By Dennis Jensen Staff Writer - Published: June 13, 2010The last-minute decision by the Legislature to transfer oversight of wild deer and moose at a fenced elk reserve in Irasburg from wildlife officials to the state Agency of Agriculture has come under fire because it took wild animals out of the public domain and into the hands of a private businessman.
That is the view expressed by some members of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board, The Wildlife Society and Orion The Hunter's Institute.
But state Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, who is widely identified as having been instrumental in fashioning the legislation, says it was simply about sparing a celebrity moose the bullet. She said concerns that animal disease could be spread from the facility, which prompted a notification that the whitetail deer and moose there would have to be destroyed, are unfounded.
One of those moose, nicknamed Pete, became a cause celebre, with a website and a Facebook page and supporters who rallied at Vermont's Statehouse. The animal, a 700-pound bull, had been adopted as a calf by a local man and taken to the fenced 700-acre game reserve.
"When Fish & Wildlife decided that Pete needed to be shot … there was the fear that wardens were going to show up with papers and go in and shoot Pete," Bartlett said. "That just made the Northeast Kingdom and the Pete the Moose fan club not only angry, they were scared."
Bartlett, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, said she understands the Department of Fish & Wildlife's concerns that the imported elk at the site could spread chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain ailment, to the native deer and moose herd.
However, slaughtered animals have been routinely tested at the reserve and not a single case of chronic wasting disease has been found, she said.
"If any of us thought there was danger of chronic wasting disease for the Vermont deer herd, we would say 'shoot them,'" Bartlett said.
For more than six years, the wildlife department and the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board had tried to work out an agreement with Doug Nelson, the owner of the Irasburg reserve, which charges hunters to target the elk within its fences.
Bartlett is chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and the issue of herd management at the elk reserve was added to an appropriations bill on the last day of the Legislature's session in May. Under the provision, the animals can stay, but Nelson will have to do more to ensure they haven't become sick and don't come in contact with animals outside the fence.
Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Wayne Laroche and his team of biologists say they believe the moose and deer held on Nelson's land could contract any number of diseases, including chronic wasting disease, and ultimately should be destroyed. Any animals, wild or tame, escaping from there could pass the devastating disease to animals in the wild, they have argued.
In August, the department notified Nelson that the wild moose and deer on his property were being held there illegally and would have to be destroyed.
Nelson has opposed the move from the start and has reportedly told board members that the deer and moose on his land belong to him.
Attempts to reach Nelson for this story were unsuccessful.
Members of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board, including its chairman, Brian Ames, were livid about the fact that, after many years of study and discussion, the Nelson game preserve matter was suddenly — and without their knowledge — turned over to the Agency of Agriculture.
But no one interviewed was more forceful in his condemnation of what happened on that last day of the Statehouse session than Bob Shannon, the Lamoille County representative on the board.
Nelson was given "special favors" by the Legislature, said Shannon, who runs a fly fishing shop in Stowe.
"We were completely in the dark," he said. "Quite frankly, for the Legislature to take the authority from the Fish & Wildlife Board and the department without asking anyone from the board or the Fish & Wildlife Department to testify is a concern to me because they allowed Mr. Nelson to provide a one-sided story to the Legislature and basically in a closed-door session."
The Legislature's decision to transfer oversight is a "major turning point for the state," Shannon said. "Every sportsman in the state should be outraged over what the Vermont Legislature did."
"This has destroyed the Vermont hunting and fishing heritage," he said, because it allows a private citizen to gain ownership of wildlife, something that has never occurred in Vermont.
That concern was shared by Eric Nuse, the executive director of Orion, a nonprofit based in Johnson that describes itself as dedicated to the preservation of hunting as an important part of the North American conservation heritage.
The decision by the Legislature will have far-reaching effects, Shannon said.
"Now, anybody else that has deep enough pockets and special favors can go into the state of Vermont, put up a fence and start selling hunts, just like Mr. Nelson is going to do," he said.
But Bartlett said all parties were invited to make their cases before a joint hearing of the Senate Appropriations and Agriculture committees in February.
Bartlett said the Legislature took on the matter because the Fish & Wildlife Department and Nelson — after many years — could not reach a solution for the captive herd issue.
"House members and Senate folks worked with the (Douglas) administration and came up with the solution," she said.
Fish & Wildlife Department officials and Fish & Wildlife Board members say they now believe that the Legislature's decision gives Nelson the green light to offer paid hunts for the moose and deer in his enclosure, as he does for the elk.
The Wildlife Society, which describes itself as an international nonprofit association dedicated to excellence in wildlife stewardship, has written letters to state legislators calling for a repeal of the law and "restoration of Vermont's wildlife to its rightful owners, the public."
The language of the provision "amounts to little more than a license for Mr. Nelson to profit from Vermont's publicly owned wildlife," the society said in a news release. "… the language was quietly added without the benefit of a public hearing, opportunity for expert testimony or engagement of the Fish & Wildlife Department or any conservation or sportsmen groups."
Meanwhile, Elizabeth "Wibs" McLain, a special assistant to Gov. James Douglas, appeared at the May 26 meeting of the Fish & Wildlife Board to answer members' questions about what she termed the "special provision that was made to the farm in Irasburg."
Several board members, including Shannon, Ames and Jeremy Baker, said they were stunned by some of the frank comments that McLain made about how that decision was reached.
McLain's comments are documented in the minutes of the May 26 meeting.
In response to a question by Laroche, McLain said that when the two Senate committees held the joint hearing, "it was very clear to me … that they were going to do something. … The whole thing was a set-up; the testimony was a set-up …"
McLain told the board that she was well aware of how long and hard the Fish & Wildlife Board had worked to resolve the issue with Nelson.
"The traditional approaches for resolving this issue have not been effective for a variety of reasons and, so while we can look at it as a reward for illegal behavior, I think you can also look it as a way to kind of stop the bleeding on this one issue."
Board member Wayne Barrows told McLain that he was concerned that the Legislature's decision could open doors for similar animal facilities in Vermont.
McLain told Barrows not to worry, for the wording in the legislation makes it clear it applies only to Nelson's facility.
"Somebody could step forward and make his or her own argument that they want another special deal like this special deal, but they can't come in under his special deal," she said.
"I wouldn't say it was a backdoor political deal," she told the board, "but it was certainly a political deal and it was certainly the result of a special interest who had the ear of the Legislature."
Nelson, McLain said, "has been flaunting, if I can say that, the law for years."
McLain argued that Nelson doesn't get off lightly under the arrangement. He has agreed to put up a second fence around the facility.
Also, "Mr. Nelson will have to capture, mark and test all cervids and not just the elk, but the deer and the moose that are inside that enclosure. … He will have a lot of things to do in order to address the issue of disease escaping his facility into the wild," she said.
Nelson maintains that there are about a dozen moose and 120 whitetail deer on his spread, while Fish & Wildlife says the figures for both species are double that.
Baker, the Rutland County representative on the Fish & Wildlife Board, said the Legislature's decision put politics before the health of the deer herd in Vermont.
"A very small group of legislators in the Northeast Kingdom, which Doug Nelson has strong ties to, want his continued support so they fixed this rule to benefit Doug Nelson," Baker said. "I don't think they understand the potential damage that could take place if those animals escape that enclosure."