Dawg, Dawg! 

Butch Spear: Dawg! Dawg! Good boy!

Next, they had to determine where the other five dogs were. 

Butch Spear: Grab one of them trackers, see if anybody else is close, please!

Mike Jolley: Nah, they're all treein’. I wonder if she had another cub.

Butch Spear: ‘Nother cub? All right, so everybody else is up there? 

Mike Jolley: Yup.

So, we started heading in the direction of the dogs, all the while watching the tracking device to see if they’d moved. 

Butch Spear: There he is, see? 

Grace Benninghoff: Oh yeah, cool. 

Butch Spear: That’s tellin’ me they either got a bear in the tree and theyre sitting there looking at it, or they might be on a ledge and they’re looking uphill. When they raise their head up, it turns a signal on in this collar and it tells us they've stopped, they're looking up, more than likely there's a bear in the tree.

The graphics on the tracking devices look sort of like an early 2000s computer game. The map shows basic topography of the area and a little red animated dog flashes against a sparse background. It’s raising its head to look up again and again, in a simple animation. I have the very millennial impulse to click on it or drag it to another part of the map. But of course, that’s not possible. The only way to bring the dogs back is to hike in and get them.  

Butch Spear: They’re right dead in the middle, so we’re gonna have to walk about 700 yards.

Grace Benninghoff: OK. 

Mike Jolley: Well, you don’t think coming off.. 

Butch Spear: Jefferson Hill Road? Maybe would be a little closer? We’ll try it.

The truck turned down a bumpy dirt road and we parked near an empty barn. This farm, Butch Spear explained, was owned by someone he knew, someone who didnt mind hounding on their property. 

Butch Spear: I’ve always had permission, so I, I have not spoke to them this year, but they have never refused me.

Grace Benninghoff: Yeah, like you know they're OK with it? 

Butch Spear: Oh yeah. 

Butch and I tromped through tall grass and pushed aside tree branches,

Grace Benninghoff: I think I hear them. 

Butch Spear: Oh we can hear them, oh yeah. 

We sloshed through ankle-deep mud and ducked under hanging moss. Sticks snapped under our boots. The sound of the dogs barking got louder and louder as we walked. 

Grace Benninghoff: I think I hear them.

Butch Spear: We can hear ‘em, oh yeah. 

Harold Carleton leashes one of his dogs who chased a sow and one cub across a road (where their paw prints are visible) as other dogs treed another cub while bearhounding. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

We came to a thick cluster of trees where all five dogs stood around a pine tree, barking up at something. 

Butch Spear: Oh yeah, see that little black spot right up on that limb?

Jake Merrill: In the big cross of the tree.

Grace Benninghoff: Oh, maybe. 

Jake Merrill: There's a little branch like this big, he’s laying in between it. 

Grace Benninghoff: Oh yeah, yeah.  

Jake Merrill: See it? 

Butch Spear: Yeah, he just moved his head. 

Grace Benninghoff: So, that's a little one? 

Sure enough, a bear was high up the tree, balanced in the crook of two branches. 

Grace Benninghoff: So the bear’s just hanging out in the tree — he’s a cub — and he’s just kind of sitting up in the tree looking down at us.

After about five minutes of snapping pictures and milling around, we rounded up the dogs and headed back to the truck. 

Butch Spear: Dog! Good dog! Good boy, good girl! Good girl, yes you are! Good girl.  

We didn’t see any more bears that day but we drove around for a few more hours, sometimes getting out to walk the dogs around a cornfield, where they could pick up a track. But mostly we ambled slowly down dirt roads, listening for that specifically deep bear bark. `

The thing that really struck me about bearhounding with Butch and Mike — aside from the novelty of seeing three bears and a pack of highly trained hounds in action — was Butch and Mike’s friendship. The two men have nearly a 50-year age gap, but they spend days together every week. In fact, all four of the men we went hounding with were from different generations. Butch is a baby boomer. Harold is Generation X. Jake is a millennial. And Mike is Gen Z. 

Mike Jolley: It always amazes me, you sit back and you listen — I'm not gonna call Butch older — but an older hunter or just an older person and I just love hearing what they have to say. You can learn so much, so much just by sitting back and listening. I mean, you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. And, I’ve learned a lot just by listening. 

The respect and admiration between Butch and Mike is mutual. 

Butch Spear: Mikey is an exceptional kid — I can’t call him a kid anymore; he’s almost 18 — he could go to war for us and defend our country. He’s had a business or two, he can make money, he's far from lazy, pretty damned intelligent, and I'd like to see 15 or 20 more kids around just like him. But I probably won't. My grandson’s a super kid...I hope he has the ambition and learns from Mikey when he’s around him … so … that's enough about Mikey. 

Mike: Come on now Butch, come on. 

The Northeast Kingdom is a really rural part of Vermont, and it can be pretty lonely. Often houses are far away from each other, some towns are lacking community spaces and events, it’s a place that has struggled economically. But for these men, bear hounding is an intergenerational activity. It creates a strong community for them. Butch goes bearhounding most days of the week all summer and fall. He goes out with Mike a few times a week, but other times he takes his grandkids, his son, his friends and their kids. He says he’s hounded with kids as young as 4, and with friends well into their 70s. Bearhounding has always been this way for him, an intergenerational pastime, bringing old and young people together.

Butch Spear: Mikey said earlier he doesnt have any friends his own age; they’re all 40 and older. That was me when I was a kid. I hung out with my dad, we were on the farm, he was a truck driver also. All my buddies — well, I had a few friends — but I listened to older people.

That pickup truck with the kennel in the back is where Butch tells his grandkids stories; it’s where he bonds with younger and older generations. It’s a place to connect in a part of the state where connections can be hard to come by. 

Jake Merrill, from left, Harold Carleton and Michael Jolley return their hounds to their truck after treeing a bear cub. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Controversy

Everything we did that day bearhounding with Butch was completely legal. From setting the hounds loose in the woods to driving through cornfields to snapping pictures of that bear in the tree. But there are people in Vermont who want the laws to change.

One of them is Morgan Gold, the farmer who posted that video on TikTok. For Morgan, it all started in September when he and his wife were awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of their guard dog, Toby. 

Morgan Gold: He’s barking like World War II is happening right outside his fence, and so I run outside. I hear the geese freaking out, I hear him freaking out, I see flashlights and I hear foreign dogs — not my dog — sort of barking and baying off in the distance.

Morgan soon found out that some hounders had followed their dogs onto his property in pursuit of a racoon. It was late. Morgan and his wife had no idea why these people thought they could hunt on their property, so Morgan got kind of upset. 

Morgan Gold: I'm like, ‘Hey, guys, you gotta get out of here; this is private property, what are you doing here?’ A couple of the gentlemen who apparently were from out-of-staters were saying like, ‘Oh, we’re allowed to be here; we’re with a guide.’ And I was like, ‘a guide? Who gave you permission?’”

He was still confused, so he wandered farther up the road where he ran into another hounder who insisted he had permission to hunt on Morgan’s land.

Morgan Gold: I was like, ‘Hey, buddy, that’s not the case. I’m the owner of this. You guys absolutely don't have permission. You need to leave right now.’ He said, ‘No, no no, we’re in pursuit; you need to please leave us alone, you have to leave us alone. And that’s where I was like, ‘Alright, that’s it.’

At that point, Morgan and his wife called the cops. They wanted to go back to bed and get these strangers off their land. 

Morgan Gold: These folks are telling me that they are allowed to be here, they have every right to be here, that I'm off my rocker. And so eventually they get their dog, they leave, and that's when the troopers and the warden show up and I explain to them what happened and we talk about it and I come to learn that they were actually 100% right; I was in the wrong. They did have the right to be there because of the way Vermont hunting laws are currently written. 

After that night, Morgan started a petition to end hound hunting in Vermont, the one that got a hundred thousand signatures. He called his state representatives and wrote to the governor. The issue became really personal for him. 

Morgan Gold: Here I am trying to manage my farm to the best of my ability. I'm the owner of this place, I feel like private property rights, ya know, if I say I don't want people here they should be able to respect that, and meanwhile we have state-sanctioned and state-licensed groups of people, going out, sending their dogs roaming for 10 or 20 miles, oftentimes a couple miles away from those animals, and they're perfectly licensed and able to do it. That blows my mind.  

According to Vermont state law, “control of dogs” is defined as the ”transportation, loading or unloading of dogs from vehicles; the handling, catching, restraining or releasing of dogs; and the use of telemetry or GPS to locate or track dogs.” That's word for word how the law is written. So, like Morgan and Butch have said, according to Vermont state law Butch is in control of his dogs when he’s hounding. 

But Morgan isn't satisfied with that definition.

Morgan Gold: The way that control is defined is just that you simply have to know where it is. It's like, you know, if I lose my iPhone and I'm using find my iPhone to track down my iPhone, I don't have control of my iPhone at that point. I know where it is, but I don't have control. 

To be clear, Morgan doesn't have an issue with hunting. He actually hunts himself. His issue is with hounders coming on to his property to hunt. He doesn’t want to end all hunting in Vermont, just this type of hunting. 

Morgan Gold: My objection to the hounders isn't that they're killing a bear. I personally am not interested in that. That’s not what I go for, but I can understand the idea that you need to control bear population numbers here in the state, so I get that concept, but my struggle with it really is just — I don’t wanna have that activity on my farm. Shouldn't I be able to control that? 

Morgan has proposed a few ideas, such as keeping dogs on leashes while they hunt or a requirement that hunters never let their dogs go beyond their line of sight. Hounders say that would essentially make it impossible for them to hunt. But Morgan points out that these hound hunting laws were written a long time ago, before GPS tracking was around. He thinks the laws need to catch up. 

Morgan Gold: This isn't Where the Red Fern Grows and you’ve got a little boy in the middle of the swamp chasing his dogs for raccoons. These are guys driving around in trucks going mile upon mile with GPS. It’s a whole different ball game. 

But according to Butch, the GPS tracking devices actually give hounders more control than they used to have. Instead of relying only on their hearing to guess where the dogs might be, they have an exact location, so they can more quickly intercept their dogs, maybe even before they cross a property line or a road. 

Clearly, things have changed, but whether you believe GPS technology has created a practice that was unimaginable when state laws were written, or you think it’s made bearhounding safer, Morgan says the crux of the debate is accountability. 

Morgan Gold: Oftentimes from hounders I met with the response of ‘you dummy don’t you know that dogs cant read property signs and posted markers,’ so its like we’re agreeing but we’re not agreeing what accountability that that holds and I feel like thats such a missed part of the discussion and the debate. That is the issue, that isn't just part of the design of how hound hunting works and that's not necessarily how it has to be. 

In fact, Morgan has ideas for how hounders might be held more accountable without making major changes to the existing laws

Morgan Gold: Most hound hunters are using GPS technology, can’t I register my property as an out of bounds zone? Can’t you train your dogs differently where they can respect things like a recall tone? Like if you're actually training your dogs and if you're actually taking pride in that as part of your sport, shouldn't you also have a certain measure of accountability that you're training for? 

Although Butch insists his dogs are well trained and know to stay on a bear when hunting, this isnt always the case with hound hunters. There is no set standard for training these dogs, just a three-month-long hound training season followed by a hunting season. The dogs themselves don't need any sort of license. They don't have to pass a test to be allowed to take part in a hunt. 

Morgan Gold: Again, I have no objection to hunting with dogs, the idea of using retrievers, the idea of using dogs to flush, you know that I totally get using dogs to actually pick up scents if you're on a leash or something, I get. Its the uncontrolled release of an animal and then just trying to follow along with that animal that I think this day and age doesn't make sense for Vermont. 

This is a major sticking point for those who opposed the practice. There is concern that it’s a public safety issue to have these hounds running through the woods, miles from their owners.

Brenna Galdenzi: People who are recreating out on our public lands are also in danger of running into hounds, like we saw what happened back in 2019 in Ripton, Vermont, where a woman was injured and her leashed puppy was injured by a pack of bear hounds. 

That's Brenna Galdenzi, the founder of Protect Our Wildlife, a volunteer advocacy group. What Brenna is talking about is an incident from a few years ago. A woman and her husband were hiking in Ripton with their puppy when a pack of hounds came bounding towards them—apparently chasing something. The hounds went for her dog. The hiker tried to intervene, and they went after her too. She and her puppy ended up injured. 

Those who support hounding say this was a one-off incident, that those hounds were poorly trained and that it shouldnt reflect on the practice as a whole. But, it’s not the only time a chase has turned violent. 

Brenna Galdenzi: Any bearhounder—and Butch knows this—will tell you that bears dont always tree, they dont always climb a tree. Some bears will hold their ground and they will fight back. And on our Facebook page just recently we shared an account from a Vermont bear-hounder, where a bear fought his dogs for hours, two of his dogs became injured, The man ended up stapling his dogs leg himself and he ended up shooting the bear. So, to think that when you’ve got six tenacious hounds chasing after a bear and the bear hounder is nowhere in sight—they're miles away in their truck—to think that there's not gonna be some sort of on-the-ground encounter placing both the wild animal and the hounds in danger, I don’t know how anyone could believe that. 

Butch admits this does happen sometimes, but he chalks it up to the occasional bear being particularly aggressive. 

Butch Spear: I did kill a bear one day, shot him in the head with my pistol, and his head bounced and landed on my foot he was so close. We did not wanna hurt that bear, but he would not climb a tree, and in their fights, his toenails made a couple dogs bleed. 

This isn’t typically how Butch kills bears though. Anyone with a bearhounding permit in Vermont is allowed to kill one bear per year. Butch and his crew usually save that kill for the biggest bear they can find. He eats the meat year-round, and tries to use every part of the animal. 

Although Butch still insists his love for bears is a big part of why he’s passionate about hounding, Brenna has a hard time reconciling that with what she says routinely traumatizes the animals. 

Brenna Galdenzi: The fact that they can only kill one bear during the legal bearhunting season, those are the bears that theyre killing, theyre not taking into account the terror that these hounds are inflicting on these bears for six long months, these bears during the fall season, theyre out there trying to consume as many calories as possible—upwards of 20,000 calories they need to consume per day—so theyre in prime physical condition to go into winter denning, having bear hounds on the landscape chasing them, that is not caring about bears, that is not doing whats best by bears, thats doing whats best by your own recreation and what you find fun. 

A bear sow and cub cross a road in Peacham as they try to escape a pack of hounds. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On the other hand, hounders argue that this type of hunting is actually better for bears than hunting by sight. Louis Porter, the former commissioner of Vermont Fish and Wildlife, supports the current bearhounding laws. 

Louis Porter: If you see a bear at a distance, it can be difficult to tell the size and the sex of that bear, often it can be difficult to judge that when youre hunting in what you might consider a traditional way of hunting bears. Obviously if a bears up a tree its easier to judge those things, and so bear hunters who hunt with hounds disproportionately compared to other bear hunters take male bears and larger bears. 

But Brenna isn’t convinced hounders can reliably sex and age bears, twenty or thirty or fifty feet below them, sometimes peering through tree branches. 

Brenna Galdenzi: It's not easy to tell a male from a female when they're up in the tree and there's been reports from Vermont bearhounders who have said its difficult. Maybe for a seasoned bearhounder like Butch Spear, maybe he can tell but how can you tell the difference between a 100 pound male yearling bear from a 90 pound, 100 pound female sow. Not all of the bears are older bears with broad skulls, ya know the big male boars? I think that is a really flimsy argument. 

Either way, Louis says bearhounding is an important conservation practice. In rural parts of Vermont communities struggle with nuisance bears—bears who get too comfortable and come into cornfields, backyards, sometimes they even break into cars and houses in pursuit of food. According to Louis bear-hounding is a safe way to scare those bears off.

Louis Porter: These dogs are used to resolve a lot of bear conflicts, when bears are in peoples cornfields or chicken coops or garbage or compost, birdfeeders. We take a number of steps to try to reducate that bear that they should not be looking to people for food. But one of the best ways we have is to have bear hounds pursue that bear and scare that bear with their dogs. 

That sometimes happens under the direction of a warden, but sometimes it just happens with a farmer who reaches out to a hound hunter and says, “Hey, I'm losing thousands and thousands of dollars worth of corn, can you bring your dogs and train them on this bear, scare the bear, maybe discourage it from coming into the cornfield.” That's important for us, and for the bears frankly because one of the other alternatives is to shoot that bear.  

But Brenna says there are other ways to deter bears from man-made food sources… ways that are less contentious and disruptive

Brenna Galdenzi: There’s a way to change the way you plant your corn to provide more of a buffer between cornfields and forested areas, so if a bear can go quickly in and out between the woods and the cornfields they're gonna feel safer, but if the bears feel that in order to get to a cornfield they have to cross open space, they may not be as willing to do that. 

Another concern Brenna has about hounding is that it can be dangerous for the hounds themselves

Brenna Galdenzi: Hounds aren't only at risk of getting injured by the wild animal fighting back, they run into barbed wire as they run—plow through—acres and acres of land. There's just a host of different—I mean just think about allowing your dog just to run freely through the woods unsupervised, chasing a coyote, chasing a bear. Of course those hounds are going to be in danger. 

But Butch maintains that above all else he loves his hounds and cares for their wellbeing. 

Butch Spear: I value them dogs as much as I do my kids.

Last year was a bad year, I lost three different dogs, old age mostly, medical problems. I cried on all three of ‘em. And I'm quite sure when you look at me you don't think of me as a cry baby. But it hurts.

Since Morgan’s TikTok went viral a few months ago, one of the biggest repercussions has been serious harassment, directed at both Morgan and Butch. 

Morgan Gold: As I've gone out and personally put out a petition or put out a video talking about my story, I've been attacked, I've received hate mail, I get on an ongoing basis all sorts of messages that are pretty downright awful. 

Butch Spear: This is the first time Ive ever recieved any threats, disgusting emails, or phone calls. My wife has received some. My wife answered the phone because it came through as a private caller, which is the way her sister's phone comes through when she calls. She picked it up and the guy didnt say ‘hi how are you, or blah blah blah this is so an so” It says “why dont you go out and kill yourself so you dont have to put up with the effin a-hole,” and hung up

For his part, Morgan has tried to stop the harassment on both sides. 

Morgan Gold: I will say one of the things Ive been most disheartened by as I’ve seen this stuff pop up since I posted some of the first videos has been the amount of harassment happening to somebody like Butch as well as to somebody like myself. I think it's recognizing that the more you try to harass and intimidate somebody usually that calcifies them in their position and if we wanna get to a place where we can find compromise, we can find common ground, that only hurts and that's only gasoline on the fire. 

At this point, it's been nearly three months since Morgan originally posted that video back in September, the bear-hounding season ended on November 15th. But this issue has continued to be really contentious. 

Back in early November, Butch planned to host an educational seminar on bearhounding as a tool for controlling the bear population in Vermont. Morgan decided to go and try to talk to Butch. He brought his camera equipment and was prepared to film the whole thing. But, almost immediately Butch asked that nobody film the event. 

Butch Spear: What Ive been through in the last five or six months, there will be no more recordings other than that camera up there or this meeting is over. It’s up to you people. 

He explained that he had set up a camera to record the meeting and he would send the recording to anyone who wanted it afterwards. 

Butch Spear: I did not come here tonight to argue with anybody, to fight with anybody, I came to educate people about bears in Vermont and bearhunting with hounds. 

But Morgan kept his cameras running, arguing the event was public and legally he could record. People in the crowd started to get upset.

Butch started packing up his stuff, Morgan tried to convince him to stay, saying he’d turn off his camera if Butch Spear could provide him with a copy of his recording. But it was too late. Pretty quickly, the crowd turned on Morgan. 

Butch walked out of the gym, flicking off the lights on his way out. And as the crowd dispersed… things escalated even more. 

Crowd member: Are you a native Vermonter? 

Morgan Gold: No. 

Crowd member: Where’d you come from?

Morgan Gold: I originally grew up in Hartford.

Crowd member: Hartford? 

Morgan Gold: Yeah. 

Crowd member: That tells me something! Why the hell don't you go back? And mind your own business. 

Other crowd member: You know something, when a bear comes and visits you, you're gonna really think it sucks. 

As for next steps? Morgan’s petition isn't gathering signatures as quickly as it once was, but even so it has just over 100,000 signatures, while the counter petition has 6,000. As for Morgan, he doesn’t plan to drop the issue anytime soon.

Morgan Gold: I will continue to advocate on behalf of the private property owners here in Vermont and try to change some of the laws. We’ll see where this goes. 

There are two bills that could impact bear hounding before the Vermont Legislature this session. One would ban the use of dogs in bear hunting. Another would establish a fish and wildlife board made up of a diverse group of people who would have influence over the department’s conduct. The idea would be to incorporate a wider variety of perspectives into the way the department is run.  

Only time will tell if the laws around bear hounding will actually change. But one thing’s for sure. Butch and Morgan aren’t going anywhere. The two men live just about 20 minutes away from one another. And while Morgan continues to post videos on his social media channels about the negative impacts of bear hounding, Butch is breeding two of his dogs this winter so he’ll have some new puppies to hunt with starting June 1st. 

A hound sniffs the air trying to find bear scent. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Grace Benninghoff

About Grace

Grace Benninghoff is a general assignment reporter for VTDigger. She is a 2021 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and holds a degree in evolutionary and ecological biology from the University of Colorado.

Email: [email protected]

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