Dead Like a Fox 

New regulations proposed to cut down on fox deaths in hunting competitions.

Under pressure from animal rights activists and the General Assembly, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is proposing new regulations to cut down on the number of foxes killed by hunting dogs in wooded enclosures.

The sport of fox penning involves releasing dozens of hunting dogs, tagged with electronic collars, within a fenced area. The dogs chase after the foxes. Often there's betting involved.

The proposals, made last week, include banning cash prizes and giving wild foxes more time to get adjusted to their new surroundings before the dogs are unleashed. They come up for a final vote June 13.

The game department presented some key findings to its board from a 2002 study that was analyzed by the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech. For the first time, the state has evidence that foxes are often -- if not more likely -- to be killed during the course of the competitions. Fox-penning proponents contend that the goal isn't for the dogs to actually kill the foxes, just get better at pursuing them.

Initially, 71 foxes with radio-tracking collars were involved at an 806-acre wildlife enclosure in Greensville County. Five of those escaped from a holding pen before the study could begin, and another 10 produced mixed signals. Of the remaining 56 foxes, 49 died during the course of the study. "Our approach was to determine the pattern of activity signals received for each collar," the institute's Scott Klopfer says. "When those patterns changed, we could detect when and if the fox was likely killed."

Twenty-nine of the fox deaths happened on the day of a competition or the day after. Twenty of the deaths occurred on other days, though Klopfer emphasizes that foxhound training still took place -- just at numbers involving fewer than 50 dogs.

Some attendees found issue with two features of the study: that data collection began in 2002, and that the pen measured more than 800 acres, much more the 200- to 300-acre average.

The proposed regulations and notices of public meetings will be available on the game department's website, beginning April 2. The public comment period closes May 31.

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