By Shawn Perich
While many advocates for wildlife and fisheries management believe this vital aspect of conservation would benefit from a broader constituency, the path to attracting new supporters is bedeviled with details. Recently, a Vermont government watchdog website called VTDigger published a commentary by biologist Walter Medwid called Time for Change in Managing Vermont’s Wildlife.
Medwid, formerly executive director of the International Wolf Center in Ely, believes state fish and wildlife management in Vermont, where he now lives, is unduly influenced by hunters and anglers. He writes:
True to Vermont’s values, a board made up of citizens from around the state decides how to manage the state’s fish and wildlife. But, contrary to those values, the people serving on the Fish and Wildlife Board are chosen by the governor from a limited pool of citizens who take part in trapping, hunting and fishing. This may seem to make sense, but wildlife is a public resource and not just important to people who are “consumers” of it.
This imbalance in representation came about for two reasons. First, hunting, fishing and trapping have traditionally been considered a mainstream of our Vermont culture. Second, hunting and fishing license fees and federal funds from taxes on certain sporting good are an important source of income for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and to the governors who have to juggle budgets and appoint citizens to the board. It’s clear why governors would want to cater to that special interest group.
Medwid’s observation is hardly new. Aside from the sort of sportsman who views everyone who doesn’t hunt or fish as an animal rights zealot, most folks interested in fish and wildlife agree that greater involvement from the general public is potentially a good thing. But there are details. Folks who want to become involved should have informed viewpoints and show respect for others who may not share their views. While this statement should go without saying in any political discourse, we all know that a lack of common respect has becoming a defining feature of American politics. And that’s a primary reason our duly elected fail to accomplish anything of substance.
But the real devil in the details is money. Right now, hunters and anglers support the lion’s share of fish and wildlife management through license fees and excise taxes on guns and gear. As they say, money talks. So far, folks who don’t hunt and fish have shown precious little enthusiasm for digging into their pockets to pay for fish and wildlife management. A few years ago, a national effort to establish an excise tax on outdoor gear did not make it through Congress. No one has tried to revive that effort.
While new monies have arrived through avenues such as Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, which dedicates a small percentage of the state sales tax to the outdoors, the environment and the arts, a valid argument remains that folks who don’t hunt or fish are reluctant to pay their fair share for fish and wildlife management. Does this mean they should be denied a voice in the management of a public resource? No. But it may be hard for fish and wildlife managers to address their concerns without having additional funding to do so.
Medwid argues we may be reaching a crossroads where changing public perceptions of wildlife and declines in the hunter/angler demographic may lead fish and wildlife agencies to do things differently. He points to a situation in Vermont with a Minnesota parallel, writing:
The board’s decision this year on moose management shows a…disconnect. Vermont’s moose population is in decline—only half of what it was 10 years ago—and below the number state biologists estimate as what the landscape can handle. Yet instead of suspending the hunting season to allow to population to become stable again, the only consideration by the board was approving how many animals would be killed this year. This default to hunting values over ecological or wildlife-watching and eco-tourism interests reflects a serious lack of serving the entire public’s interest.
Sound familiar, fellow Minnesotans? Of course, another situation in our state where wildlife management may not reflect sentiments of the general public is the hunting and trapping of wolves. The difference between moose and wolves is that scientific data shows moose are in long-term decline and that wolf numbers are stable or increasing. While many, maybe a majority of Minnesotans have heartburn over wolf hunting and trapping, there is no evidence that doing so will diminish the population. And an argument can be made that hunting and trapping may reduce wolf/human conflicts.
Most fish and wildlife management activities are intended to benefit game species, because anglers and hunters are footing the bill. Many game species would either be extinct or nearly so were it not for a century’s worth of management efforts to restore populations that were ravaged during the era of settlement in the 1800s. Those efforts, which including protecting fish and wildlife habitat, were also the salvation of many other wild creatures. We may not shoot or eat songbirds and butterflies, but the habitat we’ve protected for game species provides living space for nongame species, too.
Ancillary benefits for nongame species may not be reason enough for wildlife management agencies to continue doing business as usual. But none of the critics of the existing wildlife management model have proposed a better alternative or more importantly, a plan for funding it. Until they do, it will be difficult to convince wildlife managers, hunters, anglers or politicians to make changes to the existing structure.
Perhaps the greatest risk is that changing management priorities may have some terrible unintended consequences. It is easy to be impassioned about the existence of songbirds and butterflies, because you can see them. But who other than sport anglers and commercial fishermen cares about fish? They live in a world unseen by us and thus are tangible only to the people who catch them. Does the general public understand fish and their habitat needs? Do they care enough to ensure they are protected and managed? Everyone deserves a voice in management of public fish and wildlife resources. But that voice must include recognition that those of us who use and value those resources may have a deeper appreciation for the resources and greater commitment to their protection.