SC DNR honored by Humane Society for bear investigation

jholleman@thestate.comFebruary 25, 2014 

  • What is bear baying?

    In the wild, bear baying is the practice of hunting dogs tracking and chasing black bears into a defensive position. Some hunters traditionally have trained dogs by releasing them around captive bears chained to a stake or tree, with the dogs allowed to bark at the bears but not supposed to bite them. Some groups stage bear baying events to judge the best bear hunting dogs.

When the Humane Society blasted the S.C. Department of Natural Resources four years ago for allowing bear baying in the state, the agency bit its collective lip.

Four years later, Kim Kelly, state director of the animal protection group, stood outside the DNR office in Columbia Tuesday to present the group’s law enforcement appreciation award to DNR for its work in effectively shutting down bear baying in the state.

In the parlance of sports, the award might have been seen as a makeup call, one the Humane Society was happy to make.

“They did their homework,” Kelly said, acknowledging that the society wasn’t aware of DNR’s ongoing investigation four years ago. “They figured out which bears were being used in bear baying, they built a very solid case. ... It led to an outcome that we’re very happy to see, we’re very satisfied with.”

Current DNR director Alvin Taylor, who was the director of the agency’s law enforcement division four years ago, was gracious Tuesday. The investigation into bear-related violations “was a long road, and there were a lot of questions along the way about what the Department of Natural Resources was doing. We thank the Humane Society for bearing with us,” he said as several people listening groaned at the pun.

In the wild, bear baying is the practice of hunting dogs tracking and chasing black bears into a defensive position. Some hunters traditionally have trained dogs by releasing them around captive bears chained to a stake or tree, with the dogs allowed to bark at the bears but not supposed to bite them. Some groups stage bear baying events to judge the best bear hunting dogs.

As long as the dogs don’t harm the captive bears, none of that is illegal in South Carolina. The Humane Society expressed outrage about the laws at its 2010 news conference, where it showed undercover video footage of a South Carolina baying competition in which dogs appeared to nip at a captive bear.

Those laws haven’t been changed, but the wildlife agency was able to crack down on many bear baying participants for violating other bear-related regulations, including hunting bears over bait, out of season or outside of the few counties where it’s legal in the state.

So far, the investigation has led to 30 arrests on 56 charges, including an animal cruelty charge against James Robert Grumbles, 65, of Travelers Rest, involving one captive bear used in a baying competition. Equally as important to bear baying opponents, negotiations with those charged in the cases led them to turn over six captive bears.

Those six bears have been sent to a wildlife preserve in Colorado, effectively ending legal captive bear baying in the state, according to DNR Capt. Robert McCullough.

Ten years ago, the state legislature and the natural resources agency took a passive-aggressive approach to ending captive bear baying by outlawing the ownership of black bears but grandfathering all owners who had bears at the time. Bear owners had to apply for permits to keep their bears, and permits were given for 38 animals.

At the time, DNR officials estimated it would be 20 years before the last of the bears lived out its life in captivity. With the move of the six bears late last year to Colorado, the state has only two permitted captive bears outside of zoos, McCullough said.

One belongs to Grumbles, but the bear was deemed too old and fragile to be moved. The other private captive bear is a family pet in the Lowcountry, and authorities are certain it will not be used for baying practice, McCullough said.

When the bulk of the charges were announced in September, Grumbles, who faced felony counts, pleaded to a misdemeanor count and gave up three of the bears that were sent to Colorado. Many of the charges in the cases have yet to be adjudicated, McCullough said.

The investigation required hundreds of hours of work by DNR officers in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia as well as the staff at the states’ Attorney General’s offices. Cross-state jurisdictions, infrequent bear baying events and the difficulty of infiltrating the baying groups contributed to the length of the process. “Some investigations just take a long time,” Taylor said.

The society’s Humane Law Enforcement Award was given Tuesday to Col. Chisolm Frampton, current head of DNR’s law enforcement division.

When the Humane Society publicized the issued in 2010, John Frampton, then the agency director, sent the Humane Society a letter simply thanking them for “taking the time to write to us.” He couldn’t say at the time an undercover investigation already had begun.

DNR board members were inundated with more than 5,000 angry emails about bear baying in the months after the 2010 news conference, according to Taylor. He still doesn’t fault the Humane Society for its outrage, even if it was aimed at an agency that was working behind the scenes to solve the problem.

“They were very passionate about their cause,” Taylor said, “and we understand that.”

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