Bear management, especially hunting bears with hounds, is a hot topic in Vermont these days.
As the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s lead bear biologist, I support public interest and input on this topic. But I have been dismayed by the prevalence of misinformation in much of the public commentary. A recent op-ed ("Hounding violates property rights, imperils domestic animals, livestock") brought the issue to a head for me. In that piece, the author wrote:
“In fact, Fish & Wildlife actively encourages hounding and hunting, but does far less to educate the public on preventing behaviors that lure wildlife too close to humans, thereby triggering complaints that are subsequently used to justify hounding.”
In fact, the majority of Bear Project staff time, resources, and dollars are spent on the very education and conflict prevention efforts that last week’s op-ed wrongly states we are not investing in.
Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department biologists, game wardens, and outreach staff work tirelessly throughout the year. We put in countless hours with communities, businesses, schools and colleges, and visitors to our state to help people understand the changes they need to make to better coexist with black bears. We field phone calls to offer advice, write detailed emails providing helpful information, conduct site visits and make recommendations, hold public presentations, issue public service announcements, offer trainings for outdoor recreation organizations, and staff booths at events across Vermont. In the past four years our staff has fielded over 3,800 reports from the public, and held 63 public presentations, all to resolve and prevent conflicts with bears.
Our website offers even more information on coexisting with bears, accumulated over years by our staff.
Additionally, the department puts considerable effort and resources into conserving and managing habitat for bears. Through Vermont’s environmental permitting process, the department has helped protect 35,689 acres of important bear habitat. Whether by closing new conservation deals, managing habitat on state land, or assisting communities and private landowners with their own habitat work, nearly every member of our Wildlife Division is involved in making Vermont a better place for bears and people to coexist.
The resources we allocate to support hunting bears with hounds are comparatively negligible. In a typical year, Bear Project contributions to hound hunting are limited to a handful of presentations for sporting groups.
But hound hunting is also part of Vermont’s bear conservation success story.
Hound hunters raised the funds to purchase the department’s first capture-and-release trap to help save the lives of bears involved in conflict situations. Hound hunters have also been important partners on department research projects investigating how ski and wind development impact critical bear habitat.
To help our biologists locate bears and deploy radio collars for these studies, hound hunters treed bears 65 times—with no injuries to the bears. These radio collared bears generated over 28,000 locations that help us identify important habitat and guide our conservation programs. And despite our efforts to maintain quality habitat and encourage Vermonters to be better neighbors with bears, sometimes conflicts continue. Bear hounds are one of a handful of options we rely on to help keep bears wild.
Vermont’s bear conservation efforts have been a success, and our bear population is flourishing. From an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 bears in 1975, our population today is between 4,600 and 5,700. A 2018 statewide survey found that 64 percent of Vermonters wanted to see this population size sustained, compared to 14 percent who would like to see it increased, and 11 percent would like to see it decreased.
I am glad that the public is taking a renewed interest in bear management, and I encourage Vermonters to learn all they can about coexisting with bears. I also recognize that not all will agree on the policies that have helped our bear population thrive. With that understanding, I want to echo the words of our Commissioner: “let’s focus on the facts and science, and dial back the emotions.”
I urge Vermonters not to misconstrue the facts of what is unambiguously a conservation triumph for our state.