Walter Medwid: Refocus Fish & Wildlife mandates so it’s on conservation

Walter Medwid: Refocus Fish & Wildlife mandates so it's on conservation

This commentary is by Walter Medwid, a Derby resident who serves on the board of the Orleans County Natural Resource Conservation District.

Vermonters should rethink the focus of the Fish & Wildlife Department. Threats to biodiversity and shifting human values ​​challenge the underpinnings of the department and the Fish & Wildlife Board.

The Fish & Wildlife Board has the ultimate authority to make regulations and public policy over game species, such as trapping seasons on bobcats and otter; the Fish & Wildlife Department has authority only over non-game species like bats and turtles.

These challenges necessitate that the Fish & Wildlife Department evolve from its traditional game and fish emphasis to a more ecologically focused, democratically inclusive agency protecting all Vermont’s animal diversity.

Unfortunately, the department, the board and our political leaders are stuck in a political quagmire focused on the symptoms of our broken wildlife governance infrastructure rather than the disease itself.

The Fish & Wildlife Board (dominated by license-holder interests) largely ignores the growing disharmony surrounding its decisions and keeps to its political agenda in a seamless partnership with the Fish & Wildlife Department to ensure the interests of license holders are paramount.

Theoretically, Fish & Wildlife Board decisions rely on science and values. And here lies the quagmire’s cause: Whose values ​​count most in determining Vermont’s fish and wildlife priorities, regulations and public policies?

Many hunters and anglers fear any change in priority will diminish sporting opportunities. Others counter that the department and board actions have always aimed at promoting hunting and fishing, at the expense of nongame and ecosystems.

In response to the strife, the Legislature has an opportunity to revise the overarching and grossly outdated language in the section of Vermont Statutes, Title 10, Chapter 103 defining the policy under which the Fish & Wildlife Department functions. This anchoring language contains no reference to ecological approaches to management, respecting diverse wildlife values ​​and contemporary schools of thought within the wildlife profession, endangered species, biodiversity, climate change, habitat protection or invasive species.

What is referenced as guiding policy is this, “An abundant, healthy deer herd is a primary goal of fish and wildlife management.” Clearly, this simplistic and singular focus on deer bears no relationship to the complexity of wildlife issues, values, challenges and citizen expectations at hand today. The policy charge to the Fish and Wildlife Department must reflect the realities and emergencies of the 21st century.

Science tells us that biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate. Soaring species extinctions, coupled with climate change, threaten Vermonters’ well-being and risk our children’s future.

Today’s poor wildlife prognosis was not present 100 years ago, when fish and game departments were established with the main goal of sustaining fish and game harvest. Their “wise use, without waste” purpose might have made sense in that earlier era — but not now. Times are different and public needs and values ​​have transformed, yet Vermont Fish & Wildlife remains a remnant of an outdated model.

Vermont is obligated to protect wildlife for current and future generations under Title 10. The sad truth is that Fish & Wildlife is failing. Its historic focus remains on sustaining food fish and game animals, despite knowing that close to 1,000 Vermont species are in greatest conservation need and that common species also require stewardship.

The inconvenient truth is that the current mandate is weighted heavily toward recreationally and commercially valuable animals. Consequently, long-term biodiversity health is jeopardized.

Clarifying the mandate around a top priority to conserve all wildlife for all people will provide a unifying direction for the flooding board and strengthen the Fish and Wildlife Department’s biodiversity mission. An improved mandate will direct Fish & Wildlife to recognize that ensuring wildlife’s long-term diversity, health, resiliency and sustainability as a public wildlife trust is its existential purpose. Resource extraction (hunting, fishing, trapping) must be secondary.

Changing the Fish and Wildlife Department’s purpose recognizes that government agencies require modifications as society’s needs and public values ​​change. The shift of the Fish and Wildlife Department toward a more ecologically focused agency protecting Vermont’s wildlife diversity does not mean eliminating hunting or fishing — simply that our relationship with animals and nature is evolving.

This commentary was adapted, with permission, from an essay by wildlife conservation biologist Fred Koontz on wildlife governance issues facing Washington state.

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Tags: animal diversity, biodiversity, climate change, conservation, deer-herd, endangered species, fishing and hunting, sporting opportunities, Walter Medwid


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