Fish and Wildlife Board proposes rule that would block horses and bikes from wildlife management areas

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Barton Chronicle.

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Board wants to continue to block horseback riding and bike riding on the department’s 87 wildlife management areas at a time when demand for recreational land use is growing.

A new proposed board rule would also put limits on rock climbing, dog mushing, photography, boating, cross-country skiing, collecting shed antlers, non-commercial berry and mushroom picking and “shooting where specifically designated.”

Those activities are and would continue to be allowed on designated corridors, but not across all wildlife management areas, according to Patrick Berry, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department is concerned about damage the activities may have on habitat and threatened and endangered species.

“Our properties were purchased for the conservation of important fish and wildlife values and activities consistent with those values constitute the priority uses,” Berry said. “The rule simply codifies our long-standing management practices.”

The rule is presently in its formative stage, and is expected to be voted on when the 14-member board meets on Sept. 19.

The state’s new rule for outdoor recreational uses is the latest attempt to determine what should be permitted on public lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also working on a comprehensive management plan, which would affect what the public could do on federal preserves such as the one in Brunswick, which were once part of the Champion lands.

Refuge Manager Mark Maghini said in a recent interview a draft of the plan could be in the public’s hands by the end of the year.

Traditional uses, such as hunting and fishing, are protected on both the federal refuge and the state’s wildlife management areas (WMAs) because of conditions attached to their acquisitions, such as the Pitman and Robinson Act of 1937. That’s the act that sets aside the excise tax on guns and ammunition for the purchase of public lands.

As more people seek access to outdoor recreation, pressure is mounting to permit uses that have been prohibited for one reason or another.

Try as he might, David Lafoe could not get an answer to his question at a recent public hearing. He wanted to know why the state refuses to allow bicycles to travel where motor vehicles are allowed to go on roads throughout WMAs.

The WMAs are owned and managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and state biologist John Austin found himself on the hot seat as he sought to explain to a mainly disgruntled crowd who gets to do what on public lands.

The WMAs comprise 133,000 acres, which include two conservation and five fish hatcheries — the largest being the 931-acre one at Bald Hill in Newark.

Among the prohibited uses are bicycling and horseback riding, restrictions the new rule proposes to keep, much to the ire of people like Lafoe.

“I’ve been threatened with handcuffs and jail for riding my bicycle in the Sladyk,” he said, referring to the Bill Sladyk Wildlife Management Area, a roughly 9,500-acre parcel eight miles to the north of Island Pond. “Is there a reason for this?”

David Sargent of Evansville was equally miffed at the department’s exclusion of bicycles on its lands.

As a longtime member of a hunting camp that sits on state land, Sargent said he supported the state’s purchase of the land from Champion.

He could bicycle those roads before the purchase; now he can’t.

“I was there before you guys were, and now there’s a thing I can’t do,” he said, adding that prohibiting a sport that causes no noise and leaves no marks made no sense.

The prohibitions of cycling and horseback riding were easily the two most explosive exclusions among the 25 or so people who turned out for the meeting that was held Aug. 21.

“What’s the state’s animal?” asked Arlene Douglas of Morgan when she rose to address the board.

“Deer,” replied one of the members.

“You’re fired,” she replied, adding that she moved from Florida to Vermont to raise and keep the state’s official animal, the Morgan horse.

“Your proposal doesn’t sound like unity and freedom,” she said.

Douglas said she was appalled and insulted when she could not ride her horse on one of the wooded roads at the WMA in Wenlock.

Vermont Morgans helped settle the state and deserve the right to be ridden on state lands, she said.

Her outrage was joined by others.

“I’m puzzled why horses and wildlife are not compatible,” said a fellow equestrian.

Heidi Krantz of Craftsbury reminded board members that changes in the patterns of land ownership were leaving less and less land available for public use.

“It’s important to allow more access, not less,” she said.

Maghini, who manages the federal land in Brunswick, said too much access could run counter to the reasons the land was acquired — to protect wildlife and conserve habitat.

In discussing the need for a rule on state WMAs, Mr. Austin, the biologist, said the department wants to nip in the bud any potential conflict that might arise between different users.  One of the board members used the example of a mountain bike rider coming down a trail that was being staked out by a bow hunter during deer season.

The department director of wildlife, Mark Scott, noted there is a mechanism in the proposed rule that would allow a group of prohibited users, say bike riders, to petition the department commissioner for a special permit to ride through a certain area on a WMA.

Others in the crowd suggested changes that would set seasons or hours for uses that might conflict with the more traditional uses.

Sally Lafoe said there should be room for compromise in the new rule.

“This land is our land and we all can agree to use it in a responsible manner,” she said, adding that she would go along with a user fee that would be used to manage the land.

Some criticized the proposal as premature.

“Why make a rule if there is no conflict?” asked someone in the crowd.

“To reduce the likelihood of one happening,” replied Scott. And in some cases, he noted, “Everyone might not be happy.”

As the two-hour hearing came to a close, one woman said: “All Vermonters love the land but we hate rules and regulations.”

CLARIFICATION: Several paragraphs were added to this story at 9:24 a.m. Sept. 7 to clarify the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s land management rule proposal. Patrick Berry, commissioner of the department, says activities such as rock climbing and biking would be allowed in designated corridors.


  1. Sally Shaw :

    I can see one reason to prohibit horses from critical wilderness areas: the spread of invasive species seed from their poop. However, I consider the use of motorized vehicles in wild places, (which also deliver invasive spp. seed) and the trash hunters leave behind (I speak from personal experience–I have to clean up our woods and roadsides every year after hunting season) far more invasive. Hunting should not conflict with passive sports. Hunters should pack out what they pack in, and be targeting deer, not bicycle riders or horseback riders on the roads and trails. If you can’t see what you’re shooting, don’t shoot for heaven’s sake. I agree with the Morgan lady. Horses and Vermont belong together. I’m sure the wildlife would agree.

    • Jim Busch :


      You should read the article again and research the Pittman-Robertson Act(Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937)
      The Act put a tax on hunting equipment with the stipulation that the money be ONLY used on purchasing land for hunting fishing. So, your statement is backwards. Non-hunting activities should not bother hunting activities on WMA land since 100% of the funds that support WMA’s comes from the P-R Act. Hunting and Fishing take a priority.

  2. Michael Gardner :

    So the many millions of dollars collected every year from an excise tax on guns and ammunition should now be used to fund recreation areas for horse riders and mountain bike riders? At the same time every piece of conservation land in Southern Vermont is posted to all hunting and trapping but encourages horses, bikes, and dog walkers? Ever seen the signs posting the North Bennington Land Trust, I’d be afraid to wear a camo t-shirt walking in there for fear of being assaulted by one of the many “free spirit” dog walkers with their PETA branded Lululemon Yoga pants

    You can’t have everything people! Sometimes you have to compromise, even if that means giving the few hunters left in Vermont their own little piece of solitude

    • David Dempsey :

      Well said Michael. A lot has changed since I started hunting in the 1950’s. Back then, posted property was a rarity and hunting was accepted as a tradition by the majority of Vermonters. Over the years since then, attitudes toward hunting in Vermont have changed, slowly but surely. So many people have moved to Vermont because they love the state. Most of these people embrace the Vermont values and the way of life, but some bring their own values and ways of life with them. These are the people that post their property because they think all hunters are cretons. Hunters are now in the minority in Vermont.
      These wildlife management areas were bought and are maintained by the hunters. It is rare these days to read a story that promotes hunting, even if it is the Vermont fish and wildlife department.

  3. Laurie Malenfant :

    I am a lifelong Vermonter (Grandparents settled in southern VT in the 1700’s). I have grown up in this state hunting, fishing, riding my bike, riding my horses and enjoying the Green Mountains. I am so sad that exclusions exist. Ask what I love more, Riding my horse or hunting large and small game and I would answer I love both. Maybe I should need to drag my next big deer out with my horse! Please consider that the land use in Vermont has a long history of enjoying many different uses. Don’t limit the use. The same lands you wish to limit enjoyed the benefit of horses breed by my family working the lands. My son prefers snowmobile and ATV use. He too shall be limited.. WHAT NEXT??? Perhaps a big fence so nobody can use or access the land. SHAME ON VERMONT

  4. kevin lawrence :

    Horses and bikes and ATV’s are allowed under this new rule in approved corridors. People need to read the regulation and stop whining. The intent is to stop folks from doing what ever they want wherever they want whenever they want. Stay on the approved trails and you’ll notice no conflicts.

  5. Trevor Lewis :

    I’m a life-long enthusiast of off-pavement cycling; I have many friends and family who enjoy horses, birdwatching, and other activities. Anything that gets people out in and in contact with nature as participants is a very good thing in my opinion. We need more of all of it.

    I am also a life-long hunter. Consider it the “original localvore option.” Actual participation in the food chain, without hiring a proxy to do the dirty work for you or hide the fact that we, as living parts of natural systems, cannot help but be dependent upon other living things. Every plant or animal (whichever you personally choose, and however it arrives at your table) that we each depend upon for nourishment is a life very literally given for us- it’s a sort of harvest as communion. Choose the harvest that fits you, and let others do the same for themselves

    The lands in question that would (hopefully will) be covered by this rule were bought directly and solely with funds originating out of taxes that were voluntarily imposed on/ undertaken by those who engage in outdoor shooting and affiliated sports and businesses. These funds have been raised and used for this specific purpose since the 1930s. See: Pittman-Robertson Act:

    If funds were raised from cyclists, birdwatchers, or equestrians to set aside land for those avocations, I’m very sure that they’d be up in arms to keep hunters off those properties to any extent that hunters conflicted with their passions.

    No one is talking about keeping cyclists, birdwatchers, or equestrians entirely off of lands acquired with Pittman-Robertson funds for wildlife and associated fish and game participatory activities.

    The only point of these rules is to require that cyclists, birdwatchers, or equestrians not engage in activities, or at times, that detract from fish and game participatory activities.

    Please explain to me how that is unjust or unfair.

  6. Did I really see “photography” as a potentially prohibited activity, really?
    Really! Perhaps some one from the department can explain the danger “photography” an activity that is not only a protected first amendment right, but an activity that does not in any way damage the environment.

    I am constantly amazed by public officials who are shocked when the public reacts with anger and dismay after said officials propose “rules ” that not only make no sense, but seem to suggest the officials we hire, as a society, to manage OUR natural resources are obviously idiots.

  7. Dave Bellini :

    I noticed the new rules include a ban on berry picking. I don’t know what going to happen when folks get a hankering for real blueberry pie.

    “What are you in for?”



    “Nope, blueberries.”

    “Seems a little harsh don’t it?”

    “The judge said it was a gateway fruit.”

    • kevin lawrence :

      Dave– You misread the text. 4.1 section e allows “Non-commercial picking of berries, nuts, fungi and other wild edibles except ginseng.”

      Prohibitions start in section 4.2, although that makes your post less cheeky.

  8. David Lampman :

    Here’s an example of conflict for you. Where I live has been great Whitetail Deer hunting for decades. That is until the bicycles showed up. Five or six years ago the local bicycle club got permission from a land trust (6 or 7 hundred acres) that surrounds my rural property in Hinesburg, to ride their bikes. My neighbors and myself had no problem with the bikes. There are many trails around here that have been used by horses, motorcycles, 4 wheelers, snowmobiles, bird watchers, hikers, bicyclist etc. for decades. Everyone was included and everyone got along. Everyone was respectful of everyone else. The equestrians, for instance, didn’t ride their horses during hunting season and the 4 wheelers pulled over to let the horses by without spooking them. Then the bicyclists started building their own “exclusive trails”. Now there are signs all over the mountain that say “No motorized vehicles” or “bicycles only”. They tie their trails into the existing trails and mark them as bicycles only. They have built almost as many “bicycle only” trails as there were “all use” trails before they started. Apparently the “all use” trails weren’t good enough for them. They had to have their own “bicycle only” trails. They have built trails right through deer bedding areas in 5 or 6 places. They followed the main white tail rut line for 2 or 3 miles with another trail (which by the way, the deer don’t use anymore). Then they have the audacity to chastise the people who live around here and have used these trails for decades, for riding their 4 wheelers (or whichever motorized vehicles) on “their bike trails”. One of my neighbors was riding her horse on HER OWN LAND and had a bicyclist scream at her that she wasn’t supposed to be on that trail, when the bicyclist was off the permissioned area to ride his bike. Personally I have had a few of the bicyclist tell me to get off trails that I have been riding for 40+ years. Where they park on the road (a fairly narrow dirt road) is right on a blind corner and they leave little room for cars to get by. Much less 2 cars going both ways. On holiday weekends there are so many cars parked there you can barely get by them. I’ve seen license plates from Ontario, Quebec, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and other states. When this all started it was supposed to be just the local bicycle club. They don’t care about anyone else’s usage of the land. They were out on youth hunting weekend building a trail right through a bedding area and they ride right up until the snow comes irregardless of whether it’s hunting season or not. They have no respect for any other use and feel entitled to the land use as if they own the land. They have ruined the hunting on this mountain, created conflict where none existed before and are generally a nuisance. So if they show up in an area near you, be very skeptical about letting them in. Especially on land that was bought and paid for by taxes on hunters. They WILL take over if you let them and they WILL try to make the land exclusive to their preferential use. It has been a very unpleasant experience for many of my neighbors and me. My advice? Keep them out if you can.

  9. Fish and Wildlife Board proposes rule that would block horses and bikes from wildlife management areas.

    Why not declare pristine ridge lines to be wildlife management areas and ban industrial wind turbines that damage those areas in a much greater manner than any horses or bikes would ever do.

    The more pristine areas we ruin, the more global warming we will have.

    It is not just about the rainforest.



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