Alana Stevenson: Care about wildlife? Look to your governor

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

This commentary is by Alana Stevenson, an animal behaviorist who lives in Charlotte.

Many Vermonters don’t know how Vermont’s wildlife is managed. We tend to think of Vermont as picturesque, pro-environment and progressive. In reality, when it comes to wildlife, animals and the environment, Vermont lags far behind many other states.

In fact, there are no protections for wild animals in Vermont. The minimal restrictions that may exist are rarely enforced. If there is any enforcement, consequences are minor to nonexistent.

How is Vermont’s wildlife managed? As it stands now, it’s not at all democratic. The fish and wildlife commissioner — who decides how the Fish & Wildlife Department runs and operates, the policies it implements, and how rules are enforced — is chosen by the governor. Our current governor is pro-hounding, trapping and hunting. He has publicly stated that if any trapping bans get passed, he will veto them (I hope if that comes to be, the Legislature will override his veto).

The governor also chooses the Fish & Wildlife Board. The Fish & Wildlife Board oversees and creates all protections and regulations regarding wild animals. The board members can override Fish & Wildlife biologists. The Fish & Wildlife Board members are a small group of hunters, hunders and trappers. They are not voted in. They do not have to post their resumes. They do not have to have degrees in environmental science, wildlife biology, conservation, or any related field. They are not scientists.

The bottom line is that the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department regulates itself. Those who hound, trap and hunt create their own rules that they abide by and enforce. They can make the nonhunting public abide by a completely different set of standards, and they do. These double standards have no basis in science, and are often irrational, as well as unethical.

Here are only some of the current problems with how Vermont Fish & Wildlife operates.

  • Wild animals are given zero protections with how they are treated.
  • There is not one veterinarian on the department’s staff.
  • The public is not allowed to “touch” or help “rabies vector” species such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and so on. Yet, hunters and trappers can physically attack, beat, hang and skin these very same animals — no vaccinations required and without restraint.
  • If you have a hunting or trapping license, you can beat, stab and bludgeon an animal and then leave that animal helpless and injured.
  • If you are a wildlife rehabber, you are not allowed to help the majority of animals in Vermont. You are not allowed to help juvenile or adult skunks, raccoons, foxes, deer, coyotes and many other animals — even if you are vaccinated, and even if you are a veterinarian.

When members of the public find an injured wild animal, they are told by Fish & Wildlife to “let nature run its course.” But most wildlife injuries are human-inflicted. Nature didn’t cause them. Humans did.

Nature did not lodge an arrow in a deer’s head and then leave that deer to work it out on its own, nor did it injure a wild animal by hitting it with a car or cause a baby animal to become orphaned by shooting or running over its mother.

Wildlife rehabbers are overwhelmed with calls from people who want to help injured and orphaned wildlife. If anyone calls the Fish & Wildlife Department, they are told to either let the animal suffer or to kill it in some barbaric fashion, such as beating, drowning or gassing it.

Wildlife rehabbers are required to report regularly. They have a myriad of restrictions placed upon them by Vermont Fish & Wildlife. If they don’t abide by these restrictions, they will lose their licenses. Yet trappers and hounders don’t have to report at all, even if they kill, maim, or injure endangered or companion animals.

The public is expected to maintain control over their dogs. Pet dogs are not allowed to chase or attack wildlife and can be shot for chasing wildlife. However, hounders can release packs of dogs, unsupervised and without restraint to chase and attack wild animals in the woods where they live. In addition, hounds can be run all year and training seasons occur when bears, raccoons, bobcats and other animals are nursing their young.

Beyond the abhorrent cruelty to animals that fall victims to hounds, hounding poses a serious safety risk to people. If you and your companion or domestic animals are attacked by hounds, there is nothing you can do. It is legal in Vermont.

Homeowners and property owners have no say as to whether or not hounders are welcome on their property. Hounders can come from out of state, run their dogs on your private property, even if it’s posted, and then leave. There are no consequences.

Dogs used for hounding are pawns for recreation. The training is not sophisticated, as it’s modified dogfighting. Hound dogs are often neglected and live year-round in cages and kennels. They are abandoned and killed when they are no longer useful. Animal protection laws in Vermont pertaining to dogs seemingly don’t apply to hunting hounds.

Vermont game wardens post pictures of themselves on social media with animals they’ve killed. One Vermont game warden has shared photos of himself smiling with a bloodied coyote surrounded by exhausted hunting hounds. If these are the game wardens who oversee and enforce wildlife protection and hunting regulations, what does that say about how the department is managed and run?

Those who care about animals are traumatized by the lack of laws in Vermont and how terribly wild animals are treated. Those who want to help wildlife are limited or prohibited from doing so. Yet for hunders, trappers and hunters, it’s the Wild West and “anything goes.”

The former wildlife commissioner publicly stated that the Fish & Wildlife Department does only what the Vermont Legislature allows. The Vermont Legislature has catered to hounders, trappers and those who enjoy hunting for recreation. The Vermont Legislature has not listened to private landowners and homeowners, nonhunters, wildlife rehabbers, birders, hikers, ethical farmers, or animal advocates, nor has it seemed to care about the treatment and protection of wild animals. This needs to change.

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board should be abolished entirely, or voted in democratically, and so should the fish & wildlife commissioner. If the governor will not catch up with the current science and ethics in the way wildlife is managed and how wild animals are treated, and if he doesn’t care about the rights of property owners protecting themselves from hounders and irresponsible hunters, then Vermonters need to vote in a new governor.

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Tags: Alana Stevenson, hunders, hunters, trappers, Vermont Fish & Wildlife, wildlife


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