Walter Medwid: Wildlife governance is in crisis

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Walter Medwid, of Derby, who is co-founder of the Vermont Wildlife Coalition.

Vermont’s governance of wildlife is facing multiple crises. Our Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) is clear about the fiscal and wildlife crises before it but less open to addressing its identity crisis — the controversies around who it serves and its real purpose. Is DFW’s highest priority the production of wild livestock and fish for consumption or is it the conservation of natural systems?

The fiscal crisis is due to the decline in license sales. Hunting license sales, for example, have dropped over 56% since 1985. License sales provided 64% of DFW’s budget in 1990, today it’s 26%. Taxpayers are increasingly covering up the shortfall by providing about 25% of the budget. In 1990 it was 9%.

It faces a wildlife crisis with over 200 species of plants and animals either threatened or endangered. Nearly 1,000 species have been identified as species of greatest conservation need. Vermont species like U.S. species are expected, according to various authorities, to decline by a third or more in coming decades.  

The identity crisis controversy is acute. Mid-20th century wildlife governance isn’t working today. Wildlife and the citizenry are not being served fairly. While DFW is mandated to serve all citizens, it actually has primary customers (trappers and hunters) and its decisions reflect its priority for those privileged and exclusive stakeholders. Evidence of that bias is reflected in DFW’s embrace of recreational trapping; in support of bear hounding; in support for wanton waste of wildlife; and its failure to take any position on a bill that would ban coyote killing contests. With half of its budget going to game species (1/10th of one percent of all Vermont species) while hundreds of non-game species are imperiled, the chasm is only reinforced. To cap it all, the Fish and Wildlife Board — the body that makes regulatory and public policy for game species, has only representatives of the privileged stakeholder group — all others have been blackballed from serving in crafting public policy on public resources.

DFW’s not representing all stakeholders is not unique to Vermont. Leaders in the wildlife profession have recognized the problem decades ago and peer-reviewed papers attest to the need for agencies to transform. That call was heard by the voice representing wildlife agencies, The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA).  AFWA issued a report in 2016 with two recommendations — one on funding and the other on the very identity of agencies. The report concluded: “To remain relevant, state fish and wildlife agencies (SFWA) will need to transform their structures, operations and cultures to meet the changing expectations of their customers. If SFWA fail to adapt, their ability to manage fish and wildlife will be hindered and their public and political support compromised.” 

Even the majority of DFW’s own staff in a 2018 survey, recognized that DFW was not changing with the times. Lastly, surveys conducted through the University of Vermont added more evidence of disconnect. One example is broad public support for a ban on recreational trapping — 75% of survey takers supported the idea — not surprising in that over 100 countries have banned trapping. 

Our Legislature is trying to take steps to address these issues, however the weight of crises at DFW’s doorstep makes this issue urgent.  Transformation is happening. Amanda Wuestefeld, Indiana’s first female director of its wildlife department, appointed in early 2020, stated: “When I started in Fish and Wildlife … we all looked the same … enjoyed the same things … were motivated in the same ways. Fish and Wildlife agencies as a whole are at a point in time where we have to change. We have to become a different beast than what we’ve been.”  

As independent as Vermont is, it needs some of that Indiana moxie! Vermonters care about wildlife. We all need to engage — now is the time to support legislative action.


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