Independence is a good thing, right? As Americans, we started a nation because of a document called the Declaration of Independence. Independent is synonymous with self-reliant and self-sustaining. Our entertainment industry has capitalized on the rugged independent character since the inception of movies. People love a good story and romanticize about being the self-sustaining, self-reliant, and independent personality that can ride into town alone, take on the world’s problems, and ride off into the sunset…alone. Being independent is a great attribute, if not a core principle for success.


As houndsmen, we look for those special hounds that show independence. These performance animals can think for themselves. They don’t get bogged down with pack mentality. They push through the tough terrain and trailing conditions to come up with the quarry when the wheels fall off and the track is breaking down. They are what every houndsman looks for in an individual: independence is what makes a hound stand out.


“Independent to a fault” is another phrase that houndsmen will use. When could independence possibly become a fault for a big game hunter or a coonhunter? For a bear hunter, a hound that simply will not pack can be a problem. When the hound will not trail with other dogs, regardless of the condition of the track and its freshness, it can be a major frustration. Bear tracks are precious—not around every corner—so when you have a good track, you want your hounds to take it, trail it and jump the bear. For the coonhound, I have seen dogs that were so independent that even when they are first to tree the raccoon, they will leave to go look for a different raccoon when another hound shows up. I’ve seen this in bear and lion hounds as well. This is independent to a fault. Our ultimate goal is success. That success is measured, in no small part, with trailing work and the results of game in the tree. If a hound is so independent that it cannot be a part of the greater success, it becomes a problem. The result is using tracking equipment to round up the Lone Ranger or possibly disrupting and wasting an entire day of hunting.


Houndsmen and hunters, in general, also show signs of this trait. As mentioned earlier, we all wish to be seen as independent, as stand outs. There is a special feeling when you finally succeed and know that you did it by your own hard work. There is nothing more rewarding for me than when I am hunting with other houndsmen and I take a separate trail or road and get that rig strike, start a bear and catch it—alone.


There is a side of independence that is so detrimental to hunters that we are at risk of losing our freedoms. Hunters, being bold and self-sustaining by nature, have become independent to a fault. We spend so much time looking for that special honey hole and we guard it with the utmost secrecy. We compete with other hunters for a specific animal or space to hunt. We get up early and run the roads looking for that perfect track to put our hounds on before another hunter finds it. We get so wrapped up in independence and self-reliance we fail to recognize that only through a united and cohesive effort can we continue to enjoy our freedoms to hunt.


This year, 2022, has presented an absolute onslaught of attacks from the Animal Rights (AR) Movement. Bills introduced in Colorado, Vermont, Mississippi, and New Hampshire as well as attempts to flood Arizona with emails pressuring wildlife managers are all organized to stop hunting of large predators with hounds. The AR crowd is well funded and has skilled strategizers in these attacks. They plan their assaults on hunting freedoms years in advance and have fail-safe plans in place. They collect funds globally and then put them to work in specific places with pinpoint accuracy. A dollar raised in Norway can be used to attack hunting in South Dakota. It is a serious issue, and the hunting community is woefully unprepared and relies on reaction rather than being proactive.


We have been fortunate in recent years. When issues blow up, we have mobilized through social media. Coordinated and effective campaigns to thwart several attempts to take away hunting opportunities have been launched. California saw a huge win for bear hunters in 2021 when we pressured legislators to withdraw support to end bear hunting. Montana passed a spring bear season with the approved method of using hounds. There are other examples like these where, collectively, we got lucky.


However, luck is a dangerous battle plan. The battle space is constantly changing. The recent effort in Arizona was something we have not seen. The AR crowd, specifically the Humane Society of the United States, the Mountain Lion Foundation, and the Center for Biological Diversity, launched a strategic plan to use the public comment process to fill up the Arizona Department of Game and Fish email coffers with public opinion to end lion, bear, and bobcat hunting. It was by good fortune and luck that the plan was revealed to the hunting public by a department employee. Had this not happened, hunters would have been blindsided by proposed rule changes to end hunting predators.


Hunting with hounds is the low hanging fruit for the AR movement. We are by far the most vulnerable, unorganized, underfunded, and underrepresented hunting community. In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated hunters to total 9.2 million people (of 300 million U.S. Citizens). Of those hunters, 3.5 million were lumped into “small game hunters”---representing a category that was not deer, elk, or turkey hunting. When we slice that pie down further, no one really knows how many true houndsmen there are. Only a guess would put us at a decimal of a percent. Based solely upon numbers, we might be able to fill up a football stadium; that is, if you could get houndsmen to show up.


And that brings me to my final point: Houndsmen have to start showing up. The time for secluded, quiet living is over. Houndsmen will often state “what I do is my business and I just want to be left alone.” Ironically, that statement usually comes after they make a post on social media about their hunt. In other words, there is no more privacy. Bots and trolls are harvesting your data from cell phones, texts, and social media posts. How else can an ad for a tire company pop up in a news feed after you have been on the internet looking at tires? I swear, Siri can read my mind: I can think about being hungry and food reels will pop up on Instagram.


So, what do we do about it? This is the real question. We have to find friends and find them fast. Based on our low numbers and our lack of representation, we need to find allies outside of our own circles of influence. It is not enough to have only fellow houndsmen in the fight. We need to find common ground with other hunters as well. We may have some fundamentally different viewpoints with deer hunters, but we still share the common thread of being hunters. The farming and ranching communities are fighting the same battles we are and there is an opportunity to align ourselves with them and make coordinated efforts to defend our freedoms. I plan to address these topics in future columns and offer some of my viewpoints as solutions. After 28 years of public service in the wildlife management profession and being heavily involved in legislative battles, I have seen success and failures, as well as the root causes of both.


At the risk of alienating myself, I almost hate to use this quote, but it is valid: “The strength of the wolf is in the pack.” When our founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was not written with the intent of each man standing alone. Go live a life of adventure in wild places. Explore new territory. Be self-sustaining. But remember that your hunting community cannot afford for you to be independent to a fault.