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Hunting Foes Want to Snare Seats on Vermont's Fish & Wildlife Board

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KIM SCAFURO
  • Kim Scafuro

As sunlight filtered through an overgrown apple orchard in Lincoln, Patrick Berry lifted his shotgun and fired. A loud boom echoed through the tangle of woods, and a bird dropped from just above the trees. Within minutes, Berry's dog had found the woodcock on the ground. It was not quite dead.

Berry took the needle-billed bird and quickly twisted its neck. He patted Keller, his silky-haired spaniel, and put the woodcock in a bag — later to be plucked, seared and served as savory canapés.

Berry looks like he stepped out of the pages of an Orvis catalog. The vice president for philanthropy at the Vermont Community Foundation grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and didn't take up hunting until he was an adult. But he shares a bond with his fellow members on the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board. The 14 board members shoot deer, hunt rabbits, trap muskrats, land lake trout and bag moose.* If stuffing an animal comes up, board member and professional taxidermist Theresa Elmer of Northfield brings her experience to the table.

For decades Vermont hunters and trappers have been regulating hunting and trapping. But now critics of the board say it's time for change. People who don't hunt or trap, known as "nonconsumptives," want to be represented on the board. They point out that the number of hunters continues to shrink in Vermont: The state issued 67,143 licenses last year, compared with 145,725 in 1970. Critics say it's time for the board to represent all Vermonters and, by extension, to acknowledge other ways to interact with the state's wildlife population.

"There's definitely a large segment of the population who doesn't hunt or trap, and they currently feel like they are left out of the decision-making process," said Brenna Galdenzi, president of the Stowe-based anti-trapping group Protect Our Wildlife, which formed in 2015.

Defenders of the status quo see the push as a hostile takeover attempt by people who don't understand Vermont's hunting tradition.

The whole point of the board is to oversee rules on taking game, said Berry, an East Middlebury resident. "So if you come to the board with an unmovable bias against hunting, fishing and trapping, you are fundamentally unqualified," he said.

Kevin Lawrence, the Newbury resident who chairs the board, agrees. "If someone is totally against something, how can they work to support it? It's like if you said, 'I'm pretty much against building homes in Vermont and I want to be on the state board of architecture and make it pretty much impossible for someone to build homes,'" he said.

If anti-hunters and anti-trappers get on the board, it will lead to nothing but "no" votes and obstructionism, he added.

Walter Medwid, a Derby resident and lifelong conservationist, is one of the leading proponents for a different sort of board. He helped convince Vermont Rep. Jim McCullough (D-Williston) to propose adding six nonconsumptive members to the board in February during a meeting of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.

"It had a very brief moment in the sun," Medwid said, acknowledging that the idea quickly bombed and never left the committee. But he's not giving up. Medwid and others have consulted with a lobbyist and are meeting to come up with a new proposal.

The idea is in the early stages but could result in a more concerted push for change at the legislature in 2017, said Medwid, declining to be more specific. He said the board is out of step with the public in numerous ways: by continuing to allow moose hunting when the population has declined sharply; condoning an open season on coyotes; and nearly expanding the current trapping season for bobcats.

"It's rare to see a bobcat," said Medwid. And yet instead of serving the wildlife-viewing public, current state policy serves "people who are going to sell a pelt to China," he said.

On September 21, more than 50 people attended a contentious five-hour Fish & Wildlife Board hearing to weigh a trapper petition to extend the bobcat season by two weeks. Fish & Wildlife Department scientists opposed the expansion, and many members of the public railed against the idea.

The board ultimately voted 7-6 against the proposal. But the narrow defeat was not comforting to critics who don't think bobcats should be trapped at all.

Numerous other states ban trapping of the furtive, elegant feline, whose whiskered face, tufted ears and penetrating gaze make it an especially striking creature — and one with a large fan club. The animal, native to Vermont, made a comeback after being nearly wiped out in the 1800s by a combination of uncontrolled trapping and habitat loss.

The bobcat has also recovered in neighboring states, and trappers now want to lift restrictions that helped the species rebound. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission in February approved bobcat trapping there. But public outrage prompted legislators to step in and block the move. Non-hunters and non-trappers are now getting more of a say in game decisions in New Hampshire.

That needs to happen in Vermont as well, according to people like Peggy Larson, a retired veterinarian who lives in Williston. She made the trip last month to the bobcat meeting, which took place in Woodbury at the Buck Lake Conservation Camp. The location felt like "the middle of nowhere" and forced attendees to park far from the building and walk back to their cars on a dark, rutted road, Larson said.

The location underscored the fact that the board pays scant attention to the wishes of the general public, said Larson, who opposes trapping and doesn't feel represented on the board. "We have no voice," she said.

The makeup of the board caters to hunters and trappers, and it's no wonder they don't want new members who would challenge that, Larson said: "I think that that's what they are afraid of, frankly, that they just can't push through everything they want to do."

Protect Our Wildlife members and others have been paying close attention to the board. Nonconsumptives successfully pressured the board to add a public comment period to their meetings — a standard practice, which it hadn't been doing. Protect Our Wildlife has also filed many public records requests and has begun to scrutinize trapping data, with special attention to the number of "non-target" animals that get trapped. The group gave Onion River Community Access Media a grant to videotape meetings; the Woodbury meeting has been posted online.

Lawrence said he has no objection to the meetings being videotaped. Protect Our Wildlife is effective at communicating a message, but that doesn't mean it represents widely held views, Lawrence added. 

"A small group can make a big noise, and that's what we're experiencing today," Lawrence said. 

But trappers are feeling the pressure. "Just in case you have been living in a cave somewhere, we are going to be in a fight for our trapping rights this year," Vermont Trappers Association president Bruce Barrofio wrote to members in a March newsletter.

Mike Covey, the association's conservation director, noted in the newsletter that Protect Our Wildlife is pushing for seats on the board and urged trappers, as well as hunters, to publicly oppose the idea. "They are after all of us in the long term, so we need to acknowledge that and work together," Covey wrote.

Members of the board are almost always current or former holders of a license to fish, hunt or trap. Vermont does not require members to be license holders, as some states do, but it's been the practice for decades, confirmed Louis Porter, Vermont's Fish & Wildlife commissioner.

The governor appoints members to the board, one for each county, often with input from the commissioner. Terms are six years. Porter forwards candidates to the governor's office, he said, and people also send letters directly to the governor asking to serve.

Porter said that the existing board does an excellent job and listens to dissenting views carefully, including the hundreds of emails it received in opposition to the bobcat season extension.

Porter noted that the Fish & Wildlife Department staff recommended against extending the bobcat season and that the board majority ultimately agreed. The process worked, he said, in spite of what critics say. "I've never seen so many people pissed off about winning a vote," Porter said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has followed tradition and appointed experienced hunters, anglers and trappers to the board. Jessica Gingras, Shumlin's director of appointments to boards and commissions, noted that the governor is himself a hunter.

"The role of the board is not to consider whether hunting or trapping should be legal, but rather implementing rules around what the legislature deems should be legal activities," Gingras wrote in an email. "It is important to the governor that individuals who serve on the board are knowledgeable of issues surrounding hunting and trapping, are familiar with the current laws, and ... are willing to volunteer and represent the hunters/licensed consumptive users in their communities."

Will Vermont's next governor agree? Through a spokesman, Republican candidate Phil Scott said he would consider all candidates who choose to apply but that "experience is important for board appointments." Democratic candidate Sue Minter wants to expand Vermont's wildlife recreation economy, according to her campaign, and would appoint board members who desire to see Vermont's tradition of hunting, fishing and trapping grow.

Those pushing to get non-hunters on the board say that new programs could potentially generate revenue from wildlife watching, tracking and photography.

"I would obviously want to be on it," Galdenzi said of the Fish & Wildlife Board. "Would I ever expect that they would approve my application if I submitted one? Never."

*Correction, October 14, 2016: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that members of the Fish & Wildlife Board "snare" rabbits. In fact, snares are not a legal trapping method in Vermont.

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