Govt. Phil Scott has appointed three new members of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Board, which has jurisdiction over hunting and wildlife regulations.
The board members are: Hartland resident Nicholas Burnham, Bennington resident Neal Hogan and Lincoln resident Robert Patterson. Scott also appointed current board member Brad Ferland of Hardwick as the new chair.
All three new members “are passionate about Vermont’s outdoors, participating in activities ranging from backcountry skiing to mentoring new hunters,” a press release from the governor’s office stated on Tuesday. “All three cite a love of hunting that began during childhood as a driver of their commitment to conservation.”
Board members serve six-year terms that will not be renewed. The appointment process has been the source of controversy recently. Members typically have backgrounds in hunting or angling, a fact that’s been criticized by wildlife advocates who say the board doesn’t fairly represent the interests of Vermonters who don’t hunt.
“Per Vermont statute, wildlife is a public trust resource,” said Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife Vermont. “Public policy is being promulgated by 14 members who are all either hunters, anglers, or trappers. They’re making public policy decisions for the public on this shared public resource without broad public representation. That’s really the key issue.”
Lawmakers attempted to change the appointment process during this year’s legislative session, which ended earlier this month.
As originally outlined in the bill, S.129, the commissioner of the Fish and Wildlife Department and members of the Legislature would have appointed the new board members instead of the governor. The measure would have changed the board’s authority so that the Fish and Wildlife Department, not the board, would have enacted rules, and the board would have acted in an advisory capacity.
While S.129 will not become law, Chris Herrick, commissioner of the Fish and Wildlife Department, said he’s waiting on a letter from the Senate Committee on Natural Resources “that would basically instruct the department to demonstrate that it’s including non-hunter voices in our policymaking and work at the Fish and Wildlife Board with rules and regulations.”
Herrick said the department already includes non-hunter voices, “but we’re going to be more clear about how we do that going forward,” he said.
Galdenzi, who wants to see non-hunters serve on the board, referenced a study analyzing the wildlife value orientation of Vermonters.
Of the survey respondents, 25% identified as “traditionalists” who “believe wildlife should be used and managed for human benefit;” 34% identified as “mutualists” who “believe wildlife are part of our social network and that we should live in harmony” and 29% said they were “pluralists” who “prioritize these values differently depending on the specific context.” Another 12% said they felt more distant from wildlife issues.
Herrick said it’s important for board members to know the specific details of the sport they’re regulating.
“You really want people who understand what happens in the woods, or when you’re angling, to understand the impact of policies that you, as a board, are making,” he said. “The example that I’ve used is, you really don’t want non-electricians on the electricians board.”
He said board members who hunt are able to evaluate hunting policies objectively. For example, he said, the board is currently looking into limiting the coyote hunting season.
Herrick said he expects the board to spend the summer implementing two measures that passed out of the Legislature this session. One requires the board to create regulations around the hunting of coyotes with dogs, and another that would stand up best management practices for using leghold traps.
Burnham, the appointee from Hartland whose first board meeting was last week, is a state employee with the Department of Corrections. An avid outdoorsman, he enjoys hiking and kayaking with his family, and has been a hunting instructor for 10 years, he said. Burnham applied to join the board because it was “another way to give back to something that has been important in my life.”
Asked whether he’d be open to hearing from Vermonters who don’t hunt, Burnham said he has an open mind.
“Everybody’s opinion is important,” he said, “and we may not always agree on everything.”
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