VALDOSTA - Hunting in Georgia is big business, with millions of dollars exchanging hands each year between hunt clubs and landowners.

So when a new law went into effect July 1, 2003 regulating the way hunting deer with dogs is conducted, its impact was felt statewide by hunters and property owners trying to interpret the new regulations.

Todd Holbrook, chief of the game management section for the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said House Bill 815, which was signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue on June 3, 2003, changes the way the deer hunting with dogs in three primary ways:

Property owners or lessees desiring to allow deer hunting with dogs on their land must first obtain a WRD issued permit;

Permitted property must contain at least 1,000 contiguous acres;

All dogs and vehicles on the permitted property must be identified with the permit number.

"The person who does the hunting, whether it's the property owner or the hunt club, is the one who has to buy the permit," Holbrook said.

Two or more tracts of land under different ownership can comprise the 1,000 acres as long as they are contiguous, regardless of whether thay are intersected by roads or water. Holbrook said hunters participating in more than one club can tag their trucks and dogs with more than one permit number, as long as at least one of them matches the property they are currently hunting on.

The changes in the law were instigated by the Georgia Dog Hunters Association, concerned with escalating disputes between landowners and hunters, particularly in Candler, Emanuel, Jenkins and Screven counties. Holbrook said at least 10 counties were experiencing problems, representing 25 percent of the area available in the state for hunting deer with dogs.

"The problems in these areas were significant. The three main issues were with dogs trespassing on private property, hunters trespassing trying to retrieve the dogs and hunters blocking public roads," he said. "The association was faced with a reduction or elimination of deer hunting with dogs."

Now, the Department of Natural Resources can revoke or deny a permit for violation of the law. According to Holbrook, the law gives the department a way of dealing with problem clubs "without having to use blanket countywide regulations eliminating dog hunting opportunity for quality clubs who are good neighbors."

An estimated 800 dog hunting clubs with thousands of members operate statewide.

All hunt clubs pay a fee to property owners for the privilege of hunting on their land, paying an average of $5 to $7 per acre. "Many owners are paying the taxes on their land from these fees," said Holbrook, taxes which are then used to pay for education. "This illustrates how important this is to the economy, especially in rural Georgia."

For both large and small landowners, hunting leases can be an important part of their income.

Wesley Langdale, vice president of land management for The Langdale Company, which owns and manages thousands of acres of forest land in the Southeast, said from the company's perspective, leasing to hunting clubs makes good sense, not only economically, but for the fire protection and having someone watching the property.

"People in these clubs often take their families and they camp, fish, hunt and have a getaway. It allows them to enjoy the forest without having the burden of land ownership," he said.

Langdale said he's hopeful local DNR officers will work in conjunction with the hunting clubs and this area won't experience the problems that other counties have. "In South Georgia, this is a tradition and a way of life."

The dog hunting season in Lowndes and surrounding counties runs from October 18 to January 11.

DNR has scheduled two public hearings to explain the new law. The hearings will be held at 7 p.m. on July 15 in Moultrie at the Spencefield Community Center and at 7 p.m. on July 17 in Statesboro at the Statesboro High School gym. All hunters interested in learning more about the new law are encouraged to attend.

For more information, contact the department at 770-918-6416.

To contact Business Editor Kay Harris, please call 244-3400, ext. 280.

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