The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Land Trust announced Friday that they have reached agreement on clarifications to the conservation easement on the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area that are hoped will answer the concerns of sportsmen.

Many sportsmen and the organizations that represent them have been very vocal in their fear that hunting, fishing and trapping could be eliminated or severely restricted on West Mountain, particularly within the proposed 12,500-acre core ecological reserve. The changes to the easement announced today address those concerns, said Scott Johnstone, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.

\"These clarifications of the conservation easement will further ensure that these lands will be managed the way the legislature, the governor and the project\'s partners originally intended,\" said Johnstone. \"Just as important, they allow the sporting and conservation communities to continue working together to protect Vermont\'s important lands and its sporting traditions.\"

Sportsmen had objected to a part of the conservation easement that, according to some interpretations, gave the Nature Conservancy the right to ban hunting, fishing and other historically permitted uses on West Mountain if these activities were interpreted to threaten the ecological integrity of the area.

Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Ron Regan said, \"I\'m pleased by this action. It is very helpful to the cause of wildlife conservation in this state to remove any uncertainty about the future of hunting, fishing or trapping on West Mountain WMA. We have no intention of eliminating these important traditional uses, and the easement clarifications demonstrate the truth of this assertion.\"

Darby Bradley, president of the Vermont Land Trust, which initially held the conservation easement and subsequently conveyed the easement to The Nature Conservancy said, \"By making these changes, we want to eliminate any concerns that the easement might someday be used to abolish hunting, fishing, or trapping on the West Mountain land. That won\'t and can\'t happen.\"

The modifications to the easement include the insertion of language to

clarify what was originally meant by \"utilization\" in the section defining

the easement\'s primary purposes. The alteration states specifically that the easement\'s purpose of fostering \"compatible pedestrian use and utilization\" includes hunting, fishing and trapping. In addition, Section IV (3)(f) of the easement has been eliminated. This section originally stated, \"No use of the STA [Special Treatment Area, or core reserve] shall be permitted to continue if such use is likely to have a negative impact of the ecology of the STA.\"

\"It has never been the intent of The Nature Conservancy or the Department of Fish & Wildlife to ban hunting, fishing, trapping or other traditional uses on the West Mountain WMA,\" said Robert Klein, state director for The Nature Conservancy. \"Our concern has been to assure that ecological values on this land are protected. There\'s no reason for public access and use to be incompatible with this protection.\"

Klein added, \"With this reassurance in mind, we can now hope for unity behind the conservation goals of this project. We have succeeded in

conserving not just precious land, but traditional uses of the land as well.

This is a huge victory for all Vermonters.\"

The West Mountain WMA is a 22,000-acre piece of the former Champion lands in Essex County. This land came into state ownership in 1999, when the Champion Paper Company sold its holdings in Vermont and other northeastern states.

Deer Kill Plummets Across the Region

Ask most deer hunters in the area and they will likely tell you that there are a lot less deer out there than they are used to. A look at the deer kill in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine will back up that assumption.

Vermont\'s deer kill stood at 5,500 Wednesday, far short of the 9,706 at the same point last year. The kill reported in Caledonia County was 236 vs. 688 last year, Essex was 96 vs. 352, Orleans 198 vs. 556 and Orange 495 vs. 817. The decline was similar around the state. I expect the total to rise another 1,000 to 1,500, but that will still mean the lowest kill since 1990.

The first part of the archery season resulted in 3,294 deer being reported and Youth Day accounted for another 747.

Many hunters from this area have been to Maine and most came back without a deer. Preliminary data from this year\'s deer season in Maine indicate that the harvest will be in the mid-20,000s, not the low 30,000s

as expected. That would be a decrease of approximately 30 percent from last year, and approximately a 20 percent greater decrease than expected. Last year\'s deer kill was 36,885, this year, biologists expected a harvest of approximately 32,850.

\"Several factors made an impact on this year\'s harvest,\" said Gerry Lavigne, Deer Project Leader for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, \"It\'s possible that we underestimated the impact of the severe 2001 winter on deer mortality in central and southern Maine, but also part of the decline can be attributable to low hunter effort and sub-optimal hunting conditions observed by field biologists.

\"Far northern and western regions dropped in the numbers that were expected, but harvests in central and southern sections of the state decreased to a greater degree than we expected,\" said Lavigne.

Among the deer examined, there was a decrease in the number of yearlings relative to the number of older bucks and does. Yearling deer, or deer that were born in the early summer of 2000, would be the most susceptible to the severe winter of 2000-2001.

Reports from regional IF & W biologists from all parts of the state noted a

lack of hunting pressure throughout the season. While some areas were more heavily hunted than others, hunter effort did not materialize to the level it had in years past.

I hear the same story from hunters in each of the four northern tier states. There are a lot fewer deer than we were led to believe back in the summer. The weather has been more like October and no snow has meant no way to track deer.

The hunting pressure is definitely down significantly, especially after the opening days. Many hunters are not very dedicated and they will hunt only if they see deer or a lot of sign. They may not have seen any deer when they went out at the beginning of the season and, without snow, they saw little sign so they quickly gave up.

The fact is, the number of hours spent in the woods is directly attributable to the chances for bagging a deer. Many of us get lucky because some other hunter we may never have seen jumped a deer and it came by us. Fewer hunters mean fewer deer taken.

Bits and Pieces

Chip Spear was not the only West Newbury hunter to bag a nice buck. Howard Bennett, a 77-year hunter, connected after a 17-year hiatus. The West Newbury resident shot an 8-point buck near his home in the last hour of the season.

***

The Vermont bear kill now stands at 466.

***

The Nature Conservancy has drawn the fire of anti-hunters for scheduling a deer cull at a Connecticut nature preserve.

Friends of Animals sent a letter to The Nature Conservancy and held a protest calling for \"an immediate halt to all hunting in Devil\'s Den Preserve,\" a 1,660-acre preserve in southwest Connecticut. Devil\'s Den Nature Preserve is holding a deer hunt to reduce an oversized herd.

***

Animal rights activists are dismayed to hear that the Material Girl not only supports hunting, but that she actually hunts. Madonna recently announced that she has developed a passion for pheasant hunting. She and her husband often stage shoots on their English country estate.

\"I eat birds,\" said Madonna. \"You have more respect for the things you eat when you go through, or see, the process of killing them.\"

Parting Shots

It is hard to believe that December is here. Friday and Saturday was shirt-sleeve weather and Sunday was in the 50s.

The violets are blooming in the flower garden. They must think spring has arrived. One of these days they are going to be in for a big surprise. Winter will come, it always has.

I did not get a chance to hunt the opening weekend of the Vermont muzzleloader season, but hope to get out a few hours on Tuesday. Saturday, I had a funeral to go to, then a late-afternoon appointment in Johnson and an evening reception in Stowe. Sunday I worked all day.

It is hard for me to even think of deer hunting when I am comfortable outside without a jacket.

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