The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has rejected plans to manage wildlife on a 700-acre Irasburg game preserve owned by Doug Nelson, whose herd of elk became famous this year when it was joined by a moose — Pete the Moose.
The agency said Nelson's 20-page proposal offered few details about how he planned to ensure that his captive animials would not mix with the native species. The proposal also failed to show how Nelson planned to accurately catalogue all of the animals currently penned inside his 700-acre Irasburg preserve, and it provided the agency with no plans for how it would manage the herds going forward.
In a separate letter to Nelson the agency did approve elements of his fencing plan, which includes adding a second perimeter fence around his game preserve as a way to keep native species out and nonnative species in. However, the agency asked him to add one electrified wire at 54 inches from the ground. Nelson has proposed only going as high as 42 inches.
The rejection is the latest in a nearly one-year saga that started when a national public relations campaign was launched to "Save Pete the Moose" from being killed by state officials. Nelson has been flaunting state authority for years, and the state was trying to force Nelson to find better ways to keep wild and captive species from mixing. Their fear? Chronic wasting disease, a brain disease that affects cervids in a similar way to how "mad cow disease" affects bovines.
Part of that plan included a culling effort to thin out the herds through controlled hunts.
The public outcry eventually led to a last-minute, secretive legislative deal that ensured that Nelson could ensnare, and eventually kill, all wild animals found on his property. Nelson also owns a private stock of breeding elk in Derby.
In short, Pete may have been "saved", but Nelson also got to keep all of Pete's friends to hunt at a later date. That outraged many hunters and wildlife advocates who believe the move violated the stae's public trust doctrine. How? By handing over a public asset— the wildlife — to a private individual to later for profit.
Part of the last-minute legislative deal included a caveat that the Agency of Agriculture — not the Department of Fish and Wildlife — would regulate Nelson's herd. For years, Nelson had rebuffed efforts by DFW to regulate his herd of elk. In part, because DFW wanted Nelson to have a better culling plan to thin out his herd, and to ensure that wild deer were not mingling with some of his own captive deer.
In its rejection, the Agency of Agriculture says Nelson's proposed plan offered little to no detail about how he planned to manage the size of the elk herd, and how he would keep any of the native species — deer and moose — from escaping or mingling with any animals that found their way onto his property. Nelson's plan was developed by James Kroll, a professor at Austin State University in Texas.
"Due to the lack of detail, the Kroll proposals for compliance with the individual animal identification, catch facility and annual herd inventory requirements ... are not acceptable to the Agency," the rejection letter reads. "The disease surveillance and annual white-tailed deer culling proposals in the Kroll document are also lacking in detail and unacceptable."
The terms "lack of detail" and "unacceptable" appear throughout the letter.
The agency also wants Nelson to move his breeding population of elk onto one location — his Derby elk farm. And, they want Nelson to tag and identify every single captive animal to better separate wild and captive species on his property. Nelson did not want to do that due to cost and effort.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife weighed in on Nelson's proposal last week and found similar problems. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Wayne LaRoche noted that Nelson's cervids-per-square-mile ratio is nearly 20 times the rate considered healthy to maintain a sustainable wild deer population.
According to Nelson's count he has 340 cervids — 60 elk, 200 white-tailed deer, 10 moose, 20 sika deer, 20 red deer and 30 fallow deer — in a 550-acre parcel. LaRoche added that the 550 acres cited in the plan differs from the 700-acre parcel described in the enabling legislation. Either way, it's too many animals in one place.
"In this region of Vermont, the native free ranging white-tailed deer population is managed at 15 deer per square mile [640 acres] while a stocking rate of not more than one moose per square mile is believed necessary to limit browsing to provide for forest and herd health for these species," LaRoche writes. "While captive herds fed a supplemental diet can be maintained at higher densities, we believe that the animal densities proposed in this plan will destroy native habitat and reduce animal health."
Nelson submitted his plan September 10, almost a month past its due date. He was fined several thousand dollars as a result.
Nelson has until November 1 to submit a new culling plan to thin out both native and non-native species in the coming years, and ensure that any killed animal is tested for disease.
While Nelson didn't provide a culling plan to the agency, in a recent DFW report — the 2010 Vermont Deer Herd Report written by DFW Wildlife Scientist and Deer Project Leader Shawn Haskell — Nelson has allegedly been advertising captive white-tailed dder and moose hunts.
"I reported last year that a landowner with a square-mile high-fenced shooting preserve was using public-relation ploys with moose calves in order to gain ownership of captive white-tailed deer and moose held in his facility so he could legally sell shoots for them. The owner-operator has been advertising soon-to-come captive white-tailed deer hunts for years at his nearby restaurant, and one of his employees has been advertising moose hunts on the internet with 100% success rates in the 1000-acre enclosure," wrote Haskell.
A group of hunting and conservation groups opposed to Nelson's plans will meet November 4, when they hope to review draft legislation that will repeal the Nelson Amendment and return management of native animals to Fish and Wildlife and rule making to the Fish and Wildlife Board.
Rejection letter (management plan): Download Management Plan
Approval letter (fencing): Download Fencing Plan
Depatment of Fish & Wildlife comments: Download Allbee herd management plan Irasburg
Original Nelson management plan (large file, 24MB: Download Nelson-Farm-Mgmt-Plan