Sunday, June 5, 2011

Outdoors: Bill protects Pete the Moose, Vermont's wildlife

Hallelujah! Pete the Moose is saved once again! Only this time, the good news is legislators were actually more concerned about protecting Vermont's wildlife and democratic hunting tradition than they were one misbegotten bull.

Conceding that he and other lawmakers made a mistake last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law Wednesday legislation that nullifies an amendment a few legislators put into the annual appropriations bill in the final hours of the 2010 session. That amendment stripped the state Fish and Wildlife Department of its authority to regulate a so-called "captive hunting facility" in Irasburg and, worse, it essentially transferred ownership of Pete and scores of other native moose and white-tailed deer trapped in the facility to its owner. He was then free to sell them to the highest rifle-toting bidder, despite a state Fish and Wildlife Board rule crafted with legislative oversight and considerable public input that forbids having native deer in a captive facility for wildlife health reasons.

The bill the governor signed Wednesday, H.91, not only overturned those provisions, but it also goes two significant steps further: It mandates that, with the exception of Pete, all the moose and whitetails in the high-fence facility be killed within three years, which is the only way to ensure that infectious diseases spread by non-native elk and red deer do not enter native populations; and it set in law once and for all that, "the fish and wildlife of Vermont are held in trust by the state for the benefit of the citizens of Vermont and shall not be reduced to private ownership."

That the 2010 law was nullified so quickly is a tribute to Shumlin and many other legislators, who openly regretted being duped by a "Save Pete the Moose" campaign that benefitted the owner of the Irasburg facility more than it did one photogenic moose -- a moose that was not only illegally taken from the wild, it somehow conveniently became a social media darling.

Credit also goes to Fish and Wildlife commissioner Patrick Berry and House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee clerk Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, who shepherded H.91 through the Legislature. And last but not least, kudos go to the many hunters and other wildlife advocates who worked since last summer to have the 2010 law overturned.

Ironically, what a few legislators surreptitiously did last year for the benefit of one private landowner in the end actually helped safeguard the health and public ownership of all wildlife."It was a bad law done badly, with all the last-minute, backroom stuff," said Eric Nuse of Johnson, a retired game warden who helped organize a coalition of hunting and environmental groups in support of H.91. "That made it a lot easier for legislators and other folks to get behind a good bill, even if it means killing some deer and moose that got trapped behind a fence through no fault of their own."

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