Wild divide: Can wildlife management policy reflect Vermonters’ complex views?

People look water fowl in Wilder in 2019, left, and a hunter looks for deer in Jericho in 2019. (Photos by James M. Patterson/Valley News and Glenn Russell/VTDigger)

People look water fowl in Wilder in 2019, left, and a hunter looks for deer in Jericho in 2019. (Photos by James M. Patterson/Valley News and Glenn Russell/VTDigger) James M. Patterson/Valley News and Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, chair of the House Environment and Energy Committee, left, confers with Sen. Chirstopher Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, in a cloakroom off the Senate floor at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.(VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, chair of the House Environment and Energy Committee, left, confers with Sen. Chirstopher Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, in a cloakroom off the Senate floor at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, May 7, 2024.(VtDigger - Glenn Russell) VtDigger - Glenn Russell

Nice Fortin of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department points out hoof prints as he demonstrates how he tracks deer through the woods of Ferdinand on Friday, December 08, 2023. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Nice Fortin of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department points out hoof prints as he demonstrates how he tracks deer through the woods of Ferdinand on Friday, December 08, 2023. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Royer’s Chop Shop in Irasburg processes wild game besides venison, including bear.  Seen on Tuesday, November 1, 2022.(VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Royer’s Chop Shop in Irasburg processes wild game besides venison, including bear. Seen on Tuesday, November 1, 2022.(VtDigger - Glenn Russell) Glenn Russell—Glenn Russell

A coyote. (Pexels - Thomas Shockey)

A coyote. (Pexels - Thomas Shockey) —

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, at her desk at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday, February 27, 2020. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, at her desk at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday, February 27, 2020. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) GLENN RUSSELL—GLENN RUSSELL

A bear bites a bird feeder.(Courtesy Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department)

A bear bites a bird feeder.(Courtesy Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department) —

By EMMA COTTON

VtDigger

Published: 05-12-2024 4:34 PM

This is the second story in a two-part series that examines the increasingly inflamed debate about wildlife management in Vermont. Part I of the series looked at the voices that are most often heard in the Legislature and in Vermont media. This story analyzes the opinions of the broader public and asks whether it’s possible to find common ground. 

MONTPELIER — In late February, a collection of people who care passionately about Vermont’s wildlife — and disagree about how to manage it — crowded into the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee room.

Over two days, lawmakers heard from roughly 60 members of the public on S.258, which would change wildlife governance in Vermont. During a break, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, the committee chair, observed conversations between people with opposing viewpoints that, at first, appeared tense. But over a period of hours, he said, the conversations turned amiable. 

“Then we adjourned for the morning, and I would come back down the hall 15 minutes later, and they’re still talking in the hallway,” he said. “To me, all those kinds of real conversations, back and forth, are a great success.”

Bray, the bill’s lead sponsor, hopes the legislation will spur productive conversations like the ones that took place in his committee room — especially amid increasing tension about wildlife management in Vermont. For Bray and other bill supporters, this goal appears challenging, especially considering that the debate about wildlife management has often been called a culture war. 

In this perceived dichotomy, one side advocates for wildlife and the other advocates for hunting rights. But a review of studies, interviews and written commentaries shows that Vermonters’ views on wildlife are often more complex than the public dialogue shows.

Lawmakers crafted S.258 to address what its supporters describe as a disparity on Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Board, which creates regulations for hunting, trapping and fishing. Those who want to change the system argue that the board, which is made up of hunters, trappers and anglers, unfairly prioritizes the interests of those groups.

The bill cleared the Senate earlier this session with enough votes to override a likely veto from Gov. Phil Scott, but it appears to have stalled in the other chamber. Members of the House Environment and Energy Committee have stopped taking testimony on it after realizing they may not have the two-thirds majority — 100 or more votes — to override.

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If the measure becomes law, it would give more voice to people who want hunting regulations to prioritize the needs of wildlife, especially as species adapt to stressors such as climate change and habitat loss. 

Specifically, it would allow the Legislature to appoint two people to board, expanding authority beyond the governor in hopes of diversifying the appointments, and it would shift the authority to enact wildlife management policy from the board to the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. All board members would be required to meet a list of qualifications and participate in training. The bill would also ban the controversial practice of hunting coyotes with dogs.

The measure has elicited concern and opposition from many hunters and trappers, who defend the current composition of the board and see the bill as a threat to practices that define their way of life. Hunters and trappers often argue that their activities help manage wildlife populations, and are therefore beneficial to the ecosystem.

That’s where Bray sees common ground.

“The thing I came to appreciate, as I listened to — I really hate saying it this way, but, ‘both sides’ — is that wildlife conservation was by far the thing that united them most strongly,” Bray said. “I think they had so much more in common than they realized.”

By the numbers

If not in two separate camps, where do most Vermonters stand? Wildlife professionals have looked at this question from a number of angles.

First, by license numbers: Participation in hunting has waned compared to 30 years ago, though it saw a slight resurgence during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to data provided by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. 

In 1994, Vermonters held about 87,000 hunting licenses. (That figure includes combination licenses for fishing and hunting and excludes permanent and lifetime hunting licenses, for which the department does not have data until 2017.)

That number dropped to 73,500 in 2004, then fell again to 62,000 in 2014. 

In 2023, some 44,000 people purchased hunting licenses — about half the number of people who bought new licenses in 1994. Another 23,000 who held permanent or lifetime licenses hunted that year, bringing the total to about 70,000 Vermont residents who could legally hunt, or 11% of the state’s population.

Surveys also illustrate Vermonters’ views on the topic. In 2022, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department conducted a telephone survey of more than 800 people to assess their opinions about wildlife management. When they asked whether Vermonters approve of trapping, the answer depended on the intention of the trapper and whether the activity was regulated. 

For example, 91% strongly or moderately approved of trapping to help with wildlife restoration, while 70% approved if the activity reduced damage to crops and gardens. Only 26% approved of trapping for recreation. 

Interviewers split the group of respondents, asking one half if they approved of “trapping” (42% approved) and the other half if they approved of “regulated trapping” (60% approved). 

Sam Bliss, a postdoctoral fellow in Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, considers hunting through the lens of food access. He told lawmakers earlier this year that roughly 14% of food consumed in Vermont comes from “non-market” sources, such as gardens, food pantries, foraging, fishing and hunting. 

His survey of 400 Vermonters found that about 20% of households in Vermont get some of their food from a family member who hunts, though just a sliver of all food consumed in Vermont — about 1% — comes from hunting. 

For a lot of hunters, the activity isn’t about food access, he said in an interview. It’s about spending time in nature, or continuing a family or cultural tradition.  

“But for some residents of Vermont, it is really important for food access,” he said. “This tends to be folks who are low income and have a tradition of hunting, have been hunting for their whole lives, so that they're good at it. And they have the necessary knowledge and gear to have success hunting, because that's a big thing.”

Another subset of Vermonters, Bliss told VTDigger, prefer to get their meat from hunting for ethical reasons: to avoid buying factory-farmed meat at the grocery store. 

While some Vermonters have taken up hunting for the first time in recent years, numbers and anecdotes suggest that, over time, Vermont’s culture may be slowly shifting away from certain types of hunting. 

Author Marc Boglioli stayed with people at hunting camps and conducted a number of interviews with Vermonters for his 2009 book, “A Matter of Life and Death: Hunting in Contemporary Vermont.” Asked in an interview whether conversations were heated when he conducted his research, Boglioli raised the then-controversial issue of coyote tournaments, when hunters would win prizes for killing the most coyotes. 

The tournament violated an ethic of hunting Boglioli said was common among hunters: You eat, or use, what you kill. Boglioli said he personally “stuffed a lot of coyotes into Glad bags after those tournaments and put them in the garbage.”

“It was probably the first time that there was a chink in the armor of the hunting community itself around the ethics of hunting,” he said, “because a lot of hunters weren't cool with it.” 

The competitions divided hunting families, he said — and caught the attention of wildlife advocates. The Legislature banned the tournaments in 2018. 

A Vermont chapter of a 2018 report, called America’s Wildlife Values — administered by two associations of fish and wildlife agencies to help their members make decisions based on the public’s interests — defines Vermonters’ values related to wildlife more broadly, using four categories.

Traditionalists, the report states, believe that wildlife should be used and managed for the benefit of people. Mutualists believe “wildlife are part of our social network and that we should live in harmony.” Pluralists prioritize the values differently depending on the context, and those who are “distanced” believe that wildlife issues are less relevant to them. 

In Vermont, 25% of people are traditionalists, 34% are mutualists, 29% are pluralists and 12% are distanced, according to the report. Those values stay relatively consistent across age groups, income groups and education levels. 

‘Significant overlap’

Even people who hold different values about wildlife are not always in separate camps.

Former Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter wrote in a 2018 report that there is “likely significant overlap” in Vermont between traditionalists and mutualists “in that both groups generally value wildlife and support the conservation of species.”

In a survey conducted in the state in 2015, he noted, 91% of respondents thought it was important for people to be able to participate in “wildlife-related outdoor recreation such as hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing." That figure was up from 80% in 2000. 

“Even more compelling, 81% of the general public and 86% of hunters and anglers strongly believed that threatened and endangered species must be protected, up from 37% in 1995,” Porter wrote. 

Joshua Morse, a Ph.D. student at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School for Environment and Natural Resources (and the public relations officer for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department), has found overlaps in wildlife values, too. In his dissertation, which he defended in March, Morse used stories to assess Vermonters’ relationships with coyotes. 

Morse wrote that he is “concerned by the polarization” in policy arenas, media coverage “and even research into” the reasons that nature matters to people.

“Human-human conflict around the elements of nature we value is increasingly recognized as a barrier to human-wildlife coexistence and management in its own right,” he wrote. 

Morse chose coyotes because they are often the center of controversy about how wildlife impacts human wellbeing, he wrote. While coyotes are not native to Vermont, they replaced wolves, which colonists extirpated from the landscape through hunting, Morse wrote. They are now considered a naturalized species and not invasive.

In 150 interviews collected with the help of the Vermont Folklife Center and high school students, Morse looked at whether coyotes were adding or detracting from Vermonters’ lives. He found that more people talked about coyotes as contributors rather than detractors. For example, a grandfather spoke about howling back and forth with coyotes during a pandemic winter. 

However, when people spoke about negative relationships with coyotes, “it was in these really high-tension categories — things like mental health, or sense of security, or impacts to agriculture,” he said. 

The results weren’t binary, and Morse took care to capture the complexities that people expressed. He broke the values into three categories: “instrumental,” or prioritizing human needs in relationship with nature; “intrinsic,” in which people believed nature mattered separately from humans; and “relational,” which addresses the relationship that people want to have with nature. 

People spoke about the species’ impact on them, the importance of coyotes for their own sake, and the awareness of an ongoing relationship with coyotes at the individual level and population level. 

“All of that is out there,” Morse said. “But much more interesting to me is that, often, those three things, or some combination of them, exist in the same person.”

‘Not a zero sum game’

Some major environmental groups active across Vermont accept certain types of hunting, and many hunters approve of increased regulations on the activity.

The Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization that protects and conserves land across the United States and elsewhere, opens much of its land to hunting, though the organization does not take a position for or against the activity. 

“The most common reason for allowing hunting and/or fishing on Conservancy preserves is to maintain or restore the integrity of sensitive species and biological communities,” the organization’s website states. “Another common reason the Conservancy allows hunting and/or fishing on some of our preserves is to respect the practices and cultural traditions of human communities.”

Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife Vermont, has supported bans on trapping, coyote hounding and certain types of hunting. Still, she isn’t trying to ban all hunting, she said, noting that her organization has never participated in a Fish and Wildlife Board meeting about turkey rules or deer rules. Rather, she wants to see more regulations that show animals respect.

“I think most hunting in Vermont is done for cultural reasons, for food, as a way of life,” she said in an interview. “That is never something that we would ever fight or oppose or look to change.”

Mike Covey, executive director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, which opposes S.258, said many hunters and trappers care sincerely about wildlife conservation.

“When it becomes a part of our life on a very real and deep and meaningful level, it gives us that incentive to really care about outcomes, and really care about ensuring that we have healthy populations of these animals on the landscape,” he said.

Some hunters even appear amenable to S.258. 

In a recent commentary for VTDigger, Alex Smith, a member of the Bristol Conservation Commission, wrote that he has “serious skin in the game as it pertains to the future of hunting and fishing.”

“They are the most important things in my life outside of my family,” he wrote.

Still, he defended what others have called an “anti-hunting” bill. Wildlife, he wrote, does not only belong to people who hunt it. 

“Rather than property, wildlife is to be ‘held in trust by the state for all citizens.’ This is law — not my opinion,” he wrote. “It is hard for me to acknowledge that and make an objective argument against having the Wildlife Board consist of a more diverse set of viewpoints. How this affects sportsmen/women will depend on the people who eventually occupy that board.”

If S.258 passes — which seemed less and less likely in early May — many people expect that the governor would appoint 14 people from the hunting and trapping community to the Fish and Wildlife Board, and the Legislature would appoint two people viewed as wildlife advocates. 

But Bray said the wording of the bill prevents politics from playing such a large role.

Rather, he said, it's a recipe for balance, requiring every entity with the authority to appoint members to the board — the speaker of the House, the Senate’s Committee on Committees and the governor — to appoint people with certain qualifications. 

“Some people have said to me, ‘oh, that's going to end up being 14 to two.’ And I hope not, because everyone's going to come through the same criteria,” Bray said. 

Those criteria would include having “a knowledge of fish and wildlife biology, ecology, and the ethics of fish and wildlife management,” as well as the capacity to have “balanced viewpoints” and “recognize the challenges to wildlife and habitat caused by climate change, including an unprecedented loss of biodiversity, and prioritize the value of science in the work to conserve, protect, and restore natural ecosystems,” the bill states.

The bill is unlikely to clear the House this year. Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, chair of the House Environment and Energy Committee — which currently has possession of the bill — said she expects to raise the issue again in a future session. If S.258 fails to pass the House, lawmakers would need to start from the beginning on a new bill. 

Still, the conversations about that have taken place this session have served a purpose, she said, despite the bill’s increasingly narrow path to become law.

“I think folks are starting to understand each other better on these issues,” Sheldon said. “You know, there's issues we need to address, but I think there's room to address them. The majority of Vermonters, I think, can understand that we continue to be in support of hunting and those kinds of engagements with our wildlife, but that there's also room for other voices at the table.”

Sitting in his committee room in early April, Bray ruminated over the controversy surrounding S.258. He said he didn’t want the bill to divide Vermonters. 

“I just have never seen anyone who's at a table having a conversation lose anything by letting someone else join the conversation,” he said. “It's not a zero sum game.”