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Bill proposing changes to hunting and trapping rules spurs passionate testimony

A coyote runs through a field in low light. The image is blurred, indicating movement
CHIARA_NATURECOLORS/Getty Images/iStockphoto
A coyote runs through a field in winter in Massachusetts in an undated photo.

Lawmakers in Montpelier are once again considering big changes to the state’s hunting and trapping regulations.

Proposed legislation on the table this session has many hunters and trappers in the state very concerned — though groups that advocate for animal rights say the changes are necessary.

Lawmakers in the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee have introduced a bill that would strip the state Fish and Wildlife Board’s authority to write hunting and trapping regulations. That body is mostly made up of people who hunt, fish or trap.

Instead, under the bill, the Department of Fish and Wildlife would write new regulations moving forward.

Additionally, S. 258 proposes banning hunting coyotes with dogs in Vermont and proposes a ban on baiting coyotes. It would also require foothold or body-gripping traps for fur bearing wildlife be set more than 50 feet back from any trail, class 4 road or other public area, including when the trap is set in water or on or under ice.

The move comes after lawmakers on the committee that oversees rulemaking — the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules or LCAR — told the Secretary of State this winter that new regulations the Fish and Wildlife Board adopted in 2023 for trapping and hunting coyotes with hounds do not do what they called for in law.

Generally, the Legislature sets the guiding direction for a change in regulation by passing a law, and state agencies draft the change, which comes back to lawmakers for review.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont has new trapping & coyote hunting rules. But some lawmakers want to change how they’re made

And while agencies, or in the case of fish and wildlife regulations, the Fish and Wildlife Board, are not required to change the regulations if LCAR objects to them, the ruling can be a mark against the rules if they are challenged in court.

And the new regulations on hunting and trapping already have been.

In early January, a coalition of four wildlife advocacy groups in the state — Protect Our Wildlife, Animal Wellness Action, Center for a Humane Economy and Vermont Wildlife Coalition — filed a lawsuit in Washington County Civil Court, alleging the new regulations don’t do what lawmakers called for in statute.

Democratic lawmakers in the Senate Natural Resources Committee have said publicly they agree — though the Department of Fish and Wildlife stands by the board’s regulations and does not support the changes proposed in the bill.

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Christopher Herrick told the committee Wednesday his department has issued 36 permits so far for hunting coyotes with hounds in the first-ever permitted season on hunting coyotes in the state. The season ends in March.

“I recommend to you that we just implemented this — let’s see if it works the way you desired when you passed the bill,” Herrick said. “We haven’t even given it an opportunity to work.”

He said the Fish and Wildlife Board has been effective, and that the existing system has served Vermont well. He urged lawmakers not to tear it down because they disagree with parts of a rule, a dispute he points out is being hashed out right now in state courts.

“If the board had proposed rules which addressed the law, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Sen. Mark MacDonald, a Democrat from Orange County. “We’re here today because the laws that were passed were not implemented … the system has failed as currently structured.”

Who gets to decide?

For several years, wildlife advocacy groups have told lawmakers that they feel the Fish and Wildlife Board does not listen to their concerns about animal welfare in designing regulations for hunting, trapping and fishing.

Advocacy groups in the state have called for legislation to specifically require that people who don’t hunt, fish or trap have representation on the Fish and Wildlife Board — and this bill would do that.

Bob Galvin with Animal Wellness Action accused members of the Fish and Wildlife Board of calling wildlife advocates “bunny huggers” at a board meeting during the last year.

“I support hunters, trappers and anglers being on the board and having a seat at the table,” said Galvin. “And I want to see other folks like non-consumptive birdwatchers, hikers, scientists and other Vermonters who have spent considerable time in the field studying and understanding wildlife to also be involved in the conversation.”

“Non-consumptive” is a phrase hunters and trappers told lawmakers they take deep offense to, saying the language is “othering.” And they point out that some of the groups advocating for S.258have called publiclyfor a ban on trapping in the state.

Commissioner Herrick, with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, disputed the notion that organizations like the Vermont Wildlife Coalition haven’t had a voice. He said animal welfare groups were invited to participate in the working group that recommended the regulations the Fish and Wildlife Board approved — though groups including Protect Our Wildlife have been critical of that process.

“We’re not always going to agree, but I think it’s a mischaracterization to say that the department and the [Fish and Wildlife] Board do not hear from the public,” Herrick said. “The public is well represented. There’s a public comment period.”

Right now, the 14-person board is appointed by the governor, with members confirmed by the Senate.

The new bill proposes the board be appointed by the Legislature and by the Commissioner of Fish and Wildlife, and it requires that the board include people who don’t hunt, trap or fish.

As proposed, the board would give feedback to the department about all rules and regulations, rather than just those pertaining to hunting, fishing and trapping as it does now — which the department could choose to incorporate or to ignore. Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife says this change will overly complicate the way they manage wildlife.

And while animal welfare groups in the state say scientists at the department should make decisions about hunting, trapping and fishing, others say the current system puts hunters, trappers and anglers at the table in a way that generates effective regulations.

Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs says there is no justifiable reason for what he says is a “radical” change to how hunting, trapping and fishing are regulated in the state.

“Currently, the governor appoints these individuals based on their reputation, knowledge and experience of Vermont’s outdoors,” he said. “And yes, these historically have been ‘consumptive’ users. Under S.258, that board will be replaced by a politically driven board.”

Bradley did acknowledge gubernatorial appointees are also political — but he and others said they were more comfortable with the existing process.

Heated testimony

Lawmakers are taking testimony all week, and on Tuesday heard passionate appeals from both hunters and trappers and organizations that oppose trapping and hunting coyotes with hounds in the state.

Brenna Galdenzi with Protect Our Wildlife said her group strongly supports the bill, and called hunting coyotes with dogs “a public safety concern.”

“This isn’t the Vermont, again, for better or worse, of the 1950s,” Galdenzi said. “Vermont is more populated, with more people recreating on public lands … there’s going to be continued conflicts with the public.”

She said this bill will make decisions about managing Vermont’s animal species more scientific and more inclusive.

Sarah Gorsline with Project Coyote, which advocates for an end to Vermont’s open season on coyotes, said her group fully supports a ban on hunting coyotes with hounds. She said remaining apex predators are critical in the Northeast, where wolves and mountain lions have largely been extirpated.

“When personal traditions affect the larger community and public safety, then I would ask, how are those traditions going to adapt to new understandings provided by science, to living together with other community members in Vermont?” Gorsline asked lawmakers.

Mike Covey, a lobbyist for the Vermont Traditions Coalition who said he hunts coyotes with hounds and traps, said his group strongly opposes the bill. He said dog owners should be responsible for keeping their pets out of traps — and that Vermont should consider enforcing leash laws more strictly.

“Hunters, anglers and trappers are all wildlife advocates,” he said. “We’ve spent the better part of the century caring for, caretaking, stewarding and funding the sound management of wildlife throughout the country. And to suddenly be targeted as disposable in so many ways, that’s very off putting.”

Covey said anglers, trappers and hunters don’t feel heard and that there’s growing distrust in how regulations are written in the state, and trappers and hound hunters feel these changes whittle away at their ability to practice traditions that have been passed down in their families for generations.

Former state Sen. John Rogers of West Glover said Tuesday he vehemently opposes the bill, and that as a farmer who has lost livestock to coyotes, he supports the ability to hunt coyotes all year.

Rogers said he believes changing the makeup of the Fish and Wildlife Board would make it easier for people who oppose trapping to eliminate it — and he said most hunters and trappers don’t have the time to spend advocating for their traditions before lawmakers. He said he's seen animal rights activists have referred to hunters as “knuckle-draggers” on social media.

“These people do not have the time to spend in the Statehouse lobbying for their rights. They do not have the money to hire expensive lawyers,” he said.

The advocacy organizations that testified Tuesday in support of the bill pointed out that they also have hunters in their membership and say they support the right to hunt in Vermont.

Amendment Wednesday

In an amendment Wednesday, lawmakers updated the language in the bill to eliminate the terms “non-consumptive and consumptive users.”

And they said they plan to look closely at whether any proposed changes to how regulations about Fish and Wildlife are written might disproportionately impact people from a particular socioeconomic background.

Testimony continues through the week, and lawmakers are scheduled to hear from a range of people Thursday, including those who hunt coyote with hounds and those who oppose it, as well as others concerned with the governance changes the bill proposes.

A list of testimony can be found here, and those who wish to testify can reach out to the committee directly.

Sen. Becca White, a Democrat from Windsor County who sponsored S. 258, called early in the week for respectful discourse about the issue, saying members of the committee have in the past received threats when debate over climate and environmental policy gets heated.

“One of the problems I’m already sensing with this legislation is that this is a very broad conversation about the identity of Vermont,” White said.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.