This Hunter Access Controversy is Going Viral on Social Media

This Hunter Access Controversy is Going Viral on Social Media

On a cool New England morning in September of 2021, a bear hunter named Butch Spear released a pack of GPS-collared Black and Tan Coonhounds into hundreds of acres of corn in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom region. Almost immediately, the dogs were off on a scent.

They circled the commercial cornfield twice before bending around an adjacent horse farm. They then crashed into the fern-laden understory of a nearby swamp and huddled around the base of an old-growth pine, baying incessantly as the black bear they’d been tracking looked down from the canopy above.

In similar bear hounding situations, this moment would have marked the climax of a successful hunt. But for Spear, president of the Vermont Bearhound Association, it was the beginning of a wild controversy.

Spear’s hounds treed their bear in a 160-acre parcel owned by Morgan Gold, a 41-year-old duck and goose farmer with a large social media presence. As a self-described “back to land millennial,” he left the corporate grind five years ago, having spent most of his life in big urban centers of the Northeast, for a simpler existence living closer to the land. During those five years, he has documented his immersion into farm life on YouTube, posting video after video for his now 343,000 subscribers.

At the time of publication, Gold’s TikTok audience was up to 1.3 million followers. His Instagram account has roughly 35,000 followers, and in August of 2020, he was featured in the New York Times. People tune into Gold’s accounts from all over the world to follow the day-to-day operations of the regenerative farm he and his wife Allison own and operate.

But all those followers were about to receive a crash course in something else entirely: The age-old tradition of hunting bears with hounds, and Butch Spear’s inability to keep his dogs off Gold’s property. Unsurprisingly, outrage ensued.

An ‘Ancient’ Tradition Goes Viral For Gold, the outrage was multifaceted. He was upset by the presence of Spear’s hounds on his property when he’d never granted permission to run them. Gold had a recent experience with coon hunters who entered his property with dogs late at night, waking his family and disturbing his livestock. From this experience he’d come to view hound hunting as a barbaric and inhumane bloodsport. He definitely didn’t want it playing out on his own back 40.

So, when the white-bearded, barrel-chested Spear rolled into Gold’s driveway on the morning of Sept. 5 and exited the cab of his pickup to explain the situation, Gold had the cameras rolling.

He initially told Spear to leave the property altogether, which Spear seemed willing to do. But as Spear began to walk back toward the cab of his truck, Gold—selfie stick in hand—decided to hear him out.

“Go ahead Butch, explain yourself, because I know it’s not an accident that you’re here,” Gold said in the video, alluding to Spear’s status as a notable local houndsman.

Spear slowly turned to address Gold’s request, and what followed is a discussion about the merits of hound hunting and the laws that govern it in Vermont.

Eventually, Gold allowed Spear to enter his property with the understanding that he would retrieve the hounds and leave immediately. He walked with Spear and his hunting party—made up of Spear’s son, grandson, and a good friend—as they negotiated the swampy bottomland where the hounds had treed their quarry.

They made remarks at each other until the all-encompassing clamor of baying coonhounds and the arresting sight of a treed black bear subdued their conversation. One of Spear’s hunters rushed in, yanking the hounds away from the tree just before the cornered bear jetted down the trunk and escaped into the forest.

The Public Reaction Not long after Gold posted an edited version of the encounter to YouTube titled “Hound Hunters Invade my Farm. AGAIN!”, Spear began to receive hate mail. Eventually, some of the messages came laced with death threats, threats that Spear—who calls himself a “dinosaur” with no access of his own to the “world wide web”—says are going on to this day.

Some of those threats—he says there have been seven in all—were delivered via phone call to his rural Vermont home. His wife answered one that urged her and her husband to commit suicide.

For his part, Spear doesn’t think much of the Internet-fueled outrage is coming from anyone in close proximity: “I don’t think there are 2 million people in Vermont who hate Butch Spear,” he told MeatEater.

Reservations about hound hunting aside, Gold says that he is not opposed to hunting in general. In fact, he claims to hunt deer and turkeys himself and says that the bulk of his discord with Spear, and other hunters who run hounds in the state, stems from what he views as their general disregard for private property rights. Even though Spear requested permission to retrieve his hounds from Gold’s property, the fact that they ended up there in the first place irks him.

“I am not anti-hunting,” Gold said in a video posted to his YouTube account on Aug. 21. “I actually believe that hunting is an important part of managing the local ecosystems here. My concerns and grievances lie with the approach to hunting and how it’s being done [in Vermont] and the rules and protections that are either too relaxed or don’t exist.”

In the same video, Gold outlines a plea for change, addressing Vermont’s governor Phil Scott with a list of changes he’d like to see implemented in the Vermont hunting regulations. He says that hound hunters should have to maintain sight of their dogs by staying within 400 feet of them at all times. He also proposed that all hunters be required to obtain written permission to hunt a piece of private land and that the licenses of those who fail to adhere to this stipulation should be revoked. At the end of the video, he urges his followers to follow a link in the description to a Change.org petition titled “Stop Hound Hunting in Vermont,” which has garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

This uproar is fueling support for legislation that seeks to ban hound hunting for black bears outright along with all forms of trapping unless “conducted by a licensed nuisance wildlife control operator.”

MeatEater’s Clay Newcomb is a noted bear hunter and houndsman himself. He says that attempts to ban hound hunting like those currently underway in Vermont are an infringement on human rights.

“Hunting with hounds is so ancient and intertwined with the human experience that some believe it is coded into our DNA,” Newcomb said. “This is our story and it’s a positive one. Hound hunting is an important cog in the model of North American hunting. If we lose this cog we’re just one step closer to losing more. What will be the next low hanging fruit?”

Lands Not ‘Inclosed’ At the core of the conflict between Gold and Spear is Article 67 of the Vermont State Constitution. In part it reads: “The inhabitants of this state shall have liberty in seasonable times, to hunt and fowl on the lands they hold, and on other lands not inclosed [sic].”

Spear knows the clause well and can recite it on command when prompted in the field.

In terms of modern enforcement, it means that all Vermont landowners who do not wish to allow public hunting access on their private property must post at least one “No Trespassing” sign every 400 feet around the entire perimeter of their parcel. The posting must be done on an annual basis and a record of its execution presented to the county clerk.

Gold calls the law onerous.

“From a landowner’s perspective, Vermont’s posting law absolutely sucks,” he said in a YouTube video titled “Aftermath from the Trespassing Hunters.”

“If you look at a state like Maine, which is also known for its outdoor culture and openness to hunters, you must make a purple mark with spray paint on a tree, which would be a lot easier to do and would last a lot longer. But all of this is kind of a moot point anyway because these hunting hounds, they can’t read a sign.”

Col. Jason Batchelder is the chief law enforcement officer at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. From his headquarters in Montpelier, he told MeatEater that he is a proponent of Article 67 and the robust culture of public hunting access that it fosters.

“From a public access standpoint, hunters and anglers benefit greatly from this law,” Batchelder said. “It opens up a lot of opportunities for hunters in this state, but we still encourage hunters to contact landowners before they exercise their rights under Article 67.”

He went on to say that Spear, whom he called “a model citizen when it comes to hunting bears with hounds,” would have been within his rights to enter Gold’s property in pursuit of his hounds and the bear they’d treed even without Gold’s express permission because the land was not properly posted at the time.

“The fact that I went and talked to Gold first, before following the dogs onto his land, is a feather in my cap,” Spear told MeatEater. “I could have gotten in from another person’s land that I have permission to hunt on and he’d never have seen me.”

Winds of Change If a new day is dawning back in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, it’s safe to say that Gold is tooling around on his 160-acres, selfie stick in hand, turning mundane farm chores into highly digestible Internet content. And if it happens to be bear season, it is equally reasonable to assume that Spear is roaming the nearby countryside on foot or in his pickup truck with a pack of Black and Tan Coonhounds and a fellow hunter in tow.

Both men will undoubtedly continue to advocate for their respective goals. For Gold, that means fewer hound hunters on the Vermont landscape, particularly on the patch of ground where he lives and derives an income. For Spear, the goal is one of preservation. He wants to maintain what he believes is an inalienable right to run his hounds the same way he’s done for over 60 years. It remains to be seen whether the state’s legislature or executive will change the status quo.

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