This commentary is by Kristen Cameron, a resident of Burlington.
Once again, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is just going through the motions of public participation when recommending changes in hunting and trapping regulations.
It holds hearings and accepts public comments. Then it downplays or dismisses opposition by suggesting that it comes from people “opposed to moose hunting in general” or that the commenters don’t understand science.
It is the responsibility of Vermont Fish & Wildlife and the Fish & Wildlife Board to at least acknowledge, consider and address public opinion, especially when it does not support their current “Groupthink” practice. Remember, Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s No. 1 strategy of the 2020-30 Big Game Plan is to “maximize opportunity for big game hunters.” (See page 52.) The real “big game” is the illusion that the public is being heard.
In practice, the public is invited to provide input on proposed rules and regulations. In 2020, Mark Scott, director of Fish & Wildlife, dismissed opposition to the moose hunting plan by claiming it was from people who were “opposed to moose hunting in general.”
This year, Vermont Fish & Wildlife simply avoided acknowledging that 192 out of the 194 emails it received from the public were opposed to the 2022 moose hunt. Instead, it focused on one misleading 2019 survey question and emphasized the alleged ignorance of Vermont residents. (Video of the April 18, 2022, meeting of the Fish & Wildlife Board.) Scott asserted that “65% of Vermont residents support maintaining a smaller moose population through hunting IF it reduces the number of moose that die each year from winter ticks. Only 15% oppose this approach.”
The big “IF” in this question practically leads to a “yes” answer to protect moose calves. Honestly, I’m surprised that even 15% opposed the approach, based on that deceptive survey question. It is especially dishonest because it implies a positive outcome for moose while the density plan is, in fact, based on an unproven theory.
Further, the graduate thesis research that led to the moose density plan was partially funded ($120,800) by Safari Club International, which is a mouthpiece for trophy hunters. It has funded other studies that conveniently decided trophy hunting of polar bears was sustainable and killing almost half to all but 40 bears was acceptable in Missouri. Safari Club International also funds the Inclusive Conservation Group, which by some accounts is involved in disinformation campaigns to promote trophy hunting and the wildlife trade. There is good reason to be skeptical of the research Vermont Fish & Wildlife is relying on.
Scott also said the biggest “issue” (still not calling it opposition) from the public was about ticks and the approach Fish & Wildlife is taking. He pointed to the survey with Vermont residents’ self-reported knowledge about moose and ticks and claimed knowledge was “low.” However, that question shows that nearly half (49%) of Vermont residents do know about the impact of winter ticks on the Vermont moose population.
Of course, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and the Fish & Wildlife Board shouldn’t be expected to go against sound science just because people make public comments. Even though it went against sound science and extended the otter trapping season and almost extended the bobcat trapping a few years ago. These two animals are listed as “species of greatest conservation need” in Vermont and should be protected, not killed for fur or trophies.
This also calls into question whether Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s science meets the hallmarks of scientific integrity, including transparency, objectivity, etc. Regardless of what the department and the board decide to do, they have a responsibility to honestly consider public sentiment and should acknowledge the opposition. Instead, Fish & Wildlife consistently downplays or dismisses opposition and highlights whatever data or anecdotal information justifies hunting and trapping as the solution to any problem.
People opposed the 2022 moose hunt for a number of reasons. The overarching concern is that there are a number of other threats facing moose, from heat stress to brainworm. Just because the people disagree with killing moose to kill winter ticks does not mean that they are uneducated.
Allowing public comment on hunting and trapping proposals should democratize the process. At the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, it has consistently been the opposite. It is closed off to different values and caters to trophy hunters and trappers.