Public weighs in on controversial hunting, wildlife bills

Three bills in the state’s Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee are proving controversial among hunters and animal welfare advocates.

At a relatively rare public hearing conducted by the committee last week, Vermonters expressed support and opposition to the bills, which would ban two hunting practices and limit the power of the Department of Fish and Wildlife board.

“Quite bluntly, hunting and fishing bills always have a broad interest, and there’s also some controversy around them,” said Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, who chairs the committee. “Rather than just do the regular committee process, we thought it was worth creating a public forum that anyone could participate in.”

Many opposed to the proposed policies expressed concern that the bills seek to limit hunting in general and said hunters use best practices to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain on animals. Those in favor of the bills say the practices at their center are cruel and should have been prohibited 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 has been advocating for more hunting regulation in the state, says the bills are not anti-hunting.

“There are still some practices in Vermont that are legal that, if we were doing the same things to domestic animals, they would likely fall under Vermont’s cruelty to animals statute, which means you’re inflicting prolonged pain, suffering, fear upon an animal ,” she told VTDigger.

The bills

One of the bills, S.281, would ban hunters from using hounds to track and kill coyotes, a practice animal welfare activists liken to dogfighting. Other than obtaining a standard hunting license, hunters and their hounds face few restrictions when hunting coyotes, which are often severely injured or killed by the dogs that chase them.

In addition to the public hearing, lawmakers in the Senate Natural Resources Committee took testimony earlier this month on each of the bills. There, Diana Hansen, a Craftsbury resident, said she grew up in a family of hunters and does not take issue with many types of hunting, but an incident on her property in February 2018 caused her to object to hunting coyotes with hounds.

Her 10-year-old alerted her to multiple dogs entering her property in pursuit of a coyote, she told lawmakers. The dogs mauled the coyote, which was bloodied and “clearly exhausted,” Hansen said, until the creature ascended her greenhouse, with the dogs following. The incident, all of which her children witnessed, caused $500 worth of damage. Her property wasn’t posted, so no officials could help her, she said.

Rather than banning the practice outright, Fish and Wildlife officials are advocating for increased regulations around hound hunting coyotes.

“By regulating it, it would allow us to have a better understanding of what’s going on there with actual data and not just anecdotal information,” Herrick said.

A second bill, S.201, proposes a ban on leghold traps, which are also called foothold traps. Animal welfare groups say the devices are painful and trap animals indiscriminately, including endangered species and household pets.

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

The conversation around trapping has been volatile, Mike Covey, executive director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, told lawmakers during testimony earlier this month.

“None of that conversation takes into consideration all the work that has been done to bring trapping into the 21st century,” he said, adding that the advances allow hunters to target certain 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. There’s been no evidence of harm to those animals, she said.

Galdenzi said she’s concerned about recreational trapping, where standards could be less strict than state-sanctioned wildlife projects.

“Traps can’t even distinguish between the intended victim, a bobcat for example, and a protected species, like a bald eagle,” Galdenzi said during last week’s hearing. “Non-targeted animals, like hawks and ravens, are killed every year in local traps.”

A third bill, S.129, would change the authority of the Fish and Wildlife board, which determines many of Vermont’s hunting policies, so it serves in an advisory capacity to the Fish and Wildlife Department. The department would craft rules related to hunting, advised by the board.

Herrick pointed to the amount of power the Legislature would hold under the proposed setup. Eight out of 12 board members would be appointed by lawmakers, he said. They are currently appointed by the governor. As it stands, lawmakers already need to approve new policies created by the board.

“The folks that work here at the department are based in science and peer-reviewed studies and accepted best practices,” Herrick said. “And I think it’s fair to say that the board relies on their expertise and recommendation.”

Board members often hold hunting or fishing licenses, making it easier for them to understand the nuts and bolts of the policies they are creating, Herrick said, adding that members represent a diverse set of viewpoints.

Covey told lawmakers the bill seems to be crafted to “reduce hunting and trapping opportunities in Vermont.” He said it makes sense for board members to hold hunting licenses.

“If you don’t understand the dynamic conditions that can occur in the field, it’s very difficult to regulate a topic that you’re not familiar with,” he said.

Animal advocates such as Galdenzi have pushed for board members to represent Vermonters who do not hunt.

“Wildlife is a public trust resource, and these policies they’re making impact all of us. Whether it’s extending the otter trapping season, or whatever other petition might fall on their desks, that affects all of us,” Galdenzi said. “We all should have a say, 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.

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