Eleventh-hour language slipped quietly into the state budget bill is being hailed as saving the life of “Pete the Moose”  — a celebrity cervid whose active group of 5000-plus Facebook “friends”  overwhelmed state officials with emails, phone calls and letters urging them to spare his life.
In reality, the legislation may do little to save him from a hunter’s bullet, or to save about a dozen other moose and roughly 200 whitetail deer that belong to Doug Nelson , who runs a 700-acre game farm in Irasburg. There Nelson raises elk, but over the years deer and moose have found their way past his farm’s fences in search of food and love.
The legislation grants ownership of these native animals to Nelson and puts his operation under the sole authority of the Agency of Agriculture , rather than the Department of Fish and Wildlife . The DFW had planned to cull the trespassers to ensure that a “mad cow”-like disease called chronic wasting disease would not spread between nonnative and native herds. A CWD outbreak in 2005 at a similar game farm in New York motivated Vermont officials to put in place stronger rules aimed at preventing such an incident here.
Pete was one of the animals marked for probable death. The moose was allegedly injured as a calf, found and rehabilitated by a long-bearded, hermit-like mountain man named David Lawrence . Lawrence, a former big-game hunter who claims to be redeeming himself by nurturing injured wildlife, plopped Pete inside Nelson’s game farm late last year. At that time, state fish and game laws would have prohibited Nelson from profiting off native species found on his land.
Now, because of the legislation that “saved” Pete, Nelson will be able to keep the animals and potentially charge hunters to kill them. Agency of Agriculture officials say they are not yet sure if Nelson will be able to charge for the hunts of native moose and whitetail deer on his property. He currently charges about $4000 to “hunt” elk.
National and in-state hunting groups, along with state wildlife officials, are urging lawmakers to overturn the measure. Some opponents say they may challenge the law in court.
The law may be ripe for a challenge, notes Pamela Vesilind , a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in animal law and has closely followed Pete’s saga.
“The Vermont constitution, Supreme Court and laws all support the 'public trust doctrine,' the idea that state citizens 'own' wild animals and the legislature can only limit that for the common good of the citizens. That’s not what’s happening here,” wrote Vesilind in an email. “I understand the legislators’ good intentions, but they’ve turned wildlife law on its head.”
The legislation was a shock to Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Wayne LaRoche and the state Fish and Wildlife Board. They say neither the legislature nor other members of the Douglas administration sought their input as the law was drafted.
“We were all taken aback,” says Brian Ames, chairman of the state Fish and Wildlife Board, which writes state fish and game laws. “This is completely new territory, and nowhere else have we ever allowed a herd of wild animals to exist basically for personal profit.”
The legislation gives Nelson until August 1 to submit a strategy to thin the native herds, and until October 1 to install new fences. Culling is still required to halt the possible spread of CWD.
“Ironically, although Mr. Nelson didn’t have a legal right to shoot Pete or any other moose on the property, the new law gives him that right. In theory, he could also sell moose-hunting access to anyone who visits his facility,” notes Vesilind. “The elk, moose, and deer on this property aren’t afraid of humans anymore. You may as well shoot a goat at a kid’s petting zoo.”
Most folks concur that it would be a public relations disaster to kill Pete the Moose, or his progeny: As the session wound down, it was revealed that Pete’s “girlfriend” is pregnant. What’s next — “Save Pete Jr.”? Sen. Susan Bartlett , chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, defended the deal, which was crafted by attorneys at the Agency of Agriculture and shepherded through the legislature by Sen. Robert Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) and Rep. Duncan Kilmartin  (R-Newport).
“We were compelled to make a decision because of the way that Fish and Wildlife was acting,” says Bartlett. “This herd has been a captive herd for nine to 10 years, and Fish and Wildlife’s solution was to go up and shoot all the moose and deer. As you can imagine, that didn’t sit too well with a number of folks.”
LaRoche disagrees. He was not interested in eliminating all the native animals in one swift kill, he says, but rather over a period of years. Nelson, however, would never agree to terms, because the farmer didn’t believe the state had the authority to govern the hunts on his property, says LaRoche. Instead of having to abide by fish and wildlife laws, which have real teeth, Nelson now only needs to run his plans by the Agency of Agriculture.
“I think the legislature was blinded by the ‘Pete the Moose’ story,” says Ames, “when it wasn’t really about Pete the Moose.”
As for Nelson, he’s saying very little these days now that the attention on Pete has subsided. Multiple messages left with farmhands and assistants were not returned. They said Nelson was busy, feeding his elk.