Will Staats: Why should we abandon Vermont wildlife management science?

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

The current distrust of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, propagated by certain wildlife advocacy groups, is eerily similar to the story surrounding climate change and now the Covid pandemic. Facts are disputed; the motives behind the science are being questioned.

In an effort to advance 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 repeatedly questioned.

Much like the debate over vaccines and masks, these tactics add nothing to the conversation and have pushed factions further into their respective corners. But while so much effort is put into discrediting 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 distrust of science in our state regarding wildlife management issues. Throughout my career, I’ve relied on science to guide my decision making. At the same time, I was always aware of the social implications of making 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 civil servant for many years I feel their pain. It often seemed that no matter what decision was made regarding our natural resources, no one was completely happy. For some there were too many of one kind; too little for others.

What has always been annoying is how an interest group would try to twist and manipulate data to get the answer they want.

Often opinions are presented as fact by the public because of what they have observed in their own backyard. If they personally never see bobcats, there must be few, if any. Or coyotes are everywhere because they’ve seen two in the last month.

But that’s not how science works and how we understand wildlife ecosystems. We use science, not opinion, to lead us to a conclusion. Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologists need to look much bigger. They are aware of facts that the rest of the public does not have or is not trained to interpret correctly.

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

Does politics participate in decision-making? Naturally! Every biologist I know disapproves of good science being overwritten by politics. Witness what is happening in Vermont right now regarding the anti-catch and anti-dog laws. Like Sen. McCormack often said when he advocated for them, the initiatives to end these practices have nothing to do with science.

The real reason why these groups continue to question science is that certain management strategies supported by our department are inconsistent with their own personal belief system. Because they don’t believe in certain hunting methods, if at all, they conclude that the biologists and science they rely on are wrong. Then they try to find a way to discredit the professionals and continue to use flawed reasons to support their opinion. If we don’t trust our own biologists, who should we trust?

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

But our department also recognizes that there is a social capacity, which is determined by the number of animals in the landscape that we as humans will tolerate. Of course, this differs for each of us and is influenced by factors such as our economic status, how we earn a living and where we live.

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

In Vermont, we trusted science to guide us in decisions and policies to address the pandemic and climate change. Then why should we change course and ignore the 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 with abundant and well-managed wildlife populations. If we really want to protect our wildlife, we need to focus on what science says poses the greatest threat to our wildlife populations.

Let’s support the amazing work our department has done protecting the last wild places and habitats that wildlife need to survive here in our state. We owe that to future Vermonters and to the wildlife that can’t speak for themselves.

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Keywords: distrustpersonal beliefssciencesocial capacitynature managementwill state


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