[Reprinted from original]
For a few weeks, this winter, I would end my day by checking the Vermont Legislature’s page to see if H.172: An act relating to hunting and trapping had made it out of committee. On the evening of ‘crossover’ (the point in the session after which each house only considers legislation sent to it by the other house), I sent a message to a friend, explaining it looked like we were out-of-the-woods. It seemed, as we both would have guessed, this piece of proposed legislation was too extreme for the committee to have taken up as part of their 2021 agenda.
I grew up in an old Vermont family, rooted in the bellwether Vermont professions and traditions of logging, farming, sugaring, hunting, fishing and trapping. I have observed, almost as a bystander, the negative comments, insults, generalizations, stereotypes and micro-aggressions directed at the aforementioned ways of life in Vermont, for decades. Whether overheard in the lift-line, a college classroom, or among co-workers in the education world, it always seemed so unfair, uninformed and truly a form of discrimination. The condescension of this growing populace of people who make Vermont their home is beginning to wax political against the Vermont Fish and Wildlife board, which has served this state well for a century.
The thing I always find most odd about said sentiments is my discussions of nature with loggers, farmers, hunters, anglers and trappers always have greater depth than those opposed. They speak poorly of the people who know, cherish and keep Vermont’s wild places. They are people who experience our environment as though they are a part of it, not just tourists in their own neighborhood, looking for a good view. Vermont is a place teeming with wildlife diversity and famous for outdoor opportunities, partly because of them. In the past, controversial decisions involving wildlife regulation have fallen to the science side of the scale, which has played out well for outdoors people, who find their place in the management plan as recreation, food source and often their passion in life. Our Fish and Wildlife Board has not let the emotions and social pressures of a few, or out-of-state special interest groups, steer the ship.
Like most Vermont outdoors people, I am not a bear houndsman or a trapper and do not aspire to either. I do respect the history of trapping in Vermont and my own family and can see the merits of bear hunting and believe both of them fit into our management plan quite well, as is. More importantly, I realize what befalls these two categories of the outdoors community is a harbinger of the fate of other less controversial outdoor sports, from water fowling to bass fishing.
There are multiple pieces of Fish and Wildlife-related legislation in the House Natural Resources Committee that should be of grave concern to anyone in the outdoor community, not just bear hunters and trappers. Bill H.172 includes language that would ban the hunting of bears with hounds, and is only one word away from the banning of hunting any game animal or waterfowl in Vermont with dogs; a serious concern for the future of waterfowl, grouse and rabbit hunting.
The bill also includes language to remove the bear tag from a youth hunting license and end trapping as we know it in Vermont. This is an obvious first stab at ending the “generational transfer” of our hunting culture to the next generation. I’m sure there are other radical special interest groups that would, in the future, wish to influence an end to youth hunting seasons, hunting and shooting at conservation camps, imposing later age restrictions on licenses and perhaps even Vermont constitutional amendments to remove the “right to hunt.”
I was relieved this was the final time I would need to check the progress of these bills in House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife pages as though I were checking my lottery numbers, to see if we and our children would get to keep our heritage for another year.
A few days later, many of us in the Vermont hunting world started picking up chatter from online communities that these bills were back on the docket and being discussed in committee and testimony was being stacked 6/1 in favor of some of the very organizations that pushed the drafting of the bill in the first place.
In sifting through and watching portions of the House Natural Resources meeting streams, I have heard testimony from a very select group of anti-hunting and anti-trapping interests. There have been no trappers or bear hunters as witnesses. Nor has there been any testimony from anyone on the F&W Board or from anyone focused on the wildlife management model used in Vermont (and all of North America) or the science behind trapping and its guidelines. I am perplexed why there seems to be a real front-loading of “anti” testimony.
Even if there is a strong push among the majority to get this bill to the House floor, it has long been the Vermont way to provide ample opportunity for those whose vested interest and the fate of their heritage lay in the balance to get their opportunity to speak their position. It has become obvious there is a strategy in effect by the Committee Chairwoman Rep. Amy Sheldon and Vice Chairman Rep. James McCullough to shelter their fellow committee members and viewers of the Zoom meetings (archived on YouTube). Testimony from an articulate and informed Vermonter just could make them question the legitimacy of the bill and catch them in their hasty push to get this to the House floor, dead-to-rights.
After the nearly one-sided morning testimony last Wednesday (i.e., Protect Our Wildlife), Representative Lefebvre suggested a motion to table the wildlife bills to focus on Act 250. I know he is also on the Act 250 commission and probably sees the need to get crackin’ on the biggest and perhaps most needed legislative action in decades. He expressed that the overwhelming number of emails received and controversy seem to show a level of disgust amongst the outdoor crowd and that it should be taken up after the pandemic. He was met with strong disagreement from Representative Sheldon (bill cosponsor), who expressed that the Zoom meeting format was more transparent. She was then backed up by Representative McCullough (bill cosponsor) who went even further adding “630,000 people have the opportunity to be heard in the committee and the floor of the House” and “there is no comparison” to pre-YouTube transparency. Also, he went as far as to say he thought a “moratorium” should be put on further discussion of the wildlife bills (I assumed to mean in committee). Rep. Kari Dolan (bill cosponsor) also added she had cross-referenced hundreds of emails coming in against the bill, through the Secretary of State’s Office, and that “A share of” the emails were from out-of-staters, and she “found that interesting.” Then Representative Bongartz chimed in with “we’ve heard as much of this as we’re going to hear” and that he was “comfortable proceeding with them.”
I found it “interesting” that mostly anti-hunting and anti-trapping, out-of-state-influenced special interest groups were the lion’s share of a very small showing of witnesses for legislation that would end 300 years of Vermont tradition and outdoor heritage. Like Representative Dolan, I find the influence of out-of-staters on this legislation “interesting” also. Also, I found her pointing this out to be quite hypocritical, since no Vermont trapper, bear houndsman, scientist or Fish and Wildlife official was given the opportunity to provide testimony in committee. I can think of six people in my small group of friends who would love to take the time to give their side of the story and shed light on the topics at hand. I’m quite sure if this bill involved banning habitat fragmentation from mountain bike trail building or creating a reservation-only system for hiking popular trailheads, we would be hearing from those with a vested interest.
Rep. Sheldon is right-on in her description of this year’s Zoom meeting processions involving “more opportunity to be heard.”
It is great to be able to scroll through committee meetings and catch up on what is being said, after work. However, it seems, in the case of this committee and the F&W legislation at hand, that opportunity has been missed. It is quite evident, to this lifelong Vermont resident, taxpayer, payer of 11% Pittman Robertson Act tax and resident hunting and fishing license purchaser, that the committee chair and the other two committee members who are cosponsors of the bill have stacked the deck.
The less biased committee members, and those 630,000 Vermonters they speak of, will not hear from anyone knowledgeable of their craft before they disenfranchise thousands of more Vermonters by taking away their traditions, passions and perhaps their rights. We must see that this does not happen when the bill gets to the House floor in the next couple of weeks. I am calling on all hunters, fishers and trappers to get involved with this legislation, as soon as possible, this session. We, as a united group, need to act as the biggest lobby group in Vermont and get the word out to our own representatives (House members and Senators), the members of the House Natural Resources Committee and even the governor, that we are demanding better representation from witnesses, and those with a contrarian take on this legislation should be heard. It could be our most valued outdoor pastime that is next on the chopping block.
With the potential passing of H.167, which would take away the legislative powers of the Fish and Wildlife Board, it is time Vermont outdoors people realize we are the biggest lobby in the state and our cherished Fish and Wildlife Department and Board will need our support in the future. We need to reach out to all of our representatives, senators and the governor himself to see to it that the parts of Vermont’s outdoor culture we value are not stripped from us and future generations, without so much as a chance to defend their merits.
Mike Stannard lives in Fair Haven.TRIGGERITISAREPRINTFORDATABOUNDTOWORKWITH