Editor’s note: This commentary is by Jim White, of Shelburne, who is on the advisory board of the Vermont Wildlife Coalition and on a Shelburne town subcommittee that is drafting a town wildlife policy.
There are two traditions in Vermont that focus on wildlife — hunters and anglers (who I will refer to as “hunters”) and wildlife watchers, or those who interact with wildlife without consuming it (who I will refer to as “watchers”). I’m oversimplifying, of course — many hunters get immense enjoyment from simply watching wildlife, and there are lots of watchers who eat meat. But on the surface, the two groups seem to have little in common.
Hunters accuse watchers of being disconnected from the real world of wildlife, claiming they are anti-hunting and want to disrupt game management. Watchers accuse hunters of being disconnected from the real world of wildlife, pointing to such practices as open season on certain species, the use of radio-collared but barely controlled dog packs, and the wanton waste of animals killed merely for recreation.
In my experience, very few watchers are actually anti-hunting, although they may disagree with specific hunting practices. And various conversations lead me to believe that most hunters come from the ages-old perspective that you eat and use what you hunt, and out of respect for wildlife, engage in fair chase and minimal cruelty during the hunt. There are issues that inflame both traditions, but let’s leave those aside just for the moment.
By doing so, it’s possible to consider that watchers and hunters have something important in common. What we share is a deep devotion to and fascination with wildlife. Why think that? First, because both groups spend a lot of money on their passion. Second, both devote real time to their wildlife pursuits and put themselves in uncomfortable conditions of climate and terrain in the process. Also, both have large stores of information, insight and feelings about the specific wildlife niches that captivate them. So why the apparently vast divide between them? The truth is — I don’t know.
What I do know is that Vermont’s wildlife desperately need both hunters and watchers to advocate for them. The present and future hold much documented and obvious threat for the roughly 21,000 species in Vermont. The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 2015 Wildlife Action Plan, Vermont’s primary blueprint for managing wild species, states, “A significant number of wildlife species need help because of threats such as habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation; invasive exotic species; diseases; and climate change.” A 2018 joint report by the National Wildlife Federation, the American Fisheries Society and the Wildlife Society concluded that “as many as one third of America’s wildlife species are at increased risk of extinction.” Vermont, being part of America, will not be immune to this threat. Currently, almost 1,000 Vermont species are classified as “species of greatest conservation need.”
The threats to wildlife go beyond those listed above; they are complex and have financial and socio-political dimensions that we will have to figure out.
But there is one concern that immediately stands out, because it is grave, and because we can do something about it. I’m talking about the destruction of habitat from forest loss, fragmentation, and degradation, all largely due to the ever-pressing demands of human activity. Habitat is a fancy word for the intact environment that wildlife needs to survive. When habitat disappears, wildlife disappears. Protecting habitat will demand a variety of strategies, but one that Vermont has in place, unlike all other states, is Act 250. Act 250 offers a tangible and proven way to protect some important habitat.
Gov. Phil Scott recently vetoed a bill that would have strengthened Act 250’s capacity to expand habitat protection. Hunters and watchers alike should be deeply unhappy with his action. However, the new legislative session starting in January is a chance to push a reworked version of this bill forward. My view is that not only should watchers and hunters care, they should work together to make sure it happens. I don’t know what that would look like.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has shown a strong commitment to protecting habitat with the limited resources it has available for that purpose. While the department hasn’t demonstrated much interest in bringing disparate voices together for the common good, maybe Act 250’s potential for habitat protection could be the occasion for doing that.
The fact is — we are at a threshold when it comes to the future of our wildlife. We can have our differences, and clearly will, but we have to get our Act 250 together. No excuses. Do hunters and watchers really care about wildlife in Vermont? Let’s prove it by joining to make Act 250 a better tool for protecting habitat in the next legislative session.
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