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Virginia Fuller

When hunters control the hunted

THE MASSACHUSETTS Division of Fisheries and Wildlife recently issued new coyote regulations. And even though a wide variety of wildlife advocates had urged otherwise, the hunting season is to be extended by five weeks, making the season on coyotes and foxes the longest for any game animal. The new rules also put coyotes on the list of "nuisance" wildlife to be controlled by Problem Animal Control agents.

Perhaps the new regulations are a response to human-coyote encounters and a step to reducing coyote population in the state? That is not the case. Marion E. Larson, a wildlife biologist for the state, said in a Springfield newspaper that the longer season isn't being proposed as a population control measure, but rather a way to provide more chances for recreational hunting.

In fact, she said, hunting has little effect on the numbers of coyotes; more trapping or hunting pressure may even increase their birthrate. Since MassWildlife and its board have admitted that the extended hunting season will not bring down the coyote population, the new rules are designed solely to satisfy hunters.

Hunters have too strong an influence over wildlife policy in Massachusetts. At one point, state law demanded that a majority of the Fisheries and Wildlife Board be sportsmen. That requirement was removed more than a decade ago, when the Wildlife Protection Act became law by a 2-to-1 victory in a 1996 referendum. But although qualified nonhunters are available to provide balance on the board, no governor has appointed such a member.

Barely more than 1 percent of Massachusetts residents hunt. The number of trappers is so small as to be barely measurable. Yet this handful of sportsmen writes the regulations for killing our wildlife, or "harvesting" them, in hunter-speak - even though the vast nonhunting majority would prefer to enjoy our wildlife without seeing a gut-shot deer or a bobcat in a box-trap.

MassWildlife is overseen by a seven-member board appointed by the governor. It has not evolved much since its founding in 1866 and is stuck in a frontier mentality. If you search its website, you will find members with ties to Ducks Unlimited, the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, the Ruffed Grouse Society and National Wild Turkey Federation, Safari Club International, and the National Rifle Association. What you will not find - despite the 1996 Wildlife Protection Act - are more nuanced voices that do not cater to the hunting lobby.

The agency's activities are mainly supported by revenue from the sale of fish and game licenses; returns from federal taxes on hunting, trapping, and fishing equipment; and various bond initiatives. With the stranglehold that presently is in place, those of us who do not hunt and therefore do not buy licenses or equipment have, at present, no input into the management of the wildlife that belongs not to a chosen few but to every man, woman, and child in this state.

The taking of an animal's life is not a form of recreation on a par with bowling. The time is long overdue for the composition of the board to reflect the fact that Massachusetts citizens have evolved from their gun-toting image of a century ago. These days, the vast majority of us value our wildlife, seeking connection to it not through killing but by exposure to it, walking in the woods and scanning our skies and our waters.

The huge margin of victory for the Wildlife Protection Act indicated that the public holds a far more benign attitude toward wildlife than do those in charge of policy. The next opening for a Fisheries and Wildlife Board member is scheduled for September.

It's time for some thoughtful changes. Governor Patrick has a superb opportunity to make them.

Virginia Fuller is former president of the New England Wildlife Center.

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