This commentary is by Walter Medwid, a biologist who lives in Derby.
True to Vermont’s values, a board made up of citizens from around the state decides how to manage the state’s fish and wildlife. But, contrary to those values, the people serving on the Fish and Wildlife Board are chosen by the governor from a limited pool of citizens who take part in trapping hunting and fishing. This may seem to make sense, but wildlife is a public resource and not just important to people who are “consumers” of it.
This imbalance in representation came about for two reasons. First, hunting, fishing and trapping have traditionally been considered a mainstream of our Vermont culture. Second, hunting and fishing license fees and federal funds from taxes on certain sporting goods are an important source of income for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and to the governors who have to juggle budgets and appoint citizens to the board. It’s clear why governors would want to cater to that special interest group.
One clear sign that it may be time to do things differently is the steady decline in sales of hunting and fishing licenses. Since at least 1987, resident hunting and fishing license sales have dropped by double digits, but as Vermont’s culture and traditions have changed, the way wildlife management decisions are made has not. In the 21st century, having a Fish and Wildlife Board with a wide range of stakeholders who represent more contemporary and diverse public values is simply a sign of good government. We look at wildlife far differently than we did 25-50 years ago. Ironically, the consumer-value focus of the board becomes disproportionately stronger and even less representative of public interests as there are fewer hunters and fishers in the state.
One example of our changing views of wildlife is how we now think of predators. We once saw predators such as coyotes as vermin – the only good predator was a dead one. Today, through greater understanding of wildlife, ecology and the environment as a whole, most wildlife enthusiasts see the great value these animals bring to healthy wildlife communities. While many deer hunters see coyotes as a threat to “their” deer, biologists in New York have recently concluded that coyotes prey far less on deer and fawns than hunters believe. Only 10 percent of adult deer deaths are actually caused by coyotes. Biologists there have also found that coyotes hunt and eat beaver far more often than fawns. Regrettably, the board with its narrow focus and representation has, in the case of the coyote, kept the myth of coyote as “vermin” alive and well – they may be killed any day of the year for any reason or no reason. They seemingly dismiss and certainly discount more scientifically-grounded data.
The board’s stance on coyotes is even in conflict with the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s own professional wildlife biologists, who recognize the species’ importance in the natural Vermont community. They stress, “Coyotes fill the role of a natural predator, a role that is important for maintaining the dynamics and health of our ecosystems.”
It’s time for the Legislature and the governor to revisit Vermont’s wildlife laws and the mandate of the Fish and Wildlife Board so they reflect today’s Vermont, where hunting and fishing remains a key part of the equation, but is not the only “voice” represented at the decision-making table.
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The board’s decision this year on moose management shows a similar disconnect. Vermont’s moose population is in decline – only half of what it was 10 years ago – and below the number state biologists estimate as what the landscape can handle. Yet instead of suspending the hunting season to allow the population to become stable again, the only consideration by the board was approving how many animals would be killed this year. This default to hunting values over ecological or wildlife-watching and eco-tourism interests reflects a serious lack of serving the entire public’s interests.
It’s time for the Legislature and the governor to revisit Vermont’s wildlife laws and the mandate of the Fish and Wildlife Board so they reflect today’s Vermont, where hunting and fishing remains a key part of the equation, but is not the only “voice” represented at the decision-making table. There should be a wider lens that the board looks through to ensure an ecologically diverse Vermont with healthy wildlife populations; the lens should not only look at game as the paramount product.
The gulf between who the board represents and the people it should be representing is growing and will only expand if the public at large is frozen out of the decision-making process. The response to no representation of the other sectors of Vermonters will surely be the “… rising tide of posted and inaccessible land,” as referenced by a recent fish and wildlife commissioner.
Hunters, trappers and fishers have done some of the heavy lifting when it comes to supplying fish and wildlife programs with money, although as license fee income has declined, support from general revenues has already increased. Logically that trend towards more public funding needs to grow since wildlife belongs to all Vermonters.
Stakeholders who represent the non-consumptive interests – the wildlife watchers (Vermont has one of the highest percentages of residents in the country who engage in some form of wildlife watching) and photographers, those who benefit from eco-tourism, and many more, need to step up to the plate and actively participate in hearings to give their input when decisions are made. They need to do this under a newly designed board. We need to anticipate vigorous debates as this new board reflects wider interests. However, that’s not a bad thing.
These changes would be a return to those Vermont values held so dear for so long – equal representation – equal voice that is true to the population’s needs and growth. Vermont could lead the pack by managing its wildlife this way. Should we expect anything less in a state where citizen involvement stands at the heart of its identity?