LancasterOnline.com:Sportsogs on the trail
Put yourself in this guy's shoes.
A Maryland hunter during the Old Line State's two-week firearms deer season in 2008 shot and wounded the buck of a lifetime — a monster, 17-point nontypical.
The buck ran out of the field, right under the hunter's stand, into some thick woods.
The hunter planned on waiting until morning to take up the trail, but, when it started raining around 8 p.m., he began to worry about the trail washing away.
So he got his buddies together and the crew hit the woods.
During the search, the worst possible thing happened. The deer wasn't dead and they jumped it.
Even without any rain, that's bad news for tracking.
The trackers backed out and returned in the morning to grid-search the 60-acre woods.
They found nothing.
In Pennsylvania, the hunter would have had no other option at this point but to persist with the search.
Fortunately for him, however, he was hunting in Maryland, where it's legal to use blood-tracking dogs to search for wounded deer.
Also fortunately, the hunter had seen a flier hanging in a local sporting goods store posted by Berks County resident Andy Bensing, which advertised the free services of Bensing and his tracking dogs.
"I do it for free, because it's what I love to do," Bensing said. "I want to get my dogs on tracks. You don't charge people for your hobby."
The hunter called Bensing, who arrived at the scene of the shooting with one of his wirehair dachsunds, which are bred and trained for following blood trails.
Bensing and his dog got to the farm around 3 p.m. the day after the deer was shot, so the trail was about 24 hours old.
The dog followed the trail right to the big buck, which still wasn't dead. It was holed up in a thicket the hunter and his buddies had walked right past several times while they were searching without a dog.
With the dog closing in, the deer jumped up, ran a short distance and bedded down again.
Eventually, the hunter got in position to administer a coup de grace shot.
The buck, which the hunter initially had shot through the stomach — so it eventually would have died — ended up measuring 206 inches.
"Without the dog, they might never have found that buck or they might not have found it for quite some time," Bensing said.
Bensing is director of an organization called Deer Recovery of Pennsylvania, which is lobbying for the legalization here of the use of leashed tracking dogs to recover wounded deer.
Currently, the group is in the midst of a letter-writing campaign to urge state lawmakers to support and move forward House Bill 2625.
Introduced by state Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, of Armstrong and Indiana counties, the bill seeks to amend Pennsylvania's game and wildlife code to allow the "use of a leashed blood-tracking dog to track a white-tailed deer in an attempt to recover an animal which has been legally killed or wounded during any open season for white-tailed deer."
The proposal has the unanimous support of the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners.
At their most recent meeting, the board members adopted a resolution urging legislators to pass HB 2625.
The resolution states, "The [board] generally supports the idea of allowing leashed tracking dogs to be used to track white-tailed deer. ... This procedure is legal in most surrounding states and seems to be working satisfactorily. ... Many hunters and dog handlers have requested that the PGC support the passage of HB 2526 by the Legislature."
And, given the support a previous version of the bill won in the state House in 2006, it should have significant backing among state lawmakers.
But, in all likelihood, HB 2526 will meet the same fate as similar proposals that have been churning in Harrisburg's legislative washing machine for the past 10 years.
It will probably die at the end of the year due to inaction.
"I'm worried there isn't enough time for this to get through before the end of the year," said state Rep. Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, who is one of the bill's co-sponsors. "It could get through, but I just don't think it's likely."
Bensing and the members of Deer Recovery of Pennsylvania hope to convince lawmakers to make time for HB 2526, which is currently sitting in the House Game & Fisheries Committee.
A form letter the organization is encouraging people to send to their representatives hammers home the point that allowing the use of tracking dogs cuts down on the loss of game.
"Hunters using blood tracking dogs demonstrate to the nonhunting public that hunters take all measures possible to harvest and retrieve game that has been shot," the letter states. "This helps to put hunting in a positive light to society in general and is a plus for the survival of our hunting heritage here in PA."
According to Bensing, 17 states, including New York, Maryland and Ohio, allow the use of blood-tracking dogs.
"This is a no-brainer," said Bensing, who works as a dog obedience trainer. "The reality is, there just isn't a problem with this."
"Anything we can do to help hunters recover their deer, I think is a good idea," he said. "That's the goal of this legislation, and I think it's a good one."
So why hasn't this proposed law change gone anywhere in 10 years?
"Politics," Bensing said. "Every time it comes up we get caught up in politics."
Indeed, this year Cutler said the House Game & Fisheries Committee has had other issues on its plate.
"I think this bill just wasn't a priority for us this year," he said.
In the past, proposals would make some progress, and then stall.
None of that means the bill isn't a good one, Cutler said.
And he fully expects that if HB 2526 doesn't move before the end of the year, Rep. Pyle will introduce a new version of the bill early next year.
Bensing said he hopes there's still time to move the bill forward this year, but he's not holding his breath.
And he said any legwork his organization can do now is less work they'll have to do next year.
"I think there's been more pressure from the hunting community lately to move this ahead," Bensing said. "Momentum seems to be on our side this time."
Currently, there are only a handful of guys like Bensing across the state who actively train dogs to be able to follow blood trails.
Like Bensing, they train their dogs by collecting blood from deer they've harvested during hunting season, or from roadkills, and making their own trails.
But that's not the same as working a trail left by a wounded deer.
So they, like Bensing, regularly take their dogs out of state to get real-life experience.
Last year, Bensing took his dogs to Maryland 30 times, recovering nine deer for hunters.
"Usually, I get called by guys who hit big bucks, but I like finding a doe for a kid or a regular buck for a guy who's just too old to track by himself," Bensing said.
Should the Pennsylvania law change, Bensing said he expects that, within two years, "30-40 guys will actively run tracking dogs across the state and another 200 or so will find the occasional deer for themselves or their buddies."
I think I need to start training my dog to do this. She's only 13 weeks so we can get her going early.