Will Staats: Why would we abandon science in Vermont 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 the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. He is a lifelong lumberjack-hunter-trapper.

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

In an effort to advance their own agenda, these groups bring out their own “experts” to refute the biologists. Because ministry employees support certain management methods, 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, when so much energy is expended to discredit professional biologists, we are missing 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 when it comes to wildlife management issues. Throughout my career, I have relied on science to guide my decision making. At the same time, I have always been aware of the social implications when making 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 appeared that whatever decision was made regarding our wildlife resources, no one was completely satisfied. For some, there was too much of one species; for others, too little.

What was always vexing was how an interest group tried to twist and manipulate the data to get the answer they wanted.

Often the opinions of the public are presented as fact because of what they have observed in their own backyard. If they personally never see bobcats, there must be few or none at all. Or the 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 bring us to a conclusion. Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologists need to look at a much bigger picture. They are aware of facts that the rest of the public has not or is not trained to interpret correctly.

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 on science.

Does politics enter into decision-making? Sure! Every biologist I know speaks out when good science is overridden by politics. See what’s happening right now in Vermont regarding anti-trapping and anti-dog bills. As Senator McCormack has often said when defending them, initiatives to end these practices have nothing to do with science.

The real driver of why these groups continue to question the science is that certain management strategies supported by our department do not align with their own personal belief system. Because they don’t believe in certain hunting methodologies, or often don’t hunt at all, they conclude that biologists and the science they rely on must be wrong. They then seek to find a way to discredit the professionals and continue to use faulty arguments to support their point of view. If we don’t trust our own biologists, who would we trust?

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

But our ministry also recognizes that there is a social carrying capacity, which is defined by the number of animals in the landscape that we humans will tolerate. This naturally differs for each of us and is influenced by factors such as our economic status, how we earn our living 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 in pandemic and climate change decisions and policies. Why then would we change course and ignore science when it comes to managing our wildlife?

Vermonters should ignore the heated rhetoric, social media posts and fake science and instead listen to the professionals in the department 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 are serious about protecting our wildlife, we need to focus on what science tells us are the biggest threats to our wildlife populations.

Let’s support the great work our department has done protecting the last places and wildlife habitats that wildlife needs to survive here in our state. We owe it so much to future Vermonters and the wildlife that can’t speak for itself.

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Key words: mistrust, personal beliefs, Science, social carrying capacity, wildlife management, wants the state


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