Public weighs in on controversial hunt, laws of nature

One of the bills in the state Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee would prohibit hunters from using dogs to track and kill coyotes. Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

Three bills in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy are proving controversial among hunters and animal welfare advocates.

At a relatively rare public hearing held by the commission last week, Vermonters expressed support and opposition to the bills, which would ban two hunting practices and limit the power of the Department of Fish and Wildlife board.

“Basically, hunting and fishing accounts have always been of broad interest, and there’s also some controversy around them,” said Senator Chris Bray, D-Addison, who chairs the committee. “Instead of just doing the regular committee process, we thought it was worth creating a public forum for anyone to participate in.”

Many who opposed the proposed policy expressed concern that the bills seek to limit hunting in general and that hunters are using best practices to avoid unnecessary pain to animals. Proponents of the bills say the practices in their center are cruel and should have been banned long ago.

Fish and Wildlife Department Commissioner Chris Herrick opposes parts of all three bills.

Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife, a state organization that has advocated greater hunting regulation in the state, says the laws are not against hunting.

“There are still some practices in Vermont that are legal that, if we were to do the same things with pets, they would likely fall under the Vermont Statute Against Animal Abuse, which means you are causing an animal long-term pain, suffering and distress.” , she told VTDigger.

The accounts

One of the accounts S.281, would ban hunters from using dogs to track and kill coyotes, a practice animal welfare activists liken to dog fighting. Other than obtaining a standard hunting license, hunters and their dogs have few restrictions when it comes to hunting coyotes, who are often seriously injured or killed by the dogs that chase them.

In addition to the public hearing, lawmakers in the Senate Natural Resources Committee gave testimony earlier this month on each of the bills. There Diana Hansen, a Craftsbury resident, said she grew up in a family of hunters and doesn’t consent to many types of hunting, but an incident on her property in February 2018 caused her to object to hunting coyotes with dogs.

Her 10-year-old warned her about multiple dogs entering her property to chase a coyote, she told lawmakers. The dogs mauled the coyote, which was bloodied and “clearly exhausted,” Hansen said, until the creature climbed her greenhouse, with the dogs following. The incident, witnessed by her children, caused $500 in damage. Her property had not been posted, so no official could help her, she said.

Rather than outright banning the practice, Fish and Wildlife officials are calling for more regulation around gundog hunting coyotes.

“By regulating it, we would get a better understanding of what’s going on there with factual data and not just anecdotal information,” Herrick said.

a second account S.201, proposes a ban on leghold traps, also known as foot traps. Animal welfare organizations say the devices are painful and indiscriminately trap animals, including endangered species and pets.

In response to the bill, fish and wildlife hunters and state officials said the traps are humane and effective if checked frequently, and are sometimes used to protect certain species by keeping predators away.

The conversation about falling has been fleeting, Mike Covey, executive director of Vermont Traditions Coalition, told lawmakers during a testimony earlier this month.

“None of that conversation takes into account all the work that has been done to bring traps into the 21st century,” he said, adding that the advances allow hunters to target certain animals and avoid others.

Kim Royer, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, testified this month that scientists often use foot traps to trap and tie up animals. There is no evidence of harm to those animals, she said.

Galdenzi said she is concerned about recreational catches, where the standards could be less strict than state-sanctioned wildlife projects.

“Traps can’t even distinguish between the intended victim, a bobcat, for example, and a protected species, such as a bald eagle,” Galdenzi said at last week’s hearing. “Non-targeted animals, such as hawks and ravens, are killed in local traps every year.”

a third account, S.129, would change the authority of the Fish and Wildlife Board, which determines much of Vermont’s hunting policy, so it serves in an advisory capacity to the Fish and Wildlife Department. The department would set rules regarding hunting, advised by the board.

Herrick pointed to the amount of power the legislature would have under the proposed set-up. Eight of the 12 board members would be appointed by lawmakers, he said. They are currently appointed by the governor. As it stands, lawmakers are already required to approve new policies drafted by the board.

“The people who work here in the department are based on science and peer-reviewed research and have accepted best practice,” Herrick said. “And I think it’s fair to say that the board is relying on their expertise and recommendation.”

Board members often hold hunting or fishing licenses, making it easier for them to understand the nuts and bolts of the policies they create, Herrick said, adding that members represent a diverse range of points of view.

Covey told lawmakers the bill appears to be designed to “reduce hunting and fishing opportunities in Vermont.” He said it makes sense for board members to have hunting licenses.

“If you don’t understand the dynamic conditions that can arise in the field, it’s very difficult to control a topic that you don’t know,” he said.

Animal advocates like Galdenzi have insisted that board members represent Vermonters who don’t hunt.

“Wildlife is a source of public trust, and these policies affect all of us. Whether it’s the extension of the otter fishing season, or any other petition that lands on their desks, it affects us all,” Galdenzi said. “We all have to have something to say, and we all have to have a seat.”

After listening to members of the public during the testimony and public hearing, Bray said the committee should discuss next steps in the coming weeks.

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