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A huntsman exercises foxhounds on a field in The Plains, Va. in 2005.DEAN FOSDICK/The Associated Press

Ontario wants to expand a licensing regime that allows residents to unleash dogs in an enclosed area to teach them how to hunt captive coyotes, foxes and rabbits.

Hunters say there is a growing demand for the dog sport, which is often referred to as training and trialing, while animal advocates call it a cruel practice for the captive prey.

The province’s natural resources and forestry minister said the government wants to allow more of the hunting facilities to prevent the sport from moving underground.

“These facilities are going to become less and less over time unless we take some level of intervention,” Graydon Smith said in an interview.

“The one thing that we also wouldn’t want to see is in the absence of these facilities that dog owners and their handlers are out doing this on other private land or Crown land where there could be unwanted interactions with both people and wildlife.”

In 1997, then-premier Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government began phasing out the practice by ceasing the issuance of licences required to operate dog trial areas in the province. It also made it illegal to sell or transfer those licences.

At that time there were upwards of 60 such areas across Ontario. They are all on private property and must be completely enclosed.

There are now only 24 licensed train and trial areas across the province.

The province has proposed to grant new licences through a one-time 90-day application period and allow licences to be transferred to new owners, a summary of proposed changes on the Environmental Registry of Ontario shows.

The prey that will be hunted, usually coyotes, must be caught legally, often through traplines, the registry says.

“This isn’t about active hunting or anything like that,” Smith said. “This is about animals that are bred for this purpose.”

The government’s proposals were sent out for public comment in early April and close on May 18. The proposed changes are part of an omnibus bill tabled in early April called the Less Red Tape, Stronger Economy Act.

John Bell, the president of the Ontario Sporting Dog Association, said Wednesday at a legislative committee studying the bill that the closure of dedicated training and trialing areas have forced hunters to “run their dogs” in the wild.

Christine Hogarth, the parliamentary assistant for the solicitor general, who is in charge of animal welfare in the province, pressed Mr. Bell on the safety of all animals in the training and trialing pens.

Mr. Bell, who owns a large pen for the sport and trains his dogs to hunt coyotes, said there are rules in place for animal safety.

“The regulations call for us to have brush piles, dens, or man-made escape units, we call them pods,” Mr. Bell said.

He has built pods on his own 225-acre pen that includes concrete culverts leading to buried 45-gallon drums that are vented above, he said. The pods are baited with food so the coyotes learn where to hide.

“If they are in danger, they’re in the ground,” he said. “And I can assure you there’s not very many dogs going to go in a 10-inch culvert when there’s an alligator at the other end.”

There are now 33,000 members in the Ontario Sporting Dog Association, which lobbied the government over the past year on the training and trialing licences.

The dog sport also has competitions. Judges stand throughout the enclosures – some are hundreds of acres in size – to score how well dogs are tracking and hunting down coyotes. The first dog trialing competition in Ontario took place in 1887, Mr. Bell said.

The dog trial proposal also has the support of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

“This has been a priority for us for since the beginning of the changes in 1997,” said Kristen Snoek, a wildlife biologist with the federation.

But Camille Labchuk, the executive director of advocacy group Animal Justice, argued the entire practice is inhumane.

“They do some of these contests where dogs chase terrified coyotes around an enclosed pen, and they also train the dogs to kill the coyotes so that they can later use those dogs for hunting,” she said.

She said the current Doug Ford Progressive Conservative government could learn from the Harris government in the late 1990s.

“The Harris government did a number of things to protect wild animals from some of the worst hunting lobbyists by ending the spring bear hunt and phasing out penned coyote hunting,” Ms. Labchuk said.

The Liberal government reintroduced the spring bear hunt in Ontario as a pilot program in 2014, which Ford’s government made permanent in 2021.

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