Fish & Wildlife feels pinch of budget shortfall

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(Host) As budget pressures sweep across state government, an advocacy group is urging the public not to forget about Vermont’s wildlife.

The Vermont Wildlife Partnership says the budget shortfall means three game warden positions won’t be filled. And the group says the state Fish and Wildlife has absorbed a larger share of recent cuts than other state agencies.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Most of the department’s budget is supported through sales of hunting and fishing licenses and by federal funds. But critics say the budget hasn’t kept pace with the work required to protect the state’s wildlife.

Eric Nuse is a retired game warden from Johnson. He says that when he was first hired in 1972, the state had 38 game wardens in the field. Today, he says, there’s much more work to do but fewer wardens to do it.

(Nuse) We’ve got … a few less hunters. We got twice the population. We’ve got moose, we got turkey. We’re doing non-game work, endangered species work. So there’s a huge amount of work that the wardens do that’s beyond what I did when I was first hired, yet we’ve got less of these folks out there.

(Dillon) Nuse spoke at a news conference organized by the Vermont Wildlife Partnership, a coalition of organizations and businesses that wants changes in how the state funds fish and wildlife programs.

Members of the coalition pointed to a recent state internal memo that outlined $5 million  in unmet needs at the Fish and Wildlife Department. The list includes $300,000 to upgrade a Bennington fish hatchery, and more than $1 million required to map critical winter deer habitat. The maps are used to make sure development doesn’t harm critical habitat, but the state hasn’t updated those maps in 20 years.

George Gay is a spokesman for the Wildlife Partnership. He says the list is lengthy but it doesn’t include other shortfalls in wildlife, enforcement and education programs.

(Gay) This list that you see here today, which is incomplete, identifies the needs of the department now in order to adequately carry our responsibilities assigned to it by our Legislature at the direction of Vermonters.

(Dillon) Tom Decker is director of operations at the Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says the department does face budget and workload pressures.

(Decker) We’re going to work within whatever means we can. We’re going to try to stay efficient and effective within our programs. We have to make tough decisions on what personnel we can get and hire.

(Dillon) Decker confirmed that the state abolished a hunter education position and is holding vacant the three game warden jobs. And he said the state’s deer habitat maps do need updating.

(Decker) We intermittently get a chance to try to do that with some our existing staff but we haven’t done a comprehensive re-evaluation of them, and it’s really wanting because some of our maps are just tremendously outdated on whether a yard is still there or if its been impacted.

(Dillon) As a long-range plan, the coalition wants one-eighth of one cent of the sales tax dedicated to fish and wildlife programs. But spokesman George Gay says the current budget pressures make that solution unlikely next year.

So the coalition is urging the public to do what it can to support the department.

Gay says people could buy a fishing or hunting license even if they don’t plan on using it.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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