MONTPELIER — A lawmaker from Williston has proposed bills aimed at refining the mission and funding of the state Fish & Wildlife Department in the face of changing demographics.
The two bills, H.581 and H.582, were introduced by House Rep. James McCullough, D-Williston, who sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife. McCullough said it’ll likely be a few weeks before the bills are taken up by the committee, as it’s working on Act 250 changes first, but said he felt both have the support to advance.
H.581 would create the “Vermont Working Group on Wildlife Funding,” which would look at other ways to fund the department, given that hunting license sales have been declining over the years.
The second bill, H.582, amends the mission of the Fish & Wildlife Department.
“The bill would provide that fish, wildlife and fur-bearing species shall not be managed to serve a special interest sector. The bill provides that the primary mission of the Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Board is the conservation and protection of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. The bill further provides that the governance of wildlife in the state shall be carried out in accordance with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,” it reads.
McCullough said the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was drafted in the mid-1800s and has been what many wildlife management groups in North America look to for guiding principles when setting policies. McCullough said this wouldn’t be a major shift in direction for the department, as it already follows many of the North American conservation principles, but it would acknowledge that activities such as hunting, fishing and trapping are becoming less popular, while other nonconsumptive uses for wildlife are growing.
A sizeable chunk of the department’s funding comes from hunting, fishing and trapping license sales. Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter said Tuesday that license sales and fees account for about a third of the department’s income. Another third comes from federal taxes on certain types of outdoor equipment, while about a quarter of its money is from the state’s general fund.
McCullough said the Fish & Wildlife Department has also been asked to do more types of work over the years, such as advising the Agency of Natural Resources on Act 250 projects and other things not directly related to managing animal populations.
Porter said in a Tuesday interview that the department already does what McCullough’s H.582 bill calls for.
“I’m curious why Representative McCullough thinks the efforts of our department aren’t focused on the very things he outlines in this bill,” said Porter. “The North American wildlife model is a set of concepts — an aspirational set of concepts — that have guided wildlife management in the U.S. and Canada for a number of years, but they’re not a set of rules, or laws, or regulations. They’re really a philosophy, and it’s the philosophy that guides our department.”
He said he knows of no jurisdiction that’s turned the model into actual legislation, and that doing so would require a fair bit of work. For instance, he said, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation discourages the commercialization of wildlife. There are some practices in Vermont that qualify as the commercialization of wildlife, but don’t imperil the species in question. What constitutes commercialization would also have to be defined, he said.
He disagreed with the notion that the department focuses on the needs of hunters, anglers and trappers.
“We do a tremendous amount of work on general wildlife protection, on regulatory review of development and other types of projects that protect a lot of species, purchasing and managing land that protects a wide variety of species, and direct intervention on species that are not hunted, fished or trapped,” he said, noting the department’s work with loons, falcons and other species.
Porter said he doesn’t dispute the fact that hunting-license sales are trending downward, but said the bills McCullough has proposed somewhat “cherry pick” the data. He said about 70,000 Vermonters are actively involved in hunting, and combined with anglers, it’s about 120,000 people involved.
“I don’t really disagree with the underlying premise of the bill, which is we need to have a way to support fish and wildlife, and fish and wildlife work in the state of Vermont,” he said. “That is in part due to the declining number of hunters, but it’s also due in part to the expanding mandates and mission of the Fish & Wildlife Department.”
Not all feel the change H.582 would create would be minor.
“I think H.582 is really exciting, if you read the findings section of that bill, it really gets to the core of the problem that Vermont Fish & Wildlife is facing and it seems as though they’re kind of burying their heads in the sand, pretending this isn’t happening,” said Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife, an advocacy group that’s pushed for changes to the state’s trapping laws and some other hunting practices. “Hunting sales are down over 50%, trapping license sales are down, they need to find a way to reach out to different stakeholders in Vermont to augment their funding.”
Galdenzi said Porter, as well as past commissioners, have focused on the needs of hunters, anglers and trappers over other citizens’ interests. This is a problem, she said, because the state’s constitution and wildlife laws make clear the department works for everybody, not just those buying licenses.
“I think the current wildlife governance model set them up for this ‘us versus them’ kind of thing,” she said. “I don’t wholly fault the commissioners for this, they are tasked, it seems, with catering to a certain constituency, those who buy hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses, it’s been like that for decades.”
Mike Covey, executive director of Vermont Traditions Coalition, said he doesn’t see how H.582 would change the department’s focus. “I would be intrigued if there was any reason they actually took the bill up, because I don’t see where it’s having an impact,” he said.
He said the amount of money the department gets from the general fund isn’t as much as some claim, and maintained that the bulk of the department’s funding comes from people who purchase licenses, given that those same people also donate and support the department in other ways.
“I think it’s a great concept that other folks could be looked at as a revenue opportunity,” he said.