‘There was no right vote’: Why a controversial wildlife bill died in the Vermont House

By EMMA COTTON

VTDigger

Published: 05-21-2024 4:54 PM

Over the last several years, a debate over how to manage wildlife has become a symbol of a broader cultural divide in Vermont. During the recently concluded legislative session, that debate culminated in S.258, a bill that would have changed the state’s wildlife management structure. 

Many supporters of the measure saw it as a pathway to create common ground between those who want to protect wildlife from certain hunting practices and those who fear the implications of a cultural shift away from hunting in Vermont. Some lawmakers who opposed the bill — or didn’t want to vote on it — feared it would prompt more division. That appears to be the reason the bill failed. 

It became a “lightning rod for some of the intensity around” the wildlife debate, said Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, co-chair of the tripartisan Rural Caucus. 

S.258 focused largely on the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board, a citizen group in charge of creating rules to manage the state’s game species. At present, it is stacked with hunters, trappers and anglers. While the governor currently appoints its 14 members, the bill would have added two new members appointed by the Legislature. All board members would have been required to meet a list of qualifications and participate in training. 

Moreover, the bill would have made the Fish & Wildlife Board advisory and transferred power to the state’s Fish & Wildlife Department to make rules that govern hunting, trapping and fishing. It would have also banned the controversial practice of hunting coyotes with dogs.

Sims said the rural caucus did not take a formal position on the issue and that members from  rural districts and more populous areas were hesitant to support the bill. The caucus heard from stakeholders who advocated for and against the bill, she said. 

Representatives were “hearing loudly from a lot of constituents with lots of different diverse perspectives,” she said. “And I think that’s my sense of why the bill didn’t move forward: that many members felt like they would be taking a vote on a bill that might divide their community.”

Sims also pointed to a process that had played out before the session. In response to two laws passed in 2022, the Fish & Wildlife Board created rules to govern trapping and hunting coyotes with dogs. When the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules argued that the board’s rules didn’t go far enough, the board approved them anyway. Then came S.258. 

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“I think we do our best work when everyone comes together and finds consensus and moves forward together,” Sims said. This time, the bill felt like a “reaction to frustration about the LCAR process and the rules,” she said.

“I don’t think it was the right bill at the right time,” she said, adding that she’s “committed to continuing to be a part of these conversations.”

Patti Komline, a lobbyist with Downs Rachlin Martin, represented the group Animal Wellness Action, which supported the bill. She said she’s worked on controversial issues, including gun control, but that this one got people particularly “fired up.”

“People told us they got a thousand emails, about equally split, both for it and against this bill,” Komline said. “And really, what legislators felt is, they didn’t want to go into an election cycle where they’re alienating half the people. There was no right vote to take on this.”

Sims is among the legislators who could face political implications. The Craftsbury Democrat recently entered a race for an open state Senate seat in rural Orleans County. 

Lawmakers couldn’t simply split the bill and remove one part to make it more politically appealing, Komline said, because people were divided over both of its major parts: the changes to the board and the ban on coyote hounding. 

Before it faced opposition in the House, the bill saw a strong show of support in the Senate — but not at first. The original version called for an even split of hunters and non-hunters on the Fish & Wildlife board. When other senators expressed concern about that proposal, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, the bill’s author, walked it back, adding the two legislative appointees to the board instead. 

With that change, S.258 passed the Senate with enough votes to override a likely veto by Gov. Phil Scott. But after it moved to the House, it became stuck in its first committee, House Environment and Energy. 

As the session approached its end, Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, who chairs the House committee, said the bill didn’t have the votes to override a veto in the House and that the committee had stopped taking testimony on it. 

“We’re not going to move it if it doesn’t look like it has a future,” Sheldon said in an interview on May 1. 

Bray told VTDigger he isn’t sure yet whether he’d take the issue up again in another session.  “I realized it was hard on my colleagues,” Bray said. “So, you know, I’m not going to jump back in without being really clear and intentional and have conversations with folks.”