Montpelier — A ban on Vermonters taking part in coyote hunting competitions cleared the House on Wednesday, but would-be offenders will no longer face potential prison time after the bill was amended ahead of the final vote.
After lengthy debate on Wednesday in which a number of lawmakers said prison time was too harsh a penalty for the competitive killing of coyotes, an amendment removing that language was introduced and approved before a final vote on Thursday.
Under the amended law, the offense is still a misdemeanor crime. First-time offenders will be fined $400 to $1,000, while second-time offenders will face fines of $2,000 to $4,000.
Those caught participating in a coyote tournament will also lose their hunting license for at least a year, depending on what other wildlife offenses they have previously committed, while those who organize the competitions will face a more lengthy suspension.
The amendment was approved by a roll call vote of 75-64. Once amended, the bill passed easily. It will now go to the Senate.
Vermont would become the second state after California to ban the competitions.
House members took issue with various aspects of the proposed ban, which is part of a larger “housekeeping” bill on wildlife issues. But they ultimately shot down an earlier amendment introduced by Brian Smith, R-Derby, that would have removed the coyote contest ban from the bill altogether.
Rep. Susan Buckholz, D-West Hartford, said she supported the ban, and thought most hunters did too. But she was among the lawmakers who pushed to remove the section imposing criminal penalties.
“This is not something that the judiciary and corrections should have to deal with,” she said of the ban. “This is something new, and an animal that you can take out any time during the year. To send somebody to jail for this is beyond me.”
Like-minded members said the bill should be returned to the House Judiciary Committee for review — a motion that was put to a vote and defeated. Buckholz and others said that if revoking hunting licenses proved to be an insufficient deterrent on its own, the discussion over different penalties could take place down the road.
Responding to claims that the proposed penalties were “overkill,” James McCullough, D-Williston, seized on the word choice.
“Overkill is a very good pun,” he said. “We are talking about the egregious slaughter contest for sentient beings, that are just being slain for the fun of it and prizes and recognition given out for the process.”
He said he doubted his colleagues could bring together the votes to remove the criminal penalties, but they almost did. A roll call vote on removing the section on jail terms and fines went 74-63 in favor of keeping them.
Robert Helm, R-Fair Haven, said the ban was a case of legislative overreach, or at least micromanaging, as issues of wildlife control and conservation had for the past 15 years fallen within the purview of the Fish & Wildlife Board, an independent body.
“Now it appears we are going to sit back in the seat and start driving the bus again for issues that we want,” he said. “The thing that frightens me is that it will catch and we will start doing that repeatedly and repeatedly and be back where we were 15 years ago.”
Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife Department has said that coyote populations are perfectly healthy as is, and has resisted calls for a competition ban or closed season on the animals, which can currently be hunted year-round.
This position has made Louis Porter, the department’s commissioner, one of the main targets of animal rights activists campaigning on behalf of coyotes.
Speaking after Wednesday’s vote, Porter said his agency made conservation decisions based on science, whereas lawmakers were debating what was essentially a social question of how coyotes should be treated in Vermont.
“This is a decision around whether some people don’t like coyote hunting and would like to see it prevented, not because there is any threat to the coyote population, or any other population, but because they don’t like the activity,” he said.
Porter said that coyotes have an important role in Vermont’s ecosystem, and noted that Vermont’s open season and lack of regulations around hunting the animals was a “middle of the road approach” compared to states with government-sponsored coyote hunting contests.
“I would never, ever advocate for diminishing or eliminating the population,” he said, “but the fact of the matter is that the relatively small amount of coyote hunting pressure that occurs is not any threat to the population, contests or no contests.”
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, said he saw no reason to give greater protection to coyotes, though he wasn’t sure if his colleagues in the Senate would agree once they took up the bill.
“I grew up on a dairy farm. I’ve seen lots of livestock gutted by coyotes — and I support hunting them and keeping them off the land,” he said.
Rodgers declined to speculate on how the bill would fare going forward, but noted that few in the Senate shared his background.
“I don’t think there’s another senator that hunts and fishes,” he said. “So I don’t know how they will come down, but I hope they come down on the side of reality.”