Shumlin's "Deer" Policy Reading between the lines

by Kyle Scanlon

Last week Governor Peter Shumlin made it clear to the state he was a deer hunter. The issue at hand was whether or not Vermont Fish and Wildlife should institute a 4-day muzzleloader-only season for antlerless deer in October. Supporters say that by harvesting antlerless deer (primarily doe) in October prior to the rut, a buck will have fewer doe to breed in November, and will theoretically be healthier during the post-rut period. This is a very precarious time for a buck as he has lost up to 20% of his body weight and needs to put on fat to help him make it through the winter. Currently in Vermont, the doe harvest takes place during a December season.

While these and other reasons support an early doe harvest, they do not carry a lot of weight in the eye of biologists.  Former Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Wayne Laroche, who is a nationally acclaimed whitetail expert,  made it known that the time of harvest was more of a social issue than a biological one. If the early season was supported by hunters and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Board than  the department, under his reign, would support it.

Initial surveys indicated hunters supported the season, but at three deer meetings held around the state in early January the majority of attendees made it known they were against the proposed season. This prompted an unexpected statement by Governor Peter Shumlin.

“I’m just telling you how I feel as governor and I feel passionately about hunting and I don’t want muzzle-loaders or anyone else shooting deer in October in Vermont,” he said.

Shumlin went on to add that exposing deer to firearms in October made them smarter and more difficult to harvest during the November firearm season that traditionally sees the bulk of hunters take to the woods across the state.

Unfortunately, while many news sources reported on the statement, they missed the real story, which is that Governor Shumlin is sending signals he will actively be involved in the state’s deer management.

While Shumlin has many attributes, such as being a successful businessman and very adept campaigner,  when anyone who does not have a full understanding of the state’s deer herd and their biological needs begins to exert pressure on decision makers, the state begins to walk down a very dangerous path.

Currently Vermont is without a deer team leader after Sean Haskell was hired by the Maine Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife and left for a position in Bangor. Deb Markowitz, the state’s Agency of Natural Resources secretary, has very limited knowledge of biological fish and wildlife issues, and Patrick Berry, the man who Shumlin appointed to replace Wayne Laroche as Fish and Wildlife commissioner, does not have the background in deer biology and management that Laroche possessed.

Without a defined “deer team” leader who is committed to looking at the specific science involved in whitetail management, lawmakers are subject to making decisions based on public output, instead of the needs of the state’s deer herd.  While Shumlin may have some first-hand knowledge of the deer around his home hunting grounds, it is unlikely this extends across the state. In essence, when it comes to influencing policy, Shumlin is weighing in from a hunter’s standpoint, and not that of a biologist.