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Guest Column: Conserving wildlife requires respecting differences

By Christopher Herrick

When Vermonters balance our passion for wildlife with a commitment to mutual respect, our state sees results.

The first half of this legislative session exemplifies what this approach can accomplish. 

After years of regulatory and legislative stalemate, the House and Senate natural resources committees have worked with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department to improve bills on wanton waste, trapping and hunting coyotes with hounds. Their efforts were grounded in science and a spirit of collaboration. 

The drafts now under consideration aim to balance the values of wildlife activists with those of hunters and trappers by drawing on the expertise of department scientists, game wardens and educators, alongside elected officials. These bills offer a chance to move past Vermont’s recent gridlock over wildlife governance.

But because Vermonters care so deeply about wildlife, we need to constantly reaffirm our commitment to respecting those whose opinions and values are different from our own.

In recent weeks, this commitment has been tested. 

Since legislative crossover on March 11, I have watched threads of the public conversation around wildlife governance sink to the level of personal attacks, profanity and threats. Wildlife activists, hunters and trappers, elected officials, and my own staff have all been targeted and harassed.

As commissioner of fish and wildlife, it is my job to remind Vermonters that our state’s wildlife cannot afford this behavior.

Acrimony undermines Vermonters’ focus on the conservation challenges facing five species that were newly listed as threatened or endangered this year. It undermines our ongoing work combating habitat loss and fragmentation in response to development and climate change. Ultimately, it undermines the efforts of my own staff, the citizens who chair the Fish and Wildlife Board, and elected officials who strive to conserve Vermont’s wildlife and habitats for the enjoyment of all.

Conserving wildlife for all means working with Vermonters who hold incredibly diverse values. Some treasure the knowledge that endangered sturgeon swim in Lake Champlain, even if they never see one. Others build community by sharing meals of bear harvested on a neighbor’s land or beaver trapped in public waters. Still others find connection to the ecosystem that we are all a part of when they hear Canada geese calling during migration. 

I suspect many Vermonters recognize themselves in more than one of these examples.

Some may see this diversity as an invitation to judgment, or as a barrier to good wildlife governance. 

I recognize it as one of our state’s greatest assets for achieving lasting, impactful conservation. But to achieve long-term conservation impacts, Vermonters need to respect each other even when the differences in how we value wildlife seem to overshadow the fact that we all do truly value it.

We are in the second half of a legislative session with significant implications for wildlife governance in Vermont. With so much at stake, the temptation to reject difference will surely run high. But divisiveness is not a foundation for good decision-making. If we hope to build lasting wildlife policy this spring, we need to do it from common ground.

Let’s remember our shared regard for wildlife and recommit to a standard of mutual respect as we work to conserve it. This is what Vermont’s wildlife and wild places deserve from us.

Christopher Herrick is the Commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.