Home News ​Should Wildlife Advocates Help Set Hunting Rules in Vermont?

​Should Wildlife Advocates Help Set Hunting Rules in Vermont?

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​Should Wildlife Advocates Help Set Hunting Rules in Vermont?

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Legislators in Vermont are considering shaking up the state board that drafts hunting and fishing rules — by adding members who don’t hunt or fish.

The proposal has touched off fierce disagreement between hunters and wildlife protection advocates in a state known for both its progressive politics and its traditional rural culture, steeped for generations in hunting, fishing and trapping.

Supporters of the measure say that decisions affecting the state’s wildlife should be shaped by a board that reflects residents’ diverse perspectives. The proposal cites people who watch, photograph or listen to wildlife as examples of potential new board members, joining hunters, fishermen and trappers.

“Even people who don’t care about wildlife care about democracy, and believe it shouldn’t be a privileged special interest group making policy,” said Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife, an advocacy group based in Stowe that has pushed for the bill.

Hunters say there is nothing wrong with the current system: a 14-member volunteer board made up of hunters, trappers and fishermen from every county, appointed by the governor. The board fleshes out detailed regulations based on laws enacted by the Legislature, with input from the public and state scientists.

The proof of its success, they say, is the healthy status of game species in the state.

“Every one is abundant and flourishing, and that’s where the rubber meets the road,” said Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “So what’s the problem?”

The back and forth has been contentious, a reflection of bigger tensions in a state where a persistent influx of wealthier newcomers has accelerated since the pandemic. Some critics have framed the legislation as an affront by “privileged” liberal interest groups with time and money to spare against working-class gun owners with fewer resources. Proponents of the bill say it is outlandish for hunters to claim victimhood when the board’s membership has been drawn entirely from their ranks for generations.

After Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said he would probably veto the bill, legislators last week amended it to try to win enough votes for an override. While the bill previously specified that the board must include members without hunting licenses, and stripped the governor’s power to appoint them, the revised version merely mandates “balanced viewpoints” on the board and lets the governor select 14 of 16 members.

Similar efforts have been made in other states, part of a larger national strategy by animal advocates to boost their influence in government. A bipartisan bill to shake up the state game commission in New Mexico passed in the State Legislature last year, but died when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham opted not to sign it into law.

In New Jersey, a lawsuit filed last year by a former state legislator argued that the state Fish and Game Council, made up largely of appointees from hunting and fishing clubs, violates the State Constitution because its members function as a de facto legislative body.

“We’re trying to challenge the status quo, because there’s a huge gap right now between state policy and the views of the American people,” said Michelle Lute, co-director of Wildlife for All, a national organization based in New Mexico whose mission, in part, is to make state wildlife management more “compassionate.”

In Vermont, data shows a steady decline since the 1990s in the number of new hunting licenses and combination hunting and fishing licenses. The number of total active licenses has stabilized since 2017, when the state began requiring lifetime license holders to reactivate their licenses each year they intend to hunt. Those reactivations boosted the number of active resident licenses to 70,000 last year — up from 57,000 in 2016, but still well below the roughly 96,000 active licenses in the mid-1980s.

Since there are no fees required for license reactivations, and the volume of paid licenses has declined, Ms. Galdenzi said, taxpayers who don’t hunt are shouldering more of the cost of managing wildlife, “but we don’t have a voice at the table.” When she has tried to provide input at board hearings, she said, she has felt disrespected and dismissed.

Christopher Herrick, the state fish and wildlife commissioner, challenged that assertion, describing an intensive process of public engagement used by the board to solicit and consider input. He compared the process to his own as a father of four children: “I always listened to them, but I didn’t always do what they said.”

Hunters say the pro-democracy talk by the bill’s supporters is little more than camouflage for its true purpose: to pave the way for crackdowns on hunting. State Senator Russ Ingalls, a Republican from northern Vermont, said the proposal has deeply angered his constituents, who feel their heritage and identity are under attack.

“We have families who eat wildlife to survive, who are going to have a hard year if they don’t have a couple of deer in the freezer,” he said. “If I don’t like something, I don’t do it, but if liberals or progressives don’t like it, they don’t want you to do it either.”

Tensions around hunting in Vermont have simmered for years, recently flaring over moose management — the state has issued moose hunting permits with the goal of reducing a booming tick population — and the use of dogs to hunt coyotes. The Legislature asked for tighter controls on such dogs after some residents complained about property damage and alarming run-ins with packs of hounds.

The wildlife board says it complied by requiring the dogs to wear tracking collars, but critics — including Protect Our Wildlife — say the collars aren’t enough, and have filed a lawsuit. In a twist designed to prevent such standoffs, the proposed legislation would diminish the board’s power, relegating it to an advisory role while handing the responsibility for rule making to the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

It would also require board members to “prioritize science” and to be trained in subjects including climate change and hunting ethics that proponents see as critical for “modern” wildlife management. The bill, which passed in the Senate on Friday by a 21-8 vote, would also ban the practice of hunting coyotes with dogs.

Mr. Herrick, the wildlife commissioner, said that shifting more responsibility to the department would burden his already overworked staff at a time when the budget is stretched thin, slowing down conservation projects already underway.

“We appreciate what this bill is trying to do around bringing different stakeholders together, and we’re not opposed to improving how Vermont makes hunting and fishing regulations,” the commissioner said in a statement Friday. But, he said, even the amended bill “is not the right way to do it.”

State Senator Christopher Bray, a Democrat from Addison County and the bill’s sponsor, said it reflects the state’s changing reality, and the need to build bridges between residents with widely divergent values and experience.

“The most important word that’s not in the bill is respect,” he said. “For other people, for different points of view and for all living things in the environment.”

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