Will Staats: Why are we ditching science for wildlife management in Vermont? 

This comment was written by Will Staats, who lives in Victorian, Vermont. He is a professional wildlife biologist who has worked in wildlife conservation for nearly 40 years for both the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife and the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game. He is a woodsman, hunter and fisherman all his life.

The current mistrust of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Service that some wildlife advocacy groups are promoting is much like the narrative about climate change and now the covid pandemic. The facts are disputed. The motives behind the science are in question.

In an effort to advance their own agenda, these groups have brought out their own “experts” to disprove biologists. As department staff support certain management methodologies, including hunting and trapping, their expertise is called into question again and again.

Like the debate over vaccines and masks, these tactics do nothing to foster dialogue and drive factions into their respective corners. Yet while much energy is spent discrediting professional biologists, we miss an opportunity to address the very real threats to our wildlife.

As a professional wildlife biologist, it pains me to see the current distrust of science in our state regarding wildlife management issues. Throughout my career, I have relied on science to guide my decision-making. At the same time, I was always aware of the social implications when it came to management decisions. However, what I would never do is manipulate science to achieve my personal agenda.

The men and women of Vermont Fish & Wildlife have dedicated their lives to protecting and managing Vermont’s wildlife and habitats. As a civil servant for many years, I feel their pain. It often seemed that no matter what decision was made regarding our wildlife resources, no one was ever completely happy. For some, one type was too much; For others, very little.

What was always disturbing was the way one interest group tried to twist and manipulate the data to get the answer it wanted.

Often times, the audience’s opinions are presented as fact because of what they observed in their own backyard. If they’ve never seen Bobcats in person, there must be few or none of them. Or wolves everywhere because they’ve seen two in the last month.

But that is not how science works and how we understand wildlife ecosystems. We use science, not opinion, to lead us to a conclusion. Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologists must look at a much bigger picture. They are familiar with facts that the rest of the audience does not have or have not been trained to interpret properly.

It is a dynamic process where they are always learning, always readjusting to the many variables that make up natural systems and revising their models and management strategies accordingly. But rest assured their decisions are always based in science.

Is politics involved in decision making? naturally! Every biologist I know crits when good science is trumped by politics. See what’s happening now in Vermont with regards to anti-baiting and anti-fishing bills. And as Senator McCormack often stated when he defended them, initiatives to end these practices have nothing to do with science.

The real motivation behind these groups continuing to question science is that some of the management strategies supported by our department do not align with their personal belief system. Since they don’t believe in certain methodologies for hunting, or more often for hunting at all, they conclude that biologists and the sciences they rely on must be wrong. Then they seek some way to discredit the professionals and continue to use flawed logic to support their point of view. If we don’t trust our biologists, who can we trust?

Science tells us that in Vermont, wildlife that is currently caught and trapped thrives and its population is not threatened by these practices. Wildlife—including deer, bears, coyote, beaver, and other species—can sustain an annual harvest by hunters and fishermen.

But our department also recognizes that there is a social tolerance, which is determined by how many animals in the landscape we humans tolerate. This varies naturally for each of us and is affected by factors including our economic situation, how we live and where we live.

Biologists face the challenging task of managing wildlife populations to achieve a healthy balance between ecological and social carrying capacity.

In Vermont, we have trusted science to guide our decisions and policies to address the pandemic and climate change. Why then change course and ignore the science when it comes to managing our wildlife?

Vermonters should ignore inflammatory rhetoric, social media posts, and pseudoscience and instead listen to department professionals who have dedicated their lives to protecting our wildlife

We all share the common goal of a Vermont that is home to abundant, well-managed wildlife. If we really want to protect our wildlife, we must focus on what science tells us are the greatest threats to our wildlife populations.

Let’s support the amazing work our department has done to protect the last wild places and habitats that wildlife needs to survive here in our state. We owe a lot to the Vermonters of the future and to the wildlife that can’t speak for itself.

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tags: DistrustAnd the personal beliefsAnd the SciencesAnd the Social staminaAnd the Wildlife managementAnd the States will

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