Lawmakers Re-Consider “Pete The Moose” Law

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(Host) A moose named Pete is at the center of a political controversy about who owns Vermont’s wildlife.

Lawmakers last year spared the moose from being euthanized by the Fish and Wildlife Department.

But in the process, they passed a law that granted ownership of wild animals to a private individual.

Now, as VPR’s John Dillon reports, the Legislature is considering repealing the law, and removing wild animals from a Northeast Kingdom farm.

(Dillon) Pete the Moose lives on a 700-acre game farm in Irasburg. He’s got thousands of fans on Facebook, many of whom rallied to his defense last year when Fish and Wildlife officials said Pete had to be destroyed.

The death sentence was imposed because wildlife officials feared the spread of disease. But Pete was spared when lawmakers quietly passed a bill that made the moose the property of farm owner Doug Nelson.

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry wants the law repealed. He says wild animals belong to all Vermonters.

(Berry) "There was a terrible mistake made last year in granting private ownership of native wildlife to an individual.’

(Dillon) Berry said lawmakers made another mistake when they granted oversight of the game farm to the Agency of Agriculture – instead of his department which traditionally has control over wildlife.

And Berry said Nelson has a lengthy history of violations at his game farm.

(Berry) "In the history of this facility dating back almost 20 years it has never once been in compliance or with other existing rules and regulations."

(Dillon) The farm has a herd of elk, but also about 140 white tailed deer and nine moose that live inside an 8 foot high fence. And when Doug Nelson came into testify at the Statehouse he expected tough questions. He joked that he wasn’t wearing his bullet proof vest.

But Nelson was defiant when it came to a question about returning his animals to the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Department.

(Nelson) "I think if it goes back to Fish and Wildlife, they’re going to want to come in there and shoot the fawns, and shoot the moose calves. And by God, they might have to shoot me."

(Dillon) Nelson offers guided hunts on his game farm. He started with a herd of elk imported from out West. But he says native deer and moose were trapped inside when he put up the fence. He thinks last year’s bill which gave him ownership of the animals makes sense.

(Nelson) "I kind of like that because I didn’t mind having the only private moose herd in North America. I thought that was all right."

(Dillon) But for Eric Nuse that’s exactly what’s wrong with what the Legislature did last year. Nuse is executive director of Orion, an organization that promotes ethical hunting.

(Nuse) "It was just blatant violation of the public trust of wildlife: the concept that wildlife belongs to everybody in the state of Vermont collectively and is held under the trust of the government for our good…  It’s a very high standard."

(Dillon) Doug Nelson says he’s willing to give the state back the same number of deer and moose that were trapped inside his fence. But he said he’s worked hard to care for his animals.

(Nelson) "You realize the amount of money I’ve got in these animals that are in there that have been there for 10 years. It took them 10 years to write a law to put me out of business? I think that’s wrong."

(Dillon) But the bill that Nelson opposes makes it clear that he can’t own wildlife. And as for Pete the Moose, lawmakers say the best solution is for him to live out his days at a petting farm.

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

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