Hunters’ ‘right to retrieve’ tramples property owners’ right to exclude trespassers

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Jim Medeiros and his family run their own business, White Oak Meadows, on land they bought in 2012 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. Located outside of Richmond, the family cultivates environmentally responsible forest and farm products, including beef and poultry raised solely on grasses and native vegetation.

Ranching can be a tough-enough industry when dealing with natural challenges such as weather. But every year, Jim runs into a man-made problem with hunters—and their hunting dogs.

Using dogs to hunt game, especially deer, is a longstanding practice in Virginia, dating back to a time when 20,000-acre farms provided plenty of room for chases that can cover more than two miles. Nowadays, however, with more people and less farmland, available private hunting grounds are usually 5,000 acres or smaller, and rarely adjacent, so the dogs that deer hunters use cross over onto others’ private property.

Virginia is one of just two states that allow hunters to access private property to retrieve their hunting dogs.

The law is typically invoked during deer hunting season, but it applies to a number of game animals with year-round seasons. Hunters aren’t required to give property owners notice. And in practice, hunters can use the cover of other game’s hunting seasons and access rules to gain year-round access to actively hunt on private property, rather than merely retrieve wandering hounds.

While safety and privacy are grave concerns for Jim, the unannounced invasions by dogs and hunters also impact his business. White Oak Meadows has lost livestock and poultry to marauding hounds, and the dogs have upset cows and disrupted their milking process.

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Jim and other affected property owners don’t necessarily oppose deer hunting. In fact, many are hunters themselves. They do, however, oppose unwanted trespassers on their land, and they’re turning to a recent Supreme Court ruling for help.

Mauricio Tovar’s use of his private, rural property in Chesterfield County is likewise disturbed by the invasion of hunters and their dogs. Mauricio runs a horse boarding business, with a riding ring for his clients to use. Howling and baying dogs running through the property often spook the horses, presenting a risk of harm to anyone riding the horses at the time.

Another plaintiff in the lawsuit is a hunter himself, Robert Pierce, who leases the land he owns through a corporation to other hunters. Those hunters pay for the right to hunt on this property, unlike those who invade the land under the authority of Virginia’s right-to-retrieve law. Not only are dogs and trespassing hunters chasing away Robert’s business, but they also present a danger of accidental shootings.

A fundamental aspect of property rights is the ability to exclude trespassers from your property. The government cannot grant third-party access that violates your property rights and disturbs your use of your property even if that access is in the form of retrieving a hunting dog.

The Supreme Court made this clear in PLF’s 2021 win in Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, which held that grants of access like this are uncompensated takings of property under the Fifth Amendment.

The right-to-retrieve law does just that—it takes from property owners the right to exclude hunters looking for their hunting animals. While Cedar Point dealt with a California union-access regulation, Virginia’s right-to-retrieve law is even more egregious. The former capped access at three hours a day, 120 days a year. The right-to-retrieve law has no such intrinsic limitation.

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In other words, the Virginia law flouts the Supreme Court by giving legal cover to hunters’ trespassing on private property.

Joined by Mauricio Tovar, Robert Pierce and Blue Wing LLC of Halifax County, and Jim from Dinwiddie County are fighting back to restore the right to exclude unwanted people from their private properties—the very rights vindicated by the Supreme Court.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>