Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Board (FWB) has significant authority over important public resources and policies, yet serious issues in its structure compromise public involvement, accountability, transparency and core democratic values. The key issues are outlined below:
1. Public policy and regulatory powers
The FWB establishes public policy and regulations on the state’s “game animals,” i.e., those species that are trapped, hunted and fished. This includes deer, moose, otter, beaver, crows, bobcat, etc. Non-game species fall under the oversight of the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) professionals. DFW personnel serve as advisors to the FWB. By establishing various regulations around wildlife, which by statute is a public resource that must be managed to serve the public, the FWB establishes public policy.
2. Unelected, unaccountable
By statute, the FWB is composed of one member per county. Members are appointed by the governor for a six year term. The DFW typically cultivates candidates, although they may also come from the recommendation of an elected official or others. Members come from the sporting community exclusively. Thus, public resources that are meant to be managed in a way that serves the public exclude representation by members of the public at large. The FWB is unaccountable to the governor, the legislature or the public.
3. Board member credentials and affiliations are secret
The credentials of the members and their affiliations are not available to the public. Members’ credentials in wildlife or fisheries biology, ecology, management or other areas impacting their work as board members are unknown. Science is key to wildlife management decisions, yet the science credentials of board members are unknown. Neither the previous governor nor the DFW have provided the CVs and affiliations of the individual members, making it impossible to determine if conflicts of interests exist. For example, it is known that some members are trappers who sell pelts at the same time that they make public trapping policy with the potential to affect their incomes. It appears further that members who may have potential conflicts (financial or affiliations-wise) have not abstained in recent trapping votes. Why this island culture; why the culture of secrecy?
4. A unique Vermont body of governance?
Vermont drivers don’t develop transportation policy and regulations. Patients of the Department of Mental Health don’t define mental health procedures. Private citizens don’t determine police procedures for the Department of Public Safety. Why then do hunters and trappers with no science background (as far as publicly available information suggests) make wildlife policy on behalf of all citizens and experts in that field? In fact, board members can and do ignore the recommendations of FWD biologists. Further, board members do not share with the public or the FWD the reasons for why they vote the way they do on a given proposal.
5. Added costs to taxpayers at a critical budgetary time
Rather than relying on DFW professionals to determine regulations and policies for game species, Vermont carves out a segment of our wildlife species to be regulated by a narrowly focused group of lay citizens. At a fall meeting of the FWB in 2016 (the board meets monthly), well over a dozen staff members of the DFW were present to respond to a trapper’s petition to expand trapping seasons. A biologist spent hours preparing for his presentation to the board, with the board afterwards asking for additional research. Why do we add a costly layer of governance at DFW that, to our knowledge, is not conventional practice elsewhere in the realm of governance? Further, by disengaging broader constituencies from real participation in decision-making, aren’t we just making it far more challenging to find the funding solutions DFW so desperately needs?
6. Blue ribbon panel recommendations
The professional association (www.fishwildlife.org) that serves as the voice of North America’s state fish and wildlife agencies (in all 50 states) has published a Blue Ribbon Panel report with two recommendations -- one on funding, and another that reads, “…convene a working group to examine the impact of societal changes on the relevancy of fish and wildlife conservation and make recommendations on how programs and agencies can evolve (underlining added).”Vermont’s governance construct in the FWB seems to actively thwart the engagement and service of broader constituencies with the tacit approval of the current leadership of DFW.
A Proposed Solution
There is a solution that can address most of the current issues afflicting this aspect of Vermont’s governance. If the legislature would amend current statutes to make the FWB advisory rather than policy/regulatory-making, a giant step forward can be taken to address this situation -- a situation that is seeding increasing distrust of DFW and FWB and their wildlife policies. An FWB that is advisory only:
Gives the DFW input that they might need for management decisions
Puts management decisions in the hands of credentialed professionals vs. lay citizens
Removes board secrecy and potential conflicts of interest
Opens the board process to a more public, transparent forum
Removes an anomaly in Vermont’s governance structure
Reduces taxpayer costs
Sets the stage for the DFW to evolve in ways that engage broader constituencies, per the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendation.
And note that legislation is in process in New Hampshire to redefine the functioning of their board in precisely this way.