Vote on otter season extension postponed

A river otter. Photo by Ken Thomas/Wikimedia Commons

A Vermont legislative committee has postponed a decision on a proposal to lengthen the otter trapping season. This postponement, voted on last week, adds another chapter to a long and vigorous public debate.

“It’s a highly contentious issue,” said Brenna Galdenzi, president and founder of animal advocacy group Protect Our Wildlife. In a phone interview following the hearing, she said, “Whenever there’s an issue of trapping, it really gets people active and speaking out. It really gets people going.”

That has been the case in the debate over P-1704, a proposal now before the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.

The committee will meet again July 20.

P-1704 grew out of a petition submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Board in October 2015 that requested six modifications to Vermont’s trapping regulations. In a year and a half, Vermonters on both sides have flocked to public meetings, barraged state officials with emails, and submitted opposing petitions.

“We’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails,” Catherine Gjessing, general counsel for the state Fish and Wildlife Department, said in a phone interview. The department provides staffing and scientific recommendations to the Fish and Wildlife Board when it considers changing hunting, fishing or trapping regulations.

Kimberly Royar, a state furbearer biologist, said that public sentiment toward trapping sometimes focuses on sympathy with individual animals at the expense of considering how best to manage an entire species.

“Part of what trapping does is keep these animals wild, so people can value them as wildlife species and not as vermin,” Royar said. “People tend to love wildlife until there are beavers flooding your driveway or a black bear is on your porch.”

At last Thursday’s LCAR session, Gjessing and Royar testified in support of the proposal that would extend the otter season.

Beaver and otter are caught using the same traps, but otter season ends at the end of February and beaver season ends March 31. This means trappers going after beaver in March are required to modify the trigger mechanisms in their traps to allow otter to pass through unscathed.

Gjessing and Royar identified two primary reasons the department supports P-1704, both related to different end dates of the otter and beaver seasons.

First, they said the department has heard reports from trappers that the modified traps used in March sometimes simply pin beaver until they drown instead of breaking their necks, leading to inhumane kills. Extending otter season would remove the requirement that trappers use the modified trigger mechanism.

They also said the department would prefer trappers who catch otter in March to be able to take their pelts or otherwise use them, something which is prohibited for animals captured out of season.

“It’s not a matter of increasing the otter take,” Royar said. “It’s allowing trappers to utilize the otter that are taken during that expanded beaver season. That’s really the goal of this.”

Royar emphasized that the department’s analysis of otter population and trapping data suggested that extending trapping season by a month would have a minimal effect on the health or growth of Vermont’s otter population. She noted an upward trend in population growth over the past several decades.

Royar said also that the state’s otter population is small, somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000, but its trapping community only has an average of 63 active trappers. According to a summary of background information about P-1704 the Fish and Wildlife Department published on it website, the annual number of otter trapped in Vermont has averaged 178 over the past 10 years. The department’s summary characterizes this rate as “relatively light in comparison to the estimated population.”

Royar reported that the average number of otter inadvertently trapped during March has hovered between zero and one. Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, asked why a rule change was necessary given the low number.

Royar said the department sought to be transparent.

“There were some proposals to just say ‘let them keep those animals that were taken inadvertently,’ but we wanted to do this legally and expand the season by a month,” she said.

A trapper handles a trap. Photo courtesy Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department

Representatives from two different wildlife advocacy groups urged LCAR to vote against the proposal.

Galdenzi, with Protect Our Wildlife, challenged many of the claims Gjessing and Royar made. In particular, she questioned the reliability of the data the Fish and Wildlife Department has on Vermont’s otter population.

“They do not have otters who are trapped and killed who are out of season in defense of property, so they don’t have a full collection of otter carcasses to complete their analysis,” she said.

Galdenzi also argued that the department’s rationale for supporting the proposal was “completely arbitrary and unfounded.”

Galdenzi told the committee that she had spoken with Royer and was told the modified traps used in March rarely malfunction.

“I don’t know what problem we’re trying to fix is,” she said. “The trap is only catching zero to one otters during the month of March, and the traps are working as they’re supposed to work.”

Galdenzi suggested that the real motivation behind the proposal was accommodating trappers.

“This has nothing to do with what’s best for otters or what’s best for wildlife or what’s best for those of us who don’t want to extend trapping seasons,” Galdenzi said. “Our feeling is that the request is to satisfy trapper convenience and we shouldn’t be basing wildlife management on what’s most convenient for the 0.15 percent who trap in Vermont.”

James White from the Vermont Wildlife Coalition also asked LCAR to question the reliability of existing otter population data.

White noted that Dr. Thomas Serfass, an otter specialist and professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, wrote a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Department in which he stated that otters’ low reproductive rates and habitat requirements make them especially vulnerable to overharvesting.

“We believe that because the otters are under threat and vulnerable,” White said, “adequate monitoring and data become especially critical, especially when you’re proposing to increase the harvest of this species. And we feel that the monitoring and data that has been available up to now isn’t adequate.”

Speaking from the audience, Louis Porter, commissioner of the Fish and Wildlife Department, sought to reassure the committee that his department’s otter data was sound.

“No data on a wild population is ever complete,” he said. “It just can’t be. It’s not a lab, it’s a wild population. We do the absolute best we can and I’m as confident in this data set as I am in any data that we base any of our wildlife decisions on.”

Ultimately, a majority of LCAR’s members found Galdenzi’s and White’s concerns about the quality of the department’s otter data compelling.

Near the session’s conclusion, Rep. Linda Myers, R-Essex, motioned for a vote on the proposal. She and Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, both stated that they intended to vote in support of P-1704.

Myers’ motion for a vote was tabled in favor of a vote to adjourn, though, after Sens. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, and Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, and Reps. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs, and Michael Yantachka, D-Charlotte, said they wouldn’t support the proposal and wanted time for further discussion.

LCAR will resume discussion on whether to extend otter season and approve P-1704’s other provision at its next meeting on July 20.

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  • Edward Letourneau

    To the committee: The otters are innocent. They don’t need to be trapped. Shorten the season. They pay their own way in life, unlike most constituents. So leave them live out their life naturally.

  • CHolly Heile

    Thank you POW!!!! There is no reason to extend the trapping season and you proved it! F&W’s support is arbitrary and undemocratic.

  • Lynn Andrews

    Thank you LCAR and POW for scrutinizing the illogical and trapper-focused agenda of this otter trapping extension. Otters pose no risk or threat to anyone; and in fact are experiencing unprecedented environmental threats from increased pollution in their fragile waterways. Kim Royar has repeatedly stated that there are no statistics to demonstrate that the beaver trapping in March has had any positive impact on Vermont. No counts exist, she claims, for how many beaver are killed in traps in March. How can an organization (FWD) not document the monthly beaver kills when the rationale behind extending beaver trapping was to monitor and lower beaver populations? Because it’s not important to trappers, that’s why. Which is how otters have ended up dying unnecessarily. Vermont wildlife belongs to ALL VERMONTERS-not just trappers. Treating wildlife with such indifference is shameful.

  • Anne L Hilliard

    Traps. What a horrible way to die. There’s something missing with anybody who practices this gruesome, torturous method of killing an animal. It’s called a heart.

  • Justine Dominici Kohr

    This is cruel and inhumane and barbaric. This is 2017. Not 1817. Ban trapping altogether!

  • Alexandra Pastor

    I think the Dept would do itself a favor by letting go of the term “humane trapping,” which I believe Ms. Royar used in one of the presentations for the otter trapping season extension (which focused exclusively on beavers) at a public hearing earlier this year that I attended, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around which part of trapping is humane—the limb crushing or the drowning, or possibly the starving or predation that occurs because traps are not checked with the frequency that they are supposed to be by the Dept’s own admission. Certainly given the “sport” itself is this cruel, why extend it to resolve a technicality? Address the root problem. It’s not the otters’ fault that trappers are inconvenienced.

  • Larka Shields

    Considering Porter says he is as confident in this wildlife data as he is in any of his wildlife data then definitely the otter season shouldn’t be extended. He has no idea of animals caught out of season and nuisance animals are not required to be reported. All of the trappers do not turn in their surveys as to how many are trapped. His data is incomplete on so many levels and does not reflect 21st century science. Trapping is not a viable way to make a living and is cruel and inhumane. Wildlife is under threat in Vermont and world wide due to habitat loss, climate change, etc. The Department should be figuring out how to solve the problems with loss of wildlife and not encourage more killing. They are so outdated and need more oversight from LCAR. No to the petition and Yes to updating their archaic placating to the ways of the past.

  • Anna E. Bernier

    Please do NOT extend the otter season!!

  • It is time for non-hunters and non-trappers to be on the Board. We make up most of the population in Vermont and we have no voice on these issues at the Board level. Trapping is very inhumane. I have treated dogs and cats in my vet practices over the years. These unfortunate pets suffer horribly. As do the otters and other trapped animals.

  • Ray Gonda

    While I can understand why people object to trapping based on their sense of humaneness and their perspectives, I believe that at the same time they tend to be about absolutely ignorant about how trappers view things.

    I was raised in rural PA where I trapped, hunted and fished from middle school through high school in 1959. I learned a lot about animals during that six year trapping experience. But the most important outcome of that experience was a love of animals and a lifelong advocacy and drive to protect all species. (I would not expect emotionally-driven bleeding hearts to understand this – my main point) )

    What separates me from most of the commenters here is that I realize that animals are not human beings. They face far more savagery in the wilds from disease and other predators than these folks can really allow themselves to imagine.

    Without knowing trappers (I can now hear “heaven forbid”) they set up a false characterization of trappers and attack it. That’s called a straw man. And if F&W data stand in their way the treat it similarly to it. Completely dishonest.

    I support trappers in Vermont and elsewhere because their hearts are in the right place when it comes to conservation and the protection of wild species. Oh and to you cat owners among the commenters – keep them in the house. They are the most effective and cruelest killers around. They like to play with their prey – torturing it at some length before killing it.

    • CHolly Heile

      You know what else “tortures their prey at length before killing it” TRAPPERS! Ive seen the photos and videos. They don’t lie!

    • Renate M Callahan

      “…their hearts are in the right place”? What heart?
      If one traps, tortures and kills another being for ‘recreation’ there is no heart nor conservation effort discernible to my naked eye.

  • Ray Gonda

    To illustrate how ungrounded some of these animal worshipers are – I had a discussion with a participant in one of the two groups mentioned in the article. Unbelievably, they we either proposing to or actually were creating shelters for feral cats and feeding them in winter. “Feral cats” – wild homeless killers of everything that moves. Cats kill millions of birds nationwide (maybe billions) and these misguided nature lovers were aiding and abetting that.

    • Mary Reed

      Bad analogy – lots of valid research has been done on feral cats. They tend to live in colonies, and they will cause problems. Killing songbirds is only one of the problems. Ignoring them results in a population increase. Killing them results ultimately in a population increase, and in the meantime, there is usually unacceptable collateral damage. What has been proven effective to decrease feral cat colonies/ populations, and the problems they create, is trap, neuter, release, feed. I believe I also read an article about some colonies receiving regular anti-rabies vaccines, meaning they were no longer a vector for that horrible disease. The cat colonies themselves will keep out most ‘interlopers’. The few cats that do successfully get in can then be trapped/ neutered/ released and fed, becoming part of the solution instead of part of the problem. ‘Tain’t about ‘animal worshippers’ – it’s about animal science.

    • Renate M Callahan

      I would actually much rather implement a mandatory spay/neuter law for any cats or dogs entering the state of VT, preferably even nationwide.

  • CHolly Heile

    Exactly!!!! I’m still trying to understand F&W’s reasoning.

    • Brenna Galdenzi

      We are too.

  • Holly Tippett

    Its so interesting to me that Royar says that trapping beavers and drowning them is far less humane than breaking their necks and yet the Fish and Wildlife Department promotes trapping including the use of colony traps which are drowning traps. Which is it FWD? humane, less humane, inhumane? Most Vermonters would like to ban all trapping (except a vocal few who have undue influence in the department). Come on FWD, catch up to the rest of us!

    • Matt Young

      I don’t believe “most Vermonters” want to ban all trapping.

      • Brenna Galdenzi

        Matt, while you may not like the results, you cannot try and diminish them. The annual Vermonter poll is a highly respected poll conducted by Center for Rural Studies. Do you know how polls work?

  • Walter Medwid

    On the UVM public attitude survey of Vermonters, there is no statistically valid difference in the results with or without Chittenden County participants.

  • Ray Gonda

    “Protected and preserved” in its usual meaning with regard to wildlife across the nation means species protection, not individual critter protection, unless it is an endangered species critter. Thus the Dept of F&W are doing their duty admirably.

    For those who are trying to outlaw trapping (and then hunting and after that fishing) keep in mind that those pursuits are implicitly protected in Vermont’s constitution via the right to enter private lands to carry out those pursuits unless “enclosed”, which in today’s world means “posted”.

    It is naivete to think that animals will “manage” themselves if all the above are somehow outlawed. Anyone believing that needs to take a good hard look at animal population studies and cycles and predatory prey relationships.
    Hunters are simply part of the mix of consumers of wildlife alongside wild predators. However they are the only part of the mix that can have human intelligence applied to conservation measures. They (we) are needed in today’s world regardless the overhunting that has take place in past worlds. These sports do not harm wildlife population species. The numbers of otters (bless their souls) being discussed in these regulations are trivial – too trivial for you animal rights people to be making such a fuss.

    • Brenna Galdenzi

      Ray, so much of what you’ve posted here is incorrect. First of all, otters do not need to be managed – they are indeed predators who manage their own populations based on food availability and habitat (both of which are at risk.) Read F&W’s Wildlife Action Plan.

      Secondly, no one is seeking to take hunting and fishing away despite the fear mongering tactics employed by trappers. POW has members who are avid hunters and anglers.

      This issue is not about banning trapping – it is about stopping an unwarranted, frivolous and arbitrary request to EXTEND otter trapping season.

  • Jack Perugini

    No one wants otters trapped at all, never mind extending the season! Like seriously, get a life. Go POW!

  • Lisa Jablow

    The only thing I can add to the thoughtful, well-crafted, and completely sensible comments of those who argue against the extension of the otter season (and a shortening of the beaver season) is my support. Trapping is simply cruel and barbaric. Those who practice and support it can expound all they want about its value as a tradition and a way of “communing” with nature. It’s a sorry world when people feel they can only be one with nature by killing somebody, stripping off their skin and selling it. To paint those of us who care about and strive to protect other living beings as ignorant uninformed vigilantes is a weak argument delivered from a weak position. This is a bad proposal and it should not go forward. And, yes, nature does balance itself. Things were quite fine until we came along and decided we owned it all.

    • Ray Gonda

      There you have it! “It’s a sorry world when people feel they can only be one with nature by killing someone …”. Here is the typical animal rights person equating animals with humans via the word “somebody” which coincidentally has been extended to say: not killing these wild critters (i.e. humans ) is the only way to nirvana, i.e., one cannot appreciate nature AND kill animals. Hogwash! This is culture clash with these people telling others how to live their lives and conduct themselves. If any of you are meat eaters, those animals get killed – sometimes cruelly, yet you eat the meat. I’m sure you are not all vegans.

      When are we going to see an effort to give birds the right to vote.

  • Annie Guion

    I am against the extension of the otter trapping season. This request for an extension does indeed seem to be a way to make things more convenient for trappers, not to better manage a population. I am an advocate for hunting and fishing, but trapping is an inhumane and brutal way to kill animals. It is outdated and needs to go away, for good.

  • Terrie Bentley

    Please do not extend this season. It is horrible and needless.

  • Boris Bee

    Please do not extend the trapping season. Trapping is already barbaric and cruel as it is.

  • Anne Daniels Macklin

    Do not extend the season. Trapping is not conservation, it’s just cruel and so outdated.

  • Renate M Callahan

    it already is.

  • Renate M Callahan

    by driving carefully and mindfully many of those deaths can or could be avoided. Also, if the VT Highway Dept. followed the lead of developed countries wildlife underpasses could be constructed in areas of high wildlife traffic to bring down those casualties even further.
    Where there is a will there’s a way.

  • Renate M Callahan

    Now there’s a revolutionary thought. Voluntarily limit themselves and the level of death and destruction wrought upon Vermont wildlife.
    Nah, too complicated.