The public weighs heavily on controversial hunting, wildlife bills

Three bills in the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy have proven controversial among hunters and animal welfare advocates.

In a relatively rare public hearing by the commission last week, Vermonters voiced support and opposition to the bills, which would ban two hunting practices and limit the authority of the Fish and Wildlife Board.

“Quite frankly, hunting and fishing bills have always gotten wide attention, and there’s also some controversy about it,” said Senator Chris Bray, D-Addison, who chairs the committee. “Instead of just doing the normal committee process, we thought it was worth creating a public forum in which anyone could participate.”

Many opponents of the proposed policies expressed concern that the bills sought to reduce hunting in general, and said hunters were using best practices to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. Supporters of the bills say the practices at their center are harsh and should have been banned long ago.

The commissioner of the Fish and Wildlife Department, Chris Herrick, opposes parts of all three bills.

Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife, a statewide organization that advocates for more hunting laws in the state, says the bills are not against hunting.

“There are still some legal practices in Vermont that, if we are doing the same things with pets, you are likely to be subject to the Vermont Animal Cruelty Act, which means you are causing prolonged pain, suffering, and fear to an animal,” she told VTDigger.

Invoices

one of the bills, s 281, would prevent poachers from using hounds to track and kill wolves, a practice animal welfare activists liken to dogfighting. Other than having a standard hunting licence, hunters and their hounds face few restrictions when hunting coyotes, who are often seriously injured or killed by the dogs that chase them.

In addition to the public hearing, lawmakers on the Senate Natural Resources Committee testified earlier this month on each bill. There, Craftsbury resident Diana Hansen said she grew up in a family of hunters and doesn’t deal with many types of hunting, but an incident on her property in February 2018 made her object to coyotes hunting with hounds.

She told lawmakers that her 10-year-old had alerted her that several dogs had entered her property in search of a wolf. Hansen said the dogs destroyed the wolf, which was bloodied and “visibly exhausted,” until the creature climbed into her greenhouse with the following dogs. The accident, which all of her children witnessed, caused $500 in losses. She said her assets weren’t made public, so officials couldn’t help her.

Rather than banning the practice entirely, fish and wildlife officials are calling for increased regulations around coyote hunting.

“By organizing it, it will allow us to get a better understanding of what is going on out there with actual data and not just anecdotal information,” Herrick said.

second bill, S.201, proposes a ban on leg traps, also called foothold traps. Animal care groups say these devices are painful and indiscriminately confine animals, including endangered species and domestic pets.

In response to the bill, fishermen and state officials at Fish and Wildlife said traps are humane and effective if checked often, and are sometimes used to protect certain species by keeping predators out.

Mike Coffey, executive director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, told lawmakers during his testimony earlier this month that talk about confinement has been choppy.

“None of that conversation takes into account all the work that’s been done to bring trapping into the 21st century,” he said, adding that progress allows hunters to target specific animals and avoid capturing others.

Kim Royer, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, testified this month that scientists often use foothold traps to capture and collar animals. She said there was no evidence of harm to these animals.

Galdenzi said she is concerned about recreational hunting, where standards could be less stringent than state-sanctioned wildlife projects.

“The traps cannot even distinguish between the intended victim, such as cats, and protected species, such as the bald eagle,” Galdenzi said during a hearing last week. “Non-target animals, such as hawks and crows, are killed every year in local traps.”

third bill, M 129, would change the authority of the Fish and Wildlife Board, which sets many fishing policies in Vermont, so it serves in an advisory capacity to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The department will draft the rules relating to hunting, on the advice of the Council.

Herrick indicated how much power the legislature would retain under the proposed setup. He said eight of the 12 board members will be appointed by lawmakers. They are currently appointed by the Governor. As it stands, lawmakers already need to approve the new policies that the council has put in place.

“The people who work here in the department are based on scientific, peer-reviewed study and accepted best practices,” Herrick said. “And I think it’s fair to say that the board of directors relies on their experience and recommendations.”

Board members often hold hunting or fishing licenses, which makes it easier for them to understand the nuts and bolts of the policies they put in place, Herrick said, adding that members represent a variety of viewpoints.

Covey told lawmakers that the bill appears to have been drafted to “reduce hunting and siege opportunities in Vermont.” It makes sense that board members hold fishing licenses, he said.

“If you do not understand the dynamic conditions that can occur in this field, it is very difficult to organize a topic that I am not familiar with,” he said.

Animal advocates like Galdenzi lobbied board members to represent Vermonters who don’t hunt.

“Wildlife is a public trust, and these policies they make affect all of us. Whether it’s for an extension of the otters season, or any other petition that might fall on their desks, this affects all of us,” Galdenzi said. We all have an opinion, and we should all have a seat.”

After listening to members of the public at the testimony and public hearing, Bray said the committee will need to discuss next steps in the coming weeks.