COLUMBIA, S.C. For years, hunters have engaged in a practice called bear baying, in which they tie a captive bear to a stake and allow hunting dogs to bark at it as part of a training exercise.
Animal rights groups say the practice is cruel, and now the state Department of Natural Resources is taking steps to end it.
One section of state law states that bear baying with captive bears is allowed. But another law, which hasn't been actively enforced in the past, makes the ownership of captive bears illegal without a state permit.
The Natural Resources Department now is requiring the owners of all captive bears to get permits for those animals. No new permits will be allowed after this year, meaning no new bears can be adopted.
If a captive bear is pregnant, its owners can get a permit for the cub after its birth. Birth control methods will be required for the bears after the permitting process is done.
The change means bear baying in the state will last only as long as this generation of captive bears lives, about 25 or 30 years.
"This is the best way we know to handle it," said Skip Still, who manages the bear program for the state. He expects to process about 30 bear permits.
Hunters in South Carolina have been using captive bears to train dogs to flush out and corner wild bears for decades. Bear hunter Dennis Chastain said he found a reference to bear baying in writings from the early 1700s.
But animal rights groups decry the use of live animals to train hunting dogs.
"This isn't the 1800s anymore," said Ledy Vankavage, an attorney for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Hopefully, civilization has progressed in its compassion for animals since then."
Vankavage was encouraged that South Carolina officials are trying to end bear baying, even if the method might take a while.
"If that's what they're trying to do to stop this in a politically correct way, more power to them," Vankavage said.
Hunting dogs also train by chasing foxes and rabbits in large fenced enclosures in South Carolina, but there have been few complaints about that practice, hunters say.
"They've isolated us," said Robert Chapman, who keeps a bear behind a Pickens County hunting lodge mainly to use for training dogs. "There's something about bears. People see them as cute and cuddly."
Dog hunts for bears are limited to six days each October in South Carolina, and are only allowed in Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties. Hunting bears without dogs also is allowed for six days in those mountain counties, where wildlife surveys show the bear population is growing.
Houndsmen aren't satisfied with running their bear dogs for a six-day season. They plan to ask state legislators to introduce a bill calling for a separate "running" season, when their dogs would be allowed to chase bears in the wild, but the hunters wouldn't be allowed to shoot the bears.