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Watch: Newly released video at center of push to tighten Utah bear chasing rules

Nov 30, 2022, 10:04 PM | Updated: 10:32 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Chased deep into the backcountry and surrounded by too many hounds to count, a black bear collapses trying to fend off the howling and nipping dogs.

The chaotic scene played out in the La Sal mountains outside Moab in 2018, recorded in shaky cellphone videos later used to build criminal cases against two houndsmen. The men caged the bear for two days, authorities said, before it was released and chased by the dogs once again.

Troubled by the video, state wildlife managers tightened Utah hunting rules to prohibit chasing a bear repeatedly to the point it can’t escape. But critics say the changes don’t go far enough. They’re worried about the potential for other Utah bears to be abused in the woods by those chasing the animals for sport.

“They ran this bear to total exhaustion,” Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan said. “There’s not a lot of training going on. It’s total chaos.”

With the right permit, using hounds to track down black bears – whether to kill them or simply scare them up a tree – is lawful in Utah. State wildlife managers say the 2018 ordeal is not the norm and most trainers leave bears alone after they scurry overhead.

Neighboring Idaho, Nevada and Arizona allow it, too, according to the Humane Society, which opposes the sport.

There’s no doubt the behavior depicted in the video is disturbing, Sloan said. What’s less clear is whether it’s criminal.

Her office filed charges against a Utah houndsman, Clifford Stubbs, and Florida dog trainer, William Tyler “Bo” Wood, after investigators discovered videos of the hunt.

A jury found Wood guilty of misdemeanor charges for putting the bear in a metal box to transport and revive it. He’s since appealed those convictions, and Stubbs pleaded guilty to similar counts in 2020.

But Wood, accused of releasing the bear from the crate to be chased again, was acquitted of the most serious charge he faced, wanton destruction of wildlife, a felony.

Sloan contends that’s largely because Utah’s restrictions are too vague. She is now publicly releasing the video – previously reviewed by jurors and the state board overseeing hunting permits – for the first time in hopes of raising awareness that will spark change.

She’s urged the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to clarify that pursuing a bear to exhaustion is prohibited, she said, but the agency hasn’t done so yet.

“To me, that means our bears are being terrorized in our mountains,” Sloan said.

In the wake of the 2018 case, the state set a limit on the number of hounds: 16 for most of the year; eight in the summer. It also prohibited repeated chases rendering the bear unable to escape, and it reduced the number of permits available to out-of-state residents who tend to come from places where the practice isn’t allowed, like Colorado, Wyoming and Florida.

Sloan says more than eight dogs is too many. Moab resident Gerrish Willis, who previously served on a local DWR advisory board, agreed.

“I think anybody who looks at these videos and is aware that this guy got off is going to be really upset, and they’re going to demand changes,” he said. “That’s my hope, anyway.”

Cory Huntsman, president of the Utah Houndsmen Association, believes more changes aren’t needed. Many dogs can be a good thing, he said, making a bear more likely to rush up a tree instead of running for longer and tiring out.

He acknowledges some “bad apples” give houndsmen a bad name, but “it really is a humane sport and it’s ethical,” he said. In 20 years of running hounds, he’s never had a dog or bear injured, he added, and trainers have stepped up to better police each other.

DWR is listening to the calls for more action, said Darren DeBloois, the agency’s game mammals program coordinator.

When it comes to accountability for abuse of wildlife, he said, “we do want people that do this to be prosecuted and face consequences. It’s not acceptable.”

The agency is already proposing some further changes to make the pursuits more humane, he noted, including ending the season in August before the temperature dips and the animals fatten up for winter. DWR is taking public comment online and at meetings around the state this week and next.

Most chases are ethical, DeBloois added, and some even help wildlife managers study bear and cougar populations. The hounds track down the animals so DWR can place tracking collars on them.

Biologists have estimated Utah’s black bear population at more than 3,000; The state’s last known grizzly was killed 100 years ago.

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Watch: Newly released video at center of push to tighten Utah bear chasing rules