Will Staats: Why should we abandon science in Vermont’s wildlife management?

This comment is from Will Staats, who lives in Victory, Vermont. He is a professional wildlife biologist who has worked in wildlife conservation for nearly 40 years for both the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. He is a lifelong woodsman-hunter-trapper.

The current distrust of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department promoted by certain wildlife advocacy groups is eerily similar to the climate change narrative and now the Covid pandemic. Facts are disputed; the motives behind science are questioned.

In an effort to further their own agenda, these groups bring out their own “experts” to refute biologists. Because department staff support certain management methodologies, including hunting and trapping, their expertise is repeatedly called into question.

Like the debate over vaccines and masks, these tactics do nothing to advance the conversation and have pushed factions further into their respective corners. Yet, while so much energy is expended to discredit the professional biologists, we miss the opportunity to address the 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 social consequences when arriving at management decisions. However, what I would never do is manipulate science to achieve my own 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 became apparent that no matter what decision was made about our wildlife resources, no one was entirely happy. For some there were too many of one kind; for others, too little.

What was always annoying is how one interest group would try to twist and manipulate data to get the answer they wanted.

Often opinions are presented as fact by the public because of what they observed in their own backyard. If they never see bobcats in person, there should be few or none. Or coyotes are everywhere because they saw two in the last month.

But that’s not how science works and how we understand wildlife ecosystems. We use science, not opinion, to guide us to a conclusion. The biologists at Vermont Fish & Wildlife have to look at a much bigger picture. They are careful with facts that the rest of the public does not have or is not trained to interpret correctly.

It is a dynamic process where they are always learning, always re-adapting to the many variables that make up natural systems and changing their models and management strategies accordingly. But be sure that their decisions always have a basis in science.

Does politics come into decision-making? Yeah right! Every biologist I know criticizes when good science is overshadowed by politics. Witness what is happening now in Vermont regarding the anti-trapping and anti-dog bills. As stated often by Senator McCormack when he advocated for them, the initiatives to end these practices have nothing to do with science.

The real driver of why these groups continue to question science is because certain management strategies supported by our department do not match their own personal belief system. Because they do not believe in certain hunting methods, or perhaps in hunting, they conclude that the biologists and the science they rely on must be wrong. They then try to find some way to discredit the professionals and continue to use flawed reasoning to support their view. If we don’t trust our own biologists, who would we trust?

Science tells us that in Vermont the wildlife that are currently hunted and trapped are thriving and their populations are not threatened by these practices. Wildlife – including deer, bears, coyotes, beaver and other species – can sustain an annual harvest by hunters and trappers.

But our department also recognizes that there is a social carrying capacity, which is determined by the number of animals on the landscape that we as humans will endure. This of course varies for each of us and is influenced by factors including our economic status, how we live and where we live.

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

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

Vermonters should ignore the inflated rhetoric, social media posts and bogus science and instead listen to the department’s professionals who have dedicated their lives to protecting our wildlife

We all share the common goal of a Vermont that has abundant and well-managed wildlife populations. If we truly 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 great work our department has done to protect the last wild places and habitat that wildlife needs to survive here in our state. We owe that to future Vermonters and to the wildlife that cannot speak for itself.

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Tags: mistrust, personal beliefs, science, social carrying capacity, wildlife management, will state

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