A divided legislative oversight committee approved a proposed rule extending otter season by one month and making several other changes to Vermont’s trapping regulations.
The decision, which came in a 4-3 vote last week, concluded a long and often impassioned debate.
Otter trapping season will now begin Oct. 28 and end March 31 instead of at the end of February. Trappers will also be required to submit an annual biological survey to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Completion of the survey about their trapping efforts and results had been voluntary.
Several of the legislators who voted for the proposal expressed qualifications for their support.
“I’ve had a lot of communications on this — most against the rule,” said Rep. Michael Yantachka, D-Charlotte. “I’m not a big fan of trapping or hunting myself.”
But he sets traps for rodents at his house and eats meat, Yantachka said, so “the whole idea of whether we value wildlife and whether we value animal life is kind of moot in my opinion.”
In the end, Yantachka said, he thought the Fish and Wildlife Department had taken “a methodical approach in evaluating the rule changes” and he trusted the recommendation of “responsible and capable” state wildlife biologists.
Yantachka said the mandatory submission of trapping surveys is a significant benefit of the new rule.
Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs, said he was “not a fan of the policy,” but he believed it was “within the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Department.”
The Fish and Wildlife Board received a petition in late 2015 requesting, among other things, an extension to otter season. In the nearly two years since then, wildlife advocates, trappers and others have attended public hearings, signed petitions and sent hundreds of emails to express their opposition or support.
Most recently, witnesses from both sides have testified before the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules at three separate sessions since the beginning of July.
At Thursday’s meeting of LCAR, Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, questioned the wisdom of having spent an “incredible amount of committee time” on a “de minimis” rule change.
“This rule never should have been brought to this committee,” he said. “If we’re going to produce a rule with very little change, then I don’t think we should be spending state resources on that.”
Sirotkin voted against the proposal.
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, the committee’s chair, offered a contrasting view.
“In this state, we take things seriously whether it’s one otter or 10,” MacDonald said. “And we take our citizens seriously.”
The new rule aligns the beginning and end of otter and beaver trapping seasons – an important fact because the two species are caught using the same traps. Another effect of the rule is that trappers will no longer be required to use a modified trigger mechanism in March designed to allow otters to pass through safely.
Louis Porter, commissioner of the Fish and Wildlife Department, told the committee that between one and 10 otters will be caught each March as a result of the extension. In recent years, Porter said, the average number of otters trapped each season has been around 160 and the average number trapped accidentally in March – when the modified triggers malfunctioned – has been “between zero and one.”
Department biologists are confident the additional otter catch in March, Porter told the committee last month, won’t harm the health of Vermont’s otter population.
During last month’s sessions, LCAR discussed at length the reliability of the department’s otter population data and estimates, but the issue was not taken up again Thursday when the committee voted.
Instead, the crux of the committee’s deliberations at its most recent meeting was whether the new rule’s changes were “arbitrary” — a question whose answer would determine whether the committee had grounds to object.
Jenny Carter, an attorney from Randolph Center who testified as a member of the public, told the committee the definition of “arbitrary” in this case was up to its members.
“You all have the ability to decide what ‘arbitrary’ means,” Carter said, “because it is not defined in the Vermont (code of laws).”
Carter suggested the committee use the definition from Black’s Law Dictionary: “not supported by fair, solid, and substantial cause and without reason given.”
Using this definition, Carter said, it was her “firm belief” that the rule proposal was arbitrary.
The department “has given you reasons, has given you these problems,” Carter argued, “but all of their data shows that these problems actually don’t exist in any solid or substantial way.”
Rob Mullen, a wildlife artist from Bolton and member of the Vermont Wildlife Coalition’s steering committee, also told the committee that he felt the proposed rule’s changes were arbitrary.
Mullen showed the committee several video clips of beavers dying in various types of traps. The footage, Mullen said, showed that even when the traps functioned as intended, they still did not result in a quick or painless death.
Mullen said he understood that trapping “is sometimes a useful if not a necessary tool for wildlife management.” But he said the department’s claim about decreasing inhumane beaver deaths from the modified trigger mechanism “made no sense” to him. He said the department’s reason for supporting the rule was inconsistent — and thus “arbitrary” — because the traps don’t ordinarily result in instantaneous death.
Finally, Mullen said, the department allowed the use of drowning traps for other species, so drowning beaver shouldn’t be a special case.