Officials present new best management practices for trapping, but animal advocates say they fall short

A raccoon in September 2022. Photo by Rhododendrites via Wikimedia Commons

In its original form, a bill introduced last session would have banned the use of leghold traps in Vermont. Throughout that session, lawmakers dulled the bill until they arrived at a proposal to study and change best management practices for using traps. 

Members of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department presented a proposal for those updated trapping practices last Thursday morning to lawmakers in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Shortly after, animal advocates sharply criticized the proposal and the process that created it. 

In the last couple of years, animal advocates and trappers have passionately clashed over proposals for new regulations. Since last session, animal advocates’ pleas for new rules have grown louder. Late last year, a 3-year-old Shetland sheepdog named Clara died after becoming ensnared in a trap that was likely illegal. The dog was among 13 pets that had been caught in hunting traps in a year, according to Fish & Wildlife officials. 

As he prepared to walk through the proposed rule changes, Chris Herrick, the department’s commissioner, reminded lawmakers of the working group’s role under the law passed last year, Act 159

“The Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that requires modernization and improvement of the trappings and in doing so ensures the practice remains,” Herrick said. “The group is not convened to relitigate the modernization, nor is it time to rehash the legality of trappings, but rather to make recommendations within these guardrails.”

The working group included three animal welfare advocates, two members of the Vermont Trappers Association, one from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, two lawmakers, two game wardens, two members of the Fish and Wildlife Board and one person from the Sportsmen’s Federation.

The group designed the proposed rules to reduce injury for animals caught, prevent the capture of nontargeted species, and protect pets. 

If finalized, the rules would require hunters to use traps that give caught animals more mobility and are less likely to cause injury. 

To minimize the risk of capturing nontarget animals such as birds, the group recommended a requirement that any meat used as bait be covered with woody debris, set underwater or set inside an enclosure. 

To minimize the capture of domestic pets, the group recommended prohibiting body-gripping traps baited with meat from being set on the ground. 

The proposal also listed a number of trap-setback requirements for public trails and highways. 

Officials can continue to change the practices as they receive feedback from hunters or others about how they’re working on the ground. 

But David Kelley, a board member with Vermont Wildlife Coalition, and Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife, a statewide wildlife protection organization, presented a number of gruesome images and videos showing animals trapped and in distress. Many of the situations, the advocates claimed, were allowed under Vermont’s best management practices. 

One video, posted to a trapper’s social media, showed a fearful young bobcat that had been caught, with trappers joking in the background about breaking out the “whacking stick.” 

“Fortunately, they did not video clubbing the animal to death,” Kelley said. 

Another showed a caught raccoon that had stripped all the bark off a nearby tree before it was found. Others showed animals, some bloodied and injured, fearfully struggling while caught in legal traps. 

“These are best management practices in practice,” Kelley said. The practices, he argued, are “more about (public relations) than wildlife welfare.”

Galdenzi said trapping interests were overrepresented in the working group. She claimed that some relevant data was omitted from the process, and that the positions of wildlife advocates were misrepresented in meeting minutes. 

Meanwhile, Kim Royer, a retired wildlife biologist who worked at Vermont Fish & Wildlife for 40 years and then came back as a temporary employee, told lawmakers about potential benefits of the hunting practice.

“Why would a conservation organization like the Fish & Wildlife Department and a person like me, who's advocated for wildlife for 40 years, support regulated trapping?” Royer said. “Simply put, it is because we consider it a critical wildlife management tool, and actually a benefit to furbearer populations in the long term.”

Along with cultural and societal benefits, she said, trapping benefits wildlife populations because it enables officials to monitor long-term data “and determine whether there are other threats out there such as climate change, habitat loss, toxins that might impact these populations.”

Lawmakers received a deluge of testimony and public comment from hunters and wildlife advocates on three separate wildlife bills last session, including the bill that originally would have banned trapping. 

Animal advocates argued that Vermont’s laws swing too far in favor of trappers and don’t protect wildlife, pets and property owners from the impact of practices they often describe as inhumane. Trappers said their practices have long been used in Vermont, and they already use best practices to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain on wildlife. 

Where could the effort go this year? The best management practices are set to move ahead in the state’s rulemaking process, but additional actions from lawmakers remain a question mark. 

Three bills have been introduced, though none moved forward ahead of the Legislature’s mid-session crossover deadline and therefore likely won’t become law this year, though they could see action next year, the second of the biennium. 

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said he plans to discuss the matter further with committee members before taking further action on trapping this session. 

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, who introduced the bill that became Act 159 last year, told lawmakers on Thursday that he felt he was obligated to hear the working group’s proposal before he pushed for a ban again. 

“I do want to say right now that I'm not impressed by the department’s testimony,” he said.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: emma@vtdigger.org

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