Will Staats: Why are we giving up science in Vermont Wildlife Management? 

This comment was written by 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 and Wildlife Department and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. He is a lumberjack, hunter and fisherman all his life.

The current mistrust of Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department promoted by some wildlife advocacy groups is very similar to the narrative about climate change and now the Covid pandemic. The facts are disputed. The motives behind the science are questioned.

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

Like the debate over vaccines and masks, these tactics do nothing to promote dialogue and have pushed factions into their respective corners. However, while much energy is being expended to discredit 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 have always been aware of the social implications when arriving at management decisions. However, what I would never do is manipulate science to advance 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 government employee for many years, I feel their pain. It often seemed that no matter what decision was made about our wildlife resources, no one was entirely happy. For some, one kind was too much; For others, very little.

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

Oftentimes, audience opinions are presented as fact due to what they observed in their own backyard. If they’ve never seen Bobcats in person, there must be few or none at all. Or wolves 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 lead us to a conclusion. Biologists at Vermont Fish & Wildlife have to look at a much bigger picture. They are privy to 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 adapting to the many variables that make up natural systems and revising their models and management strategies accordingly. But rest assured that their decisions are always grounded in science.

Is politics involved in decision-making? naturally! Every biologist I know criticizes when politics trumps good science. See what’s happening right now in Vermont regarding anti-baiting and anti-poaching bills. And as Senator McCormack often mentioned when he advocated for them, initiatives to end these practices have nothing to do with science.

The real reason these groups continue to question science is that some of the management strategies our department supports are inconsistent with their personal belief system. Because they don’t believe in certain methodologies for hunting, or often for hunting at all, they conclude that biologists and the sciences they rely on must be wrong. Then they seek to find some way to discredit the professionals and continue to use flawed reasoning to support their point of view. If we don’t trust our biologists, who do we trust?

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

But our department also recognizes that there is social tolerance, which is determined by the number of animals in the landscape that we humans bear. This varies naturally for each of us and is influenced 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 trusted science to guide us in making decisions and policies to address the pandemic and climate change. Why then do we change course and ignore science when it comes to managing our wildlife?

Vermonters should ignore the inflammatory rhetoric, social media posts and pseudoscience 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 state of Vermont that has abundant wildlife and is well managed. 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 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 so much to future Vermonters and to wildlife that it can’t speak for itself.

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Tags: DistrustAnd the personal beliefsAnd the SciencesAnd the Social staminaAnd the wildlife managementAnd the will states

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