FRANKFORT — Hunters have persuaded the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission to take another look at a proposal to set aside a week each year for shooting a limited number of bears that dogs have chased up trees or cornered on the ground.
Wildlife officials decided to scrap that proposal two weeks ago after the Humane Society of the United States criticized the practice as cruel and unsporting. Now, it's back because of a devotion to a hunting method that has thrived in America since colonial days.
The wildlife commission is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. Monday to reconsider the earlier decision so the hunters, known as houndsmen, would have about four weeks set aside each year to chase bears with dogs and to allow them to shoot some of the bears during one of those weeks.
"It is a powerful lobby," Democratic political strategist Danny Briscoe said. "It's not galvanized often but, when it is, it is incredibly strong."
The bear issue pitted hunters against the Humane Society in the latest of a long line of face-offs over the years.
In this case, the hunters had two key legislative allies in Republican state Rep. Tommy Turner of Somerset and Democratic state Rep. Johnny Bell of Glasgow. Both are keen political strategists who happen to be co-chairmen of the influential House Sportsmen Caucus, and both hunt with hounds.
However, Turner and Bell take no credit for the wildlife commission's change of heart.
"I think they saw the error of their way," Bell said. "It just didn't make a lot of sense to us that they opposed it to begin with. I don't know who got to them, but it seems like somebody put some pressure somewhere."
Turner said the Wildlife Commission simply needed to be better educated on the issue.
"There had been some misunderstanding, and we've worked through some of those concerns," Turner said. "I think we've got an agreement that we're all going to be OK with."
Wildlife Commissioner Chris Godby said facts, not political pressure, brought the issue back for a second look.
"We just had some concerns that, hopefully, we've taken care of," Godby said.
The proposal up for consideration Monday would allow houndsmen to chase bears for three weeks in August and again for a week in December. The number of bears that could be shot by the houndsmen depends on how many bears are killed during the regular December hunting season.
The state allows a quota of 10 bears to be killed by traditional gun hunters, but those hunters have never gotten that many. The proposal would allow houndsmen to complete the quota. So, if gun hunters killed only four bears, as they did last year, the houndsmen could kill as many as six.
Wildlife officials had disallowed that in a March 5 meeting, allowing instead for the houndsmen to use their dogs to chase bears for only one week and not to shoot them.
The Humane Society reacted strongly to the reversal.
"It is obvious that a few legislators are pushing the commission to reconsider their sound decision on behalf of a small group of individuals," said Pamela Rogers, Kentucky director for the Humane Society. "The commission already made its decision based on the best available science, and balancing the interests between hound hunters and the rest of the public. We shouldn't let back-room politics get in the way of management decisions."
Three of the wildlife commissioners who originally voted against the chase season, including Godby, were appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear late last year and have yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Senate Majority Floor Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said those confirmations will soon come up for review.
Stivers, who also is chairman of the Senate Republicans' Sportsmen Caucus, said he has been concerned about complaints he has received from hunters about the commission's initial decision.
Godby said the pending confirmations had nothing to do with the commission reconsidering the issue.
"You're on this board to make the best decisions," Godby said. "That's why we got appointed. I don't think anybody's going to throw you off for political reasons because you made a decision somebody didn't like. That's never entered my mind."
If the commission approves the proposal, houndsmen could use their dogs to chase bears in three locations — a 45,000-acre tract in Harlan County, a 43,000-acre tract in Bell County and a 20,000-acre tract in Letcher County.
State wildlife biologist Steven Dobey said the commission opted to expand the chase seasons after concerns were resolved about the areas where the chases would occur.
Kentucky would be among fewer than 20 states that allow hunters to chase bears with dogs.
More than a century ago, bears thrived in Kentucky's mountain region, but over-hunting and habitat loss led to their disappearance. Over the past 20 years, they have ventured back into Kentucky from other states.
The Humane Society had called for the Wildlife Commission to reject the proposal to allow "hounding" bears, calling it "unsporting to chase down animals with packs of dogs."
Rogers said the Humane Society would have preferred that the commission not allow even a brief chase season.
For five years, the hunters have pressed state wildlife officials to approve a chase season for bears in the state's Appalachian region. There, some of the animals have raided garbage cans and eaten from pet-food bowls on back porches. In one instance, a bear mauled a tourist in the Red River Gorge.
"Some of these bears need to be chased to instill some fear in them," Turner said. "And other states are doing it already. Why not do it here?"