In 2021, refuge managers at the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge introduced limited restrictions on hound hunting and training in portions of the 40,000 acre refuge to protect lynx and numerous forest nesting birds that are vulnerable to dog activity. Like most national wildlife refuges, at Silvio Conte, public hunting is allowed. Vermont hound hunters were outraged at the restrictions and last year a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the lobbyist group, the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Vermont Traditions Coalition, Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and the Vermont Bear Hound Association. The hound hunting groups have asked a federal court to negate the 2021 restrictions.
In response to the suit, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has reopened the Conte Hunting Plan for comment, but only until May 25th, 2023. It is important for the public to comment in support of science based decisions to protect endangered and critical species in Vermont, especially when special interest groups like the Sportsmans Alliance are fighting any restrictions on hound hunting activity in Vermont, despite its adverse impact on wildlife.
These are the three restrictions in the 2021 Silvio Conte refuge hunting plan that the Sportsmans Alliance and hound hunters are opposed to:
- Hunters using more than two dogs must obtain a Special Use Permit from the Refuge Manager.
- At the Putney Mountain Unit of the Conte Refuge, dogs may not be used for hunting any species other than ruffed grouse.
- The dog training season has been reduced to a one-month season beginning August 1. Hunters must obtain a Special Use Permit to train their dogs.
In April 2023, FWS responded to the lawsuit saying, “A Supplemental Environmental Assessment is being prepared in response to recent litigation and is an effort to avoid further litigation over issues that can be easily remedied. Therefore, the Service is reconsidering its August 2021 decision regarding dog training and hunting on the Conte NFWR.” In defending their decision to limit hound training and hunting in the Conte Refuge, FWS says hunting and dog training can have direct and indirect impacts on both target and non-target species. These impacts include direct mortality of individuals, changes in wildlife behavior, changes in wildlife population structure, dynamics, and distribution patterns, and disturbance from noise and hunters walking on- and off-trail (Cole and Knight 1990, Cole 1990, Bell and Austin 1985).
From the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge New Hampshire and Vermont Recreational Hunting and Fishing Plan April 2023:
It is widely recognized in the scientific literature that domestic dogs can negatively impact the distribution, abundance, ability to provision young and overall productivity of nesting birds. The associated impacts from domestic dogs are based on the type of species, time of year, location, type of use, frequency, and duration (Hennings 2016, Weston et al. 2014, Hughes 2013, Steven et al. 2011, Young et al. 2011, Showler et al. 2010). Based on the available literature pertaining to recreation disturbances on wildlife (Doherty et al. 2017; Lepe et al. 2017; Hennings 2016; Weston et al. 2014: Macdonald 2013; Showler et al. 2010; and Sime 1999), the training of dogs will occur outside of the migratory bird breeding season to limit disturbance to ground/shrub nesting migratory birds during the breeding season.
In 2021, 11 species of forest nesting birds on the Conte Refuge that breed in the northern part of the Connecticut River watershed were in the Birds of Conservation Concern report. The increase in the number of species of forest nesting birds that are of conservation concern on the refuge indicates populations of additional species are declining within the region. Of particular interest to the Conte Refuge are Canada warbler, rusty blackbird and veery, as these three ground/shrub nesting birds are likely to be impacted from disturbances associated with frequent pursuit dog training on the refuge. These three species of conservation concern are known to breed and nest on the refuge in areas that are regularly used for dog training.
Furthermore, as part of the development of the Conte Refuge’s 2018 Habitat Management Plan for the Nulhegan Basin Division, the refuge identified focal conservation species (American woodcock, blackburnian warbler, black-throated blue warbler, Canada warbler and rusty blackbird). All but the blackburnian warbler are ground/shrub nesting species that are protected by the FWS as trust resources that will likely be impacted during the breeding season due to repeated disturbances associated with dog training. Recognizing that the Nulhegan Basin is one of the largest remaining intact lowland softwood habitats in New England (outside of Maine), the refuge provides critical habitat to forest nesting migratory birds. Based on the observations of the FWS, lowland softwood sections of the refuge have received daily visitation throughout the breeding season from individuals that train their dogs in the same areas where listed Birds of Conservation Concern and focal conservation species are known to nest. To avoid disturbances to ground/shrub nesting birds, dog training will be prohibited during the migratory bird breeding season.
Spruce grouse are listed as endangered in the state of Vermont and are protected by the Vermont Endangered Species Act. The Conte Refuge’s legislated purpose ‘to conserve, protect, and enhance the natural diversity and abundance of plant, fish, and wildlife species, and the ecosystem upon which these species depend within the refuge’ requires that the State listed spruce grouse be afforded protections to limit the species from being negatively impacted by hunting and dog training on the refuge. Though spruce grouse are known to nest on the Wenlock Wildlife Management Area and Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 2012 Spruce Grouse Recovery Plan identifies the Nulhegan Basin of the Conte Refuge as providing three quarters of Vermont’s current spruce grouse habitat. The VDFW advises hunters not to hunt ruffed grouse in areas where spruce grouse are known to occur. Dog training is prohibited on the refuge during the breeding season to protect nesting spruce grouse.
Canada lynx and Northeastern bulrush have been documented on or in the vicinity of the Conte NFWR divisions and units in New Hampshire and Vermont. Due to the species’ specific habitat requirements, the status of species and the time of year that hunting and dog training would take place, hunting and the training of dogs, may affect, but is not likely to adversely affect these species. A recent endangered species consultation determined that the refuge’s current dog training season, which occurs from August to September, reduces the potential impacts to Canada lynx. Dog training that occurs between May and August may have indirect and direct impacts to lynx kittens when they are vulnerable in den sites.
Please write your comments today supporting efforts to protect endangered lynx kittens, Canada warblers, spruce grouse and other forest and ground nesting birds at risk!
The deadline for filing comments is May 25, 2023. For more information on the revised hunt plan and where to comment, please visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/silvio-o-conte.