Will Staats: Vermont’s hunting traditions deserve respect

This commentary is by Will Staats, who lives in Victory, Vermont. He’s a professional wildlife biologist who has worked in the field of wildlife conservation for nearly 40 years for both the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.

I learned to hunt and inherited my passion for nature from old Vermont woodsmen in Addison County. The woods were part of their lives. They spent some portion of every day in the woods, hunting, trapping and hunting with dogs. I spent my childhood learning from them. 

When I was 17, I lived in a log cabin on a mountain and trapped for my living. This experience gave me a vital understanding of wildlife ecology and led me to pursue a career in wildlife conservation. I’ve also lived a rich life as a woodsman, a hunter and trapper.

In my mind, these activities are complementary. Wildlife biologists, hunters and trappers understand the need to protect wild places. 

I cannot convince you to like or agree with my cultural hunting traditions. Respectfully, I don’t understand the joy of running a 6-mile loop on a wooded path or careening down trails on a bike — trails that cut through good wildlife habitat. But I don't tell you not to do these things. 

If you were curious about my love of the woods, I’d tell you that a hunt endears me to the wild places where I’ve trapped a beaver or tracked a buck. These places imprint themselves on my soul and I would do almost anything to protect them. There are non-hunters who also have spiritual connections to wild places, and I respect them. But for me, this connection involves hunting, often with my beloved dogs. This is my culture. For many of us, it is how we raised our children. 

You say, “Times change. Your traditions must stop. They involve unacceptable pain and suffering of animals.” I understand this concern intensely. Hunting involves death, and often some measure of suffering. I care deeply for the animals I hunt and take no pleasure in the act of killing.

Hunters and trappers have always embraced new technologies and methods that make these practices more humane. We should and have evolved. Taking an animal’s life demands respect. It is also important to note that many of the very best hunts, particularly with hounds, end in no death at all. 

There is so much talk these days about the value of diversity and respecting cultural traditions. But it seems that these values only hold for certain people, and certain cultures. Will you also admonish the native peoples of Canada or Vermont and tell them their century-old traditions of survival and respect for nature are wrong and must be stopped? 

In the course of these legislative arguments about hunting, there has been indifference toward the people most knowledgeable about these practices and those who have the most to lose. There has been little attempt at even the appearance of curiosity or interest or respect for who we are and what we do. 

In fact, there has been active hostility. Opponents of hunting have likened us to white supremacists and serial killers. As a state that identifies so strongly with progressive values, the hypocrisy is stunning. 

And while we bicker, the real problems facing our wildlife grow. As a biologist, I have sat on the witness stand, testifying against massive energy projects that would have huge impacts on wild spaces, often proposed by companies from out of state. I was not joined in those rooms by anti-hunting activists, but the trappers and hunters I know had my back. 

And as climate change progresses and more people migrate north, we will see more development encroaching on the last of Vermont’s wild spaces. Additionally, with our changing demographics, I've seen a growing intolerance of wildlife. I’ve rescued bears off private property and faced countless indignant homeowners who don’t understand that they’ve moved into what has always been good bear habitat. 

These are the major problems we face, and the education and advocacy needed to protect wild places will require all of us to work together, and soon. It will require tolerance of difference. It will require working with people you don’t agree with and don’t understand. 

If you force out the hunters and trappers whose practices you don’t like, if you snub your nose at their lifestyles and culture, you will be forcing out some of Vermont’s strongest and most loyal wildlife advocates. And you will be sending the very clear message: ‘Your cultural traditions do not matter. All that you have learned over generations about our wilderness and wildlife does not matter. You don’t belong here anymore.”

Traditionally, Vermonters have respected the privacy and different ways of their neighbors, with the mutual certainty they’ll pull each other out of a ditch when the day comes. It has made this place civilized, and it is a tradition worth saving. 

We don’t have to like each other or share the same values. But we must find common ground in protecting our wild places before it’s too late. And maybe if we concentrate on this shared mission, mutual respect and understanding will grow.

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