Commentary

Walter Medwid: Fish & Wildlife is unlike any other department in state government

This commentary is by Walter Medwid, a resident of Derby.

The steady stream of news stories and commentaries on the subject of Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department stances on a range of wildlife policies and practices continues into the New Year with the death of a rescued dog killed in a body-crushing trap set for wildlife in East Corinth. 

This event triggered wildlife advocates to indicate they will, once again, push back against Fish & Wildlife’s embrace of recreational trapping by supporting a bill to ban the practice. This ban would bring state policy in line with public sentiments based upon UVM’s Vermonter Poll survey results, revealing that the public supports a ban on leghold, kill and drowning traps.

Trying to understand the multiple issues swirling around the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is no easy feat, but it’s made all the more challenging in that Fish & Wildlife is unlike any other department in all of Vermont’s governmental infrastructure. 

To start with, Fish & Wildlife remarkably has no management authority over deer, bear, moose, coyotes, turkey, or dozens of other wildlife species classified by the Legislature as “game.” That authority rests with a Fish and Wildlife Board composed of one citizen volunteer from each county, chosen by the governor from a pool of license holders. 

The largely uncredentialed Fish and Wildlife Board holds broad regulatory and public policy authority over all game species without the benefit of the public’s voice at the table. The board’s power stems from the 1970s, when the push to professionalize government and reduce the power of boards stalled since license holders were in their heyday (license sales have since plummeted). The push to modernize the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department failed, the Fish and Wildlife Board held its power, and the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s authority remains compromised to this day. 

The second feature of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department that stands as an outlier is that unlike, say, the Departments of Health, Public Safety or Forests, Parks and Recreation, the Fish & Wildlife commissioner holds no credentials in the wildlife sciences, or even the sciences, when the department claims to be driven by science in its positions. 

This executive branch oddity is driven home by a 2018 survey of Vermont Fish & Wildlife staff indicating that nearly half believe that politics rivals science in senior management’s decisions. Gov. Scott has now picked two commissioners lacking credentials in the wildlife profession. 

The third distinction that makes Vermont Fish & Wildlife stand out from other departments is that all of the leading wildlife institutions in the nation are calling for state wildlife agencies to transform in order to align with contemporary culture and wildlife challenges. Vermont, for example, has nearly 1,000 species that are listed as species in greatest conservation need. This excludes the approximately 150 threatened and endangered Vermont species. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Wildlife Society, and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (the group that represents the interests of state fish and wildlife agencies) have called for agencies to recognize that license holders represent only a small fraction of the populace. 

In Vermont, some 85% of the citizens don’t hunt, 80% don’t fish and 99.999% don’t trap. Yet the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, with the clear support of the governor, has resisted any attempts to bring the state’s wildlife governance into 21st century realities. 

The fourth distinction making the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department an outlier is the serious misalignment of wildlife values held by the department’s staff versus the values held by the public. In the 2018 scientifically conducted survey of Fish & Wildlife staff and the general public, the results showed stark contrasts. 

For example, of those who identified as holding traditionalist values (wildlife should be used/managed for human benefit), nearly two-thirds of Fish & Wildlife staff scored in that category whereas less than one-third of the public identified as traditionalists. 

The public scored highest in the mutualist category (wildlife are part of our social network; we should value coexistence). Less than 10% of staff at Fish & Wildlife identified as mutualists. 

Senior management at the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department clearly favor applicants who mirror senior management’s unrepresentative values, ignoring the statutory requirement of the department to serve all citizens equitably. 

And to top this all off, the 2018 survey found that nearly 90% of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department staff agree with the statement that … “the views of the public in my state are changing with regards to fish and wildlife management.”

Yet the governor has made it clear that the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department will remain in a time capsule despite the winds of change coming from major wildlife professional organizations, the Fish & Wildlife staff, the citizenry and, increasingly, from the Legislature. 

Ironically, the governor best suited to take on the challenge of bringing the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department into the 21st century is this governor, whose political capital seems to be at an all-time high. However, there’s little reason to think he will have an epiphany to align the Fish & Wildlife Department with its stated mission, contemporary culture and values, and urgent environmental challenges.

The Legislature must address the quagmire at this agency. No department with a $26 million budget and some 200 employees, charged with safeguarding a vast array of precious natural resource assets, should be functioning in an orbit all its own. 

The Legislature needs to do a complete rewrite of the antiquated  language in statute that defines the role of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department consistent with today’s landscape, and secondly, diversify and make the Fish and Wildlife Board advisory only. 

Let’s complete the unfinished work from the 1970s to fully modernize, professionalize and depoliticize all of Vermont’s governmental branches.


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