A Call of the Wild: Wildlife Management Amidst Winds of Change

by David F. Kelley

GREENSBORO – Vermont’s House Natural Resources Committee is considering reforms to wildlife management. It is about time.

In Vermont, wildlife is a public trust. Like any trust, the trustees have a duty to avoid waste and to act in the best interests of the beneficiary. In this case the beneficiary is the public. Management decisions should be in the public interest and should be based on sound science. Today they are not.

Much of the final decision-making power over Vermont’s wildlife doesn’t rest with the professionals at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. That power rests with a volunteer board appointed for six-year terms. That board is chosen in an opaque, closed door process, without public input or review. Qualified applicants frequently don’t even get an acknowledgment of their application.

It is a wildlife management scheme left over from another era, and it is impervious to change. The board has refused to end killing contests. It has refused to end no bag limits on some wildlife. It has refused to end the 24/365 open season for some species.

The board ignores the advice of experts on critical issues such as moose hunts. It willingly extends trapping seasons for river otters, despite the fact that river otters in Vermont are listed as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need.” The board continues to allow bears to be hounded by packs of dogs, even while cubs are still nursing. Today it is a board that doesn’t even represent the interests of many hunters and fishermen, much less the public.

As the human footprint gets bigger, our economy, our climate and our culture are all changing. Worldwide, wildlife populations have shrunk by two thirds in the last fifty years. Here in Vermont, there are now 36 animals designated as endangered and 16 animals designated as threatened. Our Agency of Natural Resources says Vermont is losing over 1,500 acres of “significant wildlife habitat” every year. As technology evolves, “smart” rifles, drones, GPS systems, radio collars and live action trail cams make it even more imperative that we begin an open, transparent, and public conversation about our rules concerning wildlife.

I grew up in a Vermont family, steeped in Vermont’s hunting and fishing tradition. Among genuine Vermont hunters and fishermen (I should say fisherpeople because my wife fishes as much as I do), respect for the animals whose lives we take to feed ourselves is the eleventh commandment, and wanton waste of wildlife is a cardinal sin.

Whether we hunt, fish or just observe wildlife, almost all Vermonters have an abiding appreciation for wildlife. We passed an endangered species act a year before the federal government. According to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the amount of time Vermonters spend hunting, fishing and wildlife watching is second only to Alaskans. 

Even funding to support wildlife management is changing. The sale of hunting and fishing licenses today accounts for about a quarter of the state fish and wildlife budget. As important as that contribution is, a similar amount now comes from the general fund. But the largest share comes from federal taxes, the vast bulk of which are generated by the sale of gas, pleasure craft, yachts and other products that are unrelated to hunting and fishing.  

Vermonters sense these winds of change. In a recent poll the University of Vermont’s Center for Rural Studies asked: “Should regulations that impact wildlife that is trapped, hunted or fished be made by a volunteer board appointed by the governor, or by professional staff from the Department of Fish and Wildlife?” The overwhelming majority favored regulations established by the professional staff of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.  

It is time for the Fish and Wildlife Board to become advisory, like other boards. The process for selecting members to serve on the board should be open and transparent. The board should reflect the diversity of all Vermonters, including the diversity within the angling and hunting community. It is time to recognize the need for new policies shaped by sound science, professional wildlife biologists, and the public interest. During the civil rights movement Phil Ochs sang, “What’s that I hear? It’s the sound of freedom calling. It’s the sound of old ways falling.” Now it is also the sound of wildlife and wildlife habitat calling. Fortunately, some Vermont Legislators are listening.

[Editor’s note: David Kelley is a member of the Board of the Vermont Wildlife Coalition.]