Will Staats: Why would we abandon science in Vermont’s wildlife management?

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


This commentary is by Will Staats, who lives in Victory, Vermont. He’s a professional wildlife biologist who has worked in wildlife conservation for nearly 40 years for both the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. He is a lifelong woodsman-hunter-trapper.

The current mistrust of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department promoted by certain wildlife advocacy groups is eerily similar to the narrative around climate change and now the Covid pandemic. Facts are disputed; the motives behind the science are questioned.

In an effort to further their own agenda, these groups trot out their own “experts” to refute biologists. Because department employees support certain management methodologies, including hunting and trapping, their expertise is called into question repeatedly.

Like the debate over vaccines and masks, these tactics do nothing to further the conversation and have pushed factions further into their respective corners. Yet, while so much energy is put forth to discredit the professional biologists, we miss the opportunity to address the real threats to our wildlife.

As a professional wildlife biologist, it pains me to see the current mistrust of science in our state regarding wildlife management issues. Throughout my career, I have linked on science to guide my decision-making. At the same time, I always was cognizant of social implications when arriving at management decisions. However, what I would never do is manipulate science to achieve my own personal agenda.

The men and women of Vermont Fish & Wildlife have dedicated their lives to protecting and managing Vermont’s wildlife and habitats. As a public servant for many years, I feel their pain. It often appeared that regardless of whatever decision was made concerning our wildlife resources, no one was completely happy. For some, there were too many of one species; for others, too few.

What was always vexing is how one interest group would attempt to twist and manipulate data to get the answer they desired.

Often, opinions by the public are presented as fact because of what they observed in their own backyard. If they personally never see bobcats, there must be few or none. Or coyotes are everywhere because they saw two in the last month.

But that is not how science works and how we understand wildlife ecosystems. We use science, not opinion, to lead us to a conclusion. The biologists at Vermont Fish & Wildlife must look at a much bigger picture. They are privy to facts that the rest of the public do not have or are not trained to interpret correctly.

It is a dynamic process where they are always learning, always readjusting to the many variables that make up natural systems and revise their models and management strategies accordingly. But rest assured their decisions always have a basis in science.

Do politics enter into decision-making? Of course! Every biologist I know decries when good science is overridden by politics. Witness what is occurring right now in Vermont regarding the anti-trapping and anti-hound bills. As stated often by Sen. McCormack when he advocated for them, the initiatives to end these practices have nothing to do with science.

The real driver of why these groups continue to question science is because certain management strategies supported by our department do not align with their own personal belief system. Because they don’t believe in certain hunting methodologies, or often hunting at all, they conclude that the biologists and the science they rely on must be wrong. They then seek to find some way to discredit the professionals and continue to use flawed rationale to support their view. If we do not trust our own biologists, then who would we trust?

Science tells us that in Vermont the wildlife currently hunted and trapped are thriving and their populations are not threatened by these practices. Wildlife — including deer, bears, coyotes, beaver and other species — can sustain an annual harvest by hunters and trappers.

But our department also recognizes that there is a social carrying capacity, which is defined by the number of animals on the landscape that we as humans will tolerate. This naturally differs for each of us and is influenced by factors including our economic status, how we make a living and where we live.

Biologists have the difficult task of managing wildlife populations to achieve a healthy balance between ecological and social carrying capacity.

In Vermont, we have trusted science to guide us on decisions and policies to address the pandemic and climate change. Why then would we change course and ignore science when it comes to managing our wildlife?

Vermonters should ignore the inflamed rhetoric, social media posts and false science and instead listen to the department professionals who have devoted their lives to protecting our wildlife

We all share the common goal of a Vermont that has abundant and well-managed wildlife populations. If we really want to protect our wildlife, we must focus on what science tells us are the greatest threats to our wildlife populations.

Let’s support the great work our department has accomplished protecting the last wild places and habitat that wildlife need to survive here in our state. We owe that much to future Vermonters and to the wildlife who cannot speak for themselves.

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Tags: mistrust, personal beliefs, science, social carrying capacity, wildlife management, will staats

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