There is growing concern over how our wildlife is being managed, from the lack of data to make unbiased, informed decisions on trapping seasons, to the Fish & Wildlife Board's (Board) composition that's composed solely of hunters and trappers, with the Chairman being an outspoken trapper. Things are reaching a fever pitch and people have had enough.
Last fall the Fish & Wildlife Department was tasked with deciding whether or not the bobcat and otter populations, two of Vermont's key apex predators, could sustain additional trapping pressure to accommodate a trapper's request. The impetus for this petition was supposedly to address the issue of incidental take (kills), meaning that bobcats are trapped in fisher traps and otters are trapped in beaver traps outside of their respective seasons, since fisher and beaver seasons run longer. Given that traps, by their very design, are indiscriminate, this is the reality that we're left to wrestle with; it does not mean that trapping seasons should be extended to accommodate this inherent flaw with how traps operate.
The Department has admitted that they have incomplete data on catch per effort, a statistic that would provide at least one perspective on the "health" of the bobcat and otter populations. There are no other population metrics for either species. Thus the foundation upon which decisions on trapping season length should be based is not available. A small percentage of trappers return the mail surveys, and yet the Department uses this as evidence in making game management decisions. Without corroborating evidence to confirm the limited data supplied by trappers these decisions are merely guesses. Use of trail cameras, surveys to collect sighting information from the general public, similar to New Hampshire's study, and radio collaring is vital to supplement the flimsy foundation that's offered by using trapper mail surveys.
Given the fact that these two species are clearly not overpopulated, the Department should've stopped this trapper's petition in its tracks and not have wasted their limited time, resources and funding on such a frivolous request. Bobcat and otters are actually listed in the Department's Wildlife Action Plan as species who face new threats to the sustainability of their populations from habitat loss to water pollution. The last thing the Department should be considering is expanding existing trapping pressure on these animals.
In May of this year the Department biologist advised the Board that they recommended against expanding the bobcat trapping season since they wanted to err on the side of conservatism. Instead of the Board honoring the Department's recommendation, they requested that the Department come back in September with more "data". But how does one come back with more data, when said data is either missing (due to trappers not returning their surveys) or virtually impossible to collect? In response to the Department's data assessment, Dr. Weldon Bosworth from New Hampshire, a senior ecologist with over 40 years of evaluating environmental impact, stated in a letter to the Board dated September 19, 2016: "There is no scientific foundation presented in this report ["An Assessment of the Status and Harvest Trends of River Otter and Bobcat in Vermont"] that would allow a resource manager to understand the potential consequences of increasing the season for either species and certainly no data or evidence presented that would allow a conservative resource manager to err on the side of precaution in making that decision."
Fast forward to the Board's meeting that was held on September 21st. The Department presented a lengthy discussion about bobcats and otters and came to the same conclusion on bobcats as they had back in May – they recommended not expanding the season. Six members of the Board continued to challenge the Department biologist in what seemed like an effort to get him to change his mind. Some of the Board members even suggested a 3-year trial on an expanded bobcat trapping season, clearly not appreciating the concern the Department had over the future of our bobcat population. When the legislature created the Fish & Wildlife Board & mandated that the Board's rules "be supported by investigation and research conducted by the Department on behalf of the Board," surely it did not mean that the Board could then ignore that research.
Why the Department chose to only err on the side of conservatism on bobcats and not otters is grievous. The Department biologist stated is his own assessment that: "Although increasing the otter harvest is not an objective of the Department at this time, the number of additional otters harvest statewide by an expansion of the season as proposed would be predictably few". If this is leaving you confused, it should. So, if the Department does not want to expand otter trapping season, and they're only doing it to address the few otters who are trapped and killed in beaver traps each year, then why not leave the otter season as-is? How can the biologist claim that "predictably few" more otters would be trapped? That is a specious statement with dire outcomes for our otters. And let's not forget birthing otter mothers and their pups. Even though some trappers like to call wildlife advocates "emotional" – god forbid – I challenge anyone who is not bothered over the possibility of otter mothers and their pups ending up killed if the season is extended through the end of March. What good reason has the Department provided the public that warrants an extension of the otter trapping season?
All of this incidental take talk could be addressed by shortening the beaver trapping season as it was prior to 2007 and shorten the trapping season on fishers as it was prior to 2004. It has been almost 13 years since the fisher season was extended, which caused bobcat and fisher seasons to no longer run concurrently. Perhaps it's time to reevaluate if that extended season is still warranted? Fishers (and bobcats) are top predators who serve the public well by consuming small mammal populations, including white-footed mice who are a popular host to Lyme-carrying ticks. Beavers are a keystone species, whom we should be valuing for the role they've played, and will continue to play, as our planet faces the very real effects of climate change. Why not shorten the beaver season to end at the close of February to allow the otter and beaver seasons to again run concurrently? The Department will tell you that the reason why they're against this is that if they don't kill as many beaver as they can during the legal trapping season, that'll cause more beavers to be killed outside of the regulated trapping season as "nuisance" animals. Nuisance trapping is virtually unregulated in Vermont – one does not even need to hold a trapping license to nuisance trap. We challenge the Department to promulgate much-needed legislation to regulate nuisance trapping, versus making the beavers (and otters) pay the ultimate price for bad policy.
The Fish & Wildlife Department and Board received hundreds of emails from Vermonters asking that they please deny the trapper's petition, which only serves to benefit the 0.15% minority who trap in Vermont. Informed Vermont citizens who opposed the petition witnessed a miscarriage of science where unsupported opinions and biases prevailed. Many left that meeting harboring even more distrust for what is an insular, biased decision-making authority. If Wednesday's Board meeting did not illuminate the imminent need for a change in how our furbearers are managed then nothing will.
Brenna Galdenzi is president of Protect Our Wildlife (POW), based in Stowe, Vt. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.