My first bear tree came as the result of a jump race that started when a bear happened to run in front of the truck as I was headed into an area to hunt. I frantically collared my two hounds as fast as I could – the adrenaline and excitement being unparalleled with any prior hunting experience I ever had. I sprinted to where the bear had crossed the road, hollering to the dogs “Here it is! Here it is!” and, just like clockwork, both of my hounds – upon hitting the fresh scent of the bear and encouraged by the veteran dogs in the pack – began to run full cry and head up after the hot scent of the bear. The dogs were treed before we even had our backpacks shouldered, and I remember the almost uncontainable excitement as the melodic chorus of the hounds barking treed echoed up the canyon.
As we walked in to the tree I looked through my binoculars and could see both Hannah and Crank, my two young hounds, treeing along with the other dogs in the pack as the bear looked down from his refuge in the bare trunk of a burned aspen, high above the dogs. The bear was jet black with a brown muzzle, which is a pretty rare sight here in Nevada as only about 5% of our bears are actually black in color. As thrilling as it was to see the bear, I found myself even more captivated by watching my two dogs at the tree. Hannah, coming from a line of exceptionally tree minded walker dogs, was sitting at the base of the tree and chop barking nonstop, with her head up and tail wagging furiously. Crank, still being a pup at 11 months old, would trail the bear scent backwards from the tree, turn around and trail back to the tree where he would briefly bark treed and then return to trailing the scent of the bear on the ground.
I learned a lot that day about my dogs. And despite the pride I felt for them, I also learned humility – gaining an appreciation for a bear’s ability to humble a pack of hounds and their handlers. As we were walking towards the tree, the bear decided it had heard enough of the barking and jumped from the tree, over the dogs, and proceeded to outrun the entire pack. I saw the bear one last time as it made a loop through a nearby willow thicket. The bear emerged from the willows and stopped at about 20 yards away and, locking eyes with me for one ethereal moment, proceeded to vanish back into the willows. We never saw that bear again!
I also learned that day that I was without a doubt a houndsman – not for skill or any accomplishment – but rather because I had, in that moment, irreparably “gone to the dogs.” Hounding was in my blood. That first tree still stands out in my life as one of the few truly transformative events I’ve experienced. My passion for hounds and bears irrupted; the baying of tree dogs became a sort of siren song in my life, and the pursuit of our quarry together took on an almost sacramental value. My awareness of, fascination for, and infatuation with bears and bear conservation was also born that day.
Imagine then, my concern when I found out a few weeks later that there was a local community of people actively working to eliminate the privilege of running hounds in Nevada. I had been peripherally aware that there was some controversy over the bear hunt, but I had never before heard that people in my state were actively working to outlaw the use of hounds for hunting not just bears, but all game. I remember well that onslaught of dread and sense of fear that this wonderful experience I had just had with my hounds would be taken from me before I had even really had a chance to pursue it fully. It occurred to me then that if anyone was going to try and stop this attack on hounds and their handlers it may as well be me and that moment set my life on a trajectory in defense of hounds.
Fortunately I found that I was not alone in this endeavor, and that there were several other passionate houndsmen and women who were as invested in defending hounds as I was. While we were essentially starting from ground zero with organizing as a group, we were unified in our intent and purpose – to protect and defend our way of life as hound handlers. To that end we formed the Nevada Sporting Dog Alliance, with the mission to promote the use of sporting dogs for hunting and conservation through public education. Together we navigated the process of becoming a registered 501.C.3 non-profit, starting a website, and producing educational materials.
Immediately we started diving in to the process of public outreach and advocacy – attending county advisory board (CAB) meetings, state wildlife commission meetings, and eventually getting involved at the Nevada Legislature. At one of our first collective attendances at the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) meetings, now several years ago, we made a very strong representation in defense of the Nevada bear hunt as well as the use of hounds. Following the conclusion of that meeting a wildlife official made the comment to us privately that “It was about time you guys started showing up.” That moment struck me as being profound in its simplicity: one of the most important things a person can do in defense of hounds is just to simply show up! To date our most important victory was playing a role in the defeat of a 2017 attempt to ban the use of hounds for bear hunting in the 79th session of the Nevada Legislature. Assembly Bill 443, as it was called, died in Committee and bolstered our resolve to continue onward in defense of hounds.