Will Staats: Why would we leave science to Vermont wildlife management?

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

The current distrust of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, promoted by several wildlife protection groups, is similar to the story of climate change and now the Covid pandemic. The facts are discussed; the motives behind science are questioned.

In an effort to advance their agenda, these groups are taking out their “experts” to refute biologists. As departmental staff accept certain management methodologies, including hunting and trapping, their specialization is repeatedly questioned.

Like discussions about vaccines and masks, these tactics do nothing to advance the conversation, and the factions have pushed them further into their corners. However, despite so much energy being put aside by professional biologists, we are missing out on the real threats to our wildlife.

As a professional wildlife biologist, it hurts me to see the current mistrust of science in our state about wildlife management issues. Throughout my career, I have relied on science to guide me in making decisions. At the same time, I was always aware of the social implications of reaching 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. For many years as a civil servant, I feel their pain. It was often given that no matter what decision we made about our wildlife resources, no one was completely happy. For some, there were too many of one species; for others, too little.

What has always been worrying is how an interest group would try to get the answer they wanted to twist and manipulate the data.

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

But that’s not how science works and how we understand wildlife ecosystems. We use science, not opinion, to draw conclusions. Biologists at Vermont Fish & Wildlife need to look at a much larger picture. The rest of the public is familiar with events that they are not trained or untrained to properly interpret.

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

Is politics involved in making decisions? Of course! All the biologists I know disapprove of the fact that good science transcends politics. See what’s happening right now about Vermont’s catch and anti-dog accounts. As Senator McCormack often said in their favor, initiatives to end these practices have nothing to do with science.

What really drives these groups to continue to question science is that certain management strategies that our department supports do not align with their personal belief system. Because they don’t believe in certain hunting methodologies, or often hunt, they conclude that biologists and the science behind them must be wrong. They then seek out a way to underestimate professionals and continue to use their mistakes to support their opinion. If we don’t trust our biologists, then who would we trust?

Science tells us that wildlife that is hunted and caught in Vermont today is growing and that their populations are not threatened by these practices. Wildlife – including deer, bears, coyotes, beavers, and other species – hunters and trappers can endure the annual harvest.

But our department also recognizes that there is a social capacity to transport, which is defined by the number of animals in the landscape that we humans will endure. This is naturally different for each of us and our economic situation is influenced by how we live and where we live.

Biologists have a difficult time managing wildlife populations to achieve a healthy balance between ecological and social transport capacity.

In Vermont, we trust science to guide us in decisions and policies to address the pandemic and climate change. So why should we change our course and ignore science when it comes to managing our wildlife?

Vermont residents should put aside their passionate rhetoric, social media posts, and fake science, and listen to the professionals in the department who have dedicated their lives to protecting our wildlife.

We all share the common goal of a large and well-managed wildlife population. If we really want to protect our wildlife, we need to focus on what science tells us is the biggest threat to our wildlife populations.

Let us acknowledge the excellent work that our department has done to protect the wilderness and habitat of the last wildlife that our state needs to survive here. We owe that to the Vermonts of the future and the wildlife they can’t speak for themselves.

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Tags: distrust, personal beliefs, science, social competence, wildlife management, will staats

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