Well into autumn, a season that is synonymous with hunting for countless Vermonters, it is important to reflect on the value of hunting for both cultural and ecological reasons -- and how we can keep this tradition strong.
Hunting is a quintessential part of Vermont's heritage. Vermont boasts the highest participation rate in the lower 48 states for hunting, fishing, trapping, and wildlife watching. Hunting is not only one of the most socially, ethically, and environmentally responsible way to put meat on the dinner table, it also provides an important opportunity to bring families together and get kids outdoors to learn an appreciation for nature.
Ecologically, hunters help wildlife biologists manage game populations in balance with available habitat. Without hunters, locally over-abundant deer and moose can excessively browse available food resources, leading to both poor forest health and poor animal health.
While some aging hunters forgo the sport because they believe they have grown too old for the chase, the second leading cause for the decline in hunting is the ever-increasing loss of access to places where we enjoy our pursuits. This growing problem extends well beyond hunter participation and ecological health: hunters have provided the vast majority of funding for all wildlife conservation for over 75 years through license sales and purchases of hunting related items. Without their financial support, we simply cannot fulfill our mission.
Although the Vermont Constitution states that all public and private land is open to hunting unless otherwise posted, many newcomers to the state -- and even long-time residents -- are surprised that our constitution protects this activity. Those who post their property often don't realize the vital connection they are sundering in an effort to simply control access to their property.
So what can be done to increase access and preserve hunting?
First, we need to recognize as a state one of the key components to maintaining our hunting traditions and protecting forest resources is to stem the rising tide of posted and inaccessible land.
Second, we need to put words into action. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is taking the lead by launching a Hunter Opportunity and Open Lands Campaign. This campaign is designed to improve the relationship between hunters and landowners, to educate Vermonters on the value of keeping land accessible, and to encourage hunters to demonstrate appropriate respect for private landowners. Here are a few components of the campaign:
-- The Department successfully supported policy changes this past legislative session that gives private landowners more flexibility to legally control access to their property by posting "by permission" signs. Previously, landowners would have to post their property against trespass to everyone to control access.
-- We are sending information to town clerks and asking them to help inform landowners of hunting's strong safety record and its importance in conservation, as a food resource, and in our culture.
-- The department has created modern mapping tools for Wildlife Management Areas and other lands conserved by the department on our website, and have included links to all other publicly accessible land across Vermont. Don't know where to go hunting? You will now: www.tinyurl.com/VermontPublicLands.
-- In an effort to curtail frustration that many landowners have expressed about the prevalence of road hunting, the distance people can legally shoot from the road has been increased from 10 to 25 feet.
-- The department provides resources on our website to help hunters build stronger relationships with landowners.
More resources for landowners and hunters will become available in the coming months. As the fall hunting seasons continue, we ask hunters to show their gratitude towards landowners by being respectful of private property, and we ask landowners to consider the important benefit of keeping land accessible for our hunting community. By strengthening the historic relationship between landowners and hunters, we can help uphold property rights, improve open access to land, and ensure the survival of this important Vermont tradition.
Patrick Berry is the Commissioner of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.