Legislators are seeing orange over hunting issue
By PETER HIRSCHFELD
Vermont Press BurEau | February 10,2013
Vermont Fish & Wildlife Photo
John Michael Grab, clad in a blaze-orange vest and cap, poses with his first deer in 2010. The question of requiring hunters to wear blaze orange is a political hot potato.
MONTPELIER — After grappling for more than two decades with the thorny issue of hunting attire, lawmakers this year may punt a longstanding controversy over “blaze orange” to a 14-person board.
The topic has dogged lawmakers since 1993, when Vermont hunters flocked en masse to the well of the House to decry a bill that would have required them to wear fluorescent orange while in the field.
Most recently, the Vermont Senate in 2009 sought to institute a blaze-orange mandate after an accidental shooting in Granby. But vocal opposition again killed the measure, and Vermont retained its status as one of only 10 states without a blaze-orange requirement.
Now, the Shumlin administration wants to shift authority over the issue away from lawmakers and into the hands of the Fish & Wildlife Board.
Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry told lawmakers last week that the 14 members serving on the panel are ideally suited to evaluate the issue.
“This is such a hot issue in the Legislature,” Berry said. “And the 14 board members are all hunters who are much closer to this issue and who understand it better.”
Brian Ames, president of the Fish & Wildlife Board, which is made up of one gubernatorial appointee from each county, said he agrees with Berry.
“I do feel that if the conversation is going to take place, it should take place at the board level, where it will be handled by the people who are most affected by it,” said Ames, who represents Windham County on the board. “Whether or not the board will have any inclination or desire to pick it up, I’m not sure.”
Ames said that in his view, it is time for Vermont to revisit the blaze orange mandate. Ames said he can’t speak for the board, and hasn’t polled its members, but that he personally thinks hunters should have to wear blaze orange, at least during firearms season for large game.
“To me it’s a commonsense issue,” Ames said, “But Vermonters are a very free-spirited lot, and some truly don’t appreciate being told what they have to wear while afield.”
The blaze-orange measure, which has the support of key lawmakers, is one of several provisions in a wide-ranging hunting and fishing bill that looks to keep wild pigs out of Vermont, boost ice-fishing numbers, expand the amount of huntable acreage in the state, and give terminally ill adults access to moose-hunting permits.
Cautionary tales from neighboring states, Berry said, are prompting new efforts in Vermont to keep feral hogs from gaining a foothold in the Green Mountains. The proposed legislation would ban all importation of wild boar, a provision that would affect the one captive hunting facility that now offers paying clients the opportunity to hunt them.
“They’re incredibly destructive, they bring with them all kinds of viruses and diseases, and they are such tough critters that once they’re out there and able to reproduce, they are really hard to eradicate,” Berry said.
Another section of the bill would add another free fishing day to the calendar, this one in winter. Berry said it’s part of an effort to boost interest in “hard water” fishing.
“It creates an incentive to get folks out there ice fishing,” Berry said. “We recognize maybe there’s a small hit in terms of lost fees, but the hope is that people who wouldn’t otherwise try it go out there for a day, have a ball, and then go out and buy a license.”
The legislation also aims to find a middle ground in land-posting laws, something Berry said might open up more privately owned acreage to hunting. Under current law, posting is an all-or-nothing proposition that requires landowners to decide whether to give blanket access or impose a blanket prohibition.
Given the opportunity, Berry said, many landowners would choose a by-permission-only standard, something that would give them discretion over who’s allowed to hunt and who isn’t.
The proposed legislation would create a new tier in land-posting statute, giving residents control over who gets access to their land and who doesn’t.
Vermont already sets aside five special moose permits annually for terminally ill children and war veterans. But Berry is asking lawmakers to create two more slots for avid adult hunters near death. Berry said the request comes in response to pleas from lifelong hunters diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“For many hunters, winning a moose permit is the equivalent of winning Powerball. And for folks with a life-threatening disease, this is all they’ve wanted to do, they haven’t ever won a permit, and we have absolutely no room to move with regard to existing regulations to do anything about that,” Berry said.