(This piece was originally published on March 23, 2018 in the Indianapolis Star.)

More than 100 people packed the seats at a public hearing Thursday night that carried on for more than three hours, largely to implore state officials to stop what many attendees called the “senseless murder” of “innocent animals.”

The animals in question: bobcats, coyotes, raccoons and opossums.

The loud and clear message — meant for both the state’s Department of Natural Resources and its Natural Resources Commission — was delivered in opposition to two rules being proposed by the department.

The first would create a hunting and trapping season for bobcats, Indiana’s only native wild cat and a once endangered species in the state. The second would require animal control workers to kill any coyotes, raccoons or opossums that they catch, rather than being able to catch and release them.

This was the second and final public meeting to discuss the rules — which the DNR first introduced to the Commission in September — before the public comment period on the proposals closes today. Including comments submitted via the internet and mail, the DNR has received more than 2,300 comments on the two proposals.

Many spoke to science, questioning what they say is a lack thereof to justify either of these proposed changes. Others called on morals and what they feel is the responsibility to protect Indiana’s wildlife.

“The DNR should be tasked with protecting our natural resources, not depleting them,” said a woman who has called Indiana home for six decades. “Somewhere this needs to stop.”

Still, some expressed support for the rules and what they claim is their potential to help manage wildlife populations and keep them healthy.

“There is nothing in the proposed rule change that I would oppose to,” said a gentleman who added that he was not ashamed to call himself a hunter, fisher and fur trapper. “The cruelest thing we can do for wildlife is not manage it.”

Regardless of which camp Hoosier’s fall into, one thing is clear: These two rules and four species have struck a chord.

The Meeting: Crowded room for critters

The DNR first introduced and recommended the bobcat and animal control rules, part of a larger rule package, to the Commission in Sept. 2017. The NRC is an independent board responsible for addressing issues pertaining to the department, such as the adoption of rules.

Though last night’s meeting was an NRC hearing, no Commission members attended — a fact with which many in the audience expressed frustration, citing the inability to ask questions of officials and have a dialogue about the rules.

Seats were scarce as residents from across the state crowded into the room at Mounds State Park in Anderson, Ind.

Many were from Marion, Hamilton and Madison counties. Some, however, traveled more than two hours to attend — “we feel it’s that important,” one said. That same sentiment was shared by a handful of folks who said their opposition to the rules motivated them to attend their very first public meeting.

All who attended — including lifelong residents, wildlife rehabilitators, wildlife scientists, photographers, hunters, farmers and representatives from environmental and wildlife organizations — were given the opportunity to speak.

At least 60 spoke against the proposal that would require animal control workers to kill captured raccoons, coyotes and opossums. Nearly 50 were in opposition to opening a season on bobcats. About 10 people in the audience, representing the hunting and trapping community, did speak in favor of that rule.

A separate public hearing last Wednesday in Mitchell, Ind. drew similar crowds, according to Amanda Wuestefeld, assistant director for DNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife Service.

That meeting was heavier on the topic of bobcats, she said, and had a much larger representation of hunters and trappers. Roughly 60 percent were in favor of a season, Wuestefeld added, with the other 40 percent opposed.

The public comment period closes Friday at midnight. After that, DNR staff will go through and provide responses to questions and concerns raised, all of which will be made public. The agency will then make any adjustments to the rules, if it feels necessary, and recommendations to the Commission.

The Commission plans to vote on the rules at its May 15 meeting.

The Rule: Bobcat hunting season

Dozens of individuals at last night’s meeting wore sticker’s demanding the NRC “Vote No” on the bobcat hunting rule.

The proposed change would establish a season with a bag limit per person as well as a statewide quota for the number of bobcats that could be taken. The season would also be open in only a limited number of counties, according to the suggested rule language.

Those counties would be in southern Indiana, according to DNR furbearer biologist Geriann Albers, where bobcat populations are strongest. Central and northern counties would be excluded, she said, as the population is still building its numbers in those regions.

“We believe very strongly in preserving species like bobcats for all citizens of Indiana to be able to appreciate, but we believe that limited and regulated harvest can be a part of that without jeopardizing the population as a whole,” Albers told IndyStar. “We believe the info we have supports that bobcats are abundant in southern Indiana.”

Bobcats were removed from Indiana’s endangered species list in 2005 and their population has expanded in recent years, according to DNR officials — which the agency touts as a big conservation win.

The agency cites increased incidental kills of bobcats by car collisions and additional reports by hunters and trappers of sightings of the feline that is not much larger than the average house cat.

Charlie Masheck, who owns Hoosier Trapper Supply in Johnson County, said his store frequently hears of trappers accidentally catching bobcats or that they were spotted on a hunters’ trail camera.

“We feel there is an adequate population for certainly a sustainable harvest, so we are here to support that,” he told IndyStar, saying they believe in the DNR’s science and numbers. “What we do is not for everybody and the last thing we would want to see is for a population to be decimated.”

Still, many question the size of that population. Several lifelong Hoosiers who have lived in the state for decades and are frequently in the woods said they have never seen a bobcat.

Representatives with the Indiana Wildlife Federation, U.S. Humane Society, Hoosier Environmental Council and the Sierra Club’s Hoosier Chapter all argued that greater study needs to be done to better understand the bobcats numbers.

That sentiment was also reflected by Jackie Powers, a recently retired wildlife scientist who has studied predatory ecology.

“I am disturbed and I feel that the DNR is prematurely opening a season on the recently recovering bobcat with a lack of data,” she said, also raising concerns about allowing the use of traps and dogs to catch and hunt bobcats. “If we have to allow sportsman to get their jollies, we should give the bobcat the best chance.”

Many said they were not against hunting when done for the meat and food, but did not support the hunting of bobcats for the thrill or the trade of pelts. Hunters countered that there is little money to be made from the furs, and their taking of bobcats would primarily be to help manage the species.

Tim Maloney with the HEC was quick to point out the money that can be made from eco-tourism or “non-consumptive” uses of wildlife and bobcats — such as photography and individuals hiking and traveling to see them.

The Indiana Wildlife Federation also worried that removing an apex predator like the bobcat could weaken a key part of the food chain that helps control other populations such as deer.

“We believe in ethical and sustainable hunting for control purposes when there is strong scientific data to do so,” a representative with the organization said. “But we don’t find a compelling reason to open a season in Indiana.”

The Rule: Killing raccoons, coyotes & opossums

The majority of those in attendance also said they could not find a compelling reason to require animal control workers to kill raccoons, coyotes or opossums.

Those professionals currently have the option to release those species — with various regulations and limitations governing a release — and that decision is left to their judgment. They are allowed to release the wildlife within the county they captured it and on land where they have permission. Animal control operators also already put down wildlife that are diseased or severely injured.

Albers with the DNR, however, said that relocating these animals or “nuisance wildlife” doesn’t necessarily solve the nuisance problem.

“We had concerns that these animals that were causing problems were just being moved to somewhere else,” she said, “and then causing someone else problems.”

The furbearer biologist could not say exactly how many animals DNR expected would be killed each year under this proposed change, but the agency wrote that it did not believe this required euthanasia would not harm the populations.

Animal control worker Kirk Neuner said some animals can also be stressed in a new location after being released without knowing where to find food or water. The Admiral Wildlife Services owner said he believes this rule would be the most humane treatment for the raccoons, coyotes and opossums.

Neuner is one of roughly 450 licensed nuisance wildlife operators in the state, the majority of which already kill most animals that they catch.

Many at the meeting said that they want the choice to keep the animal alive.

“The first question people ask me is if I kill the animal,” said Mike Meservy, the owner of Advanced Pest Control. “And when I tell them I don’t, then they ask me how much. That’s the second question; that should tell you something.”

“I want to invite the Natural Resources Commission, personally, to come and kill a baby raccoon,” the animal control professional added. “I want you to know what it feels like.”

Many rehabilitators and rescue shelters said they are appalled by this proposal. They worry it could make the populations of these animals unstable and then cause other populations — like those of skunks or ticks, which opossums eat — to boom.

Instead, they argue, the DNR should be working with individuals to educate them and provide guidelines on how best to keep these critters from getting inside their homes or how to remove them in a non-invasive way.

If this rule is passed, Meservy said he likely would go out of business rather than be forced to kill animals. A local animal protection league said that they would not follow the mandate to euthanize or ask workers to go against their mandate to do so.

Outside of the official comment, some Hoosiers started a petition two weeks ago on Change.org to “Stop the Indiana Department of Natural Resources From Euthanizing Raccoons, Opossums, and Coyotes.”

That petition, addressed to the state agency and Gov. Eric Holcomb, currently has more than 4,000 signatures and continues to grow toward its goal of 5,000.

Erin Huang, Indiana state director of the Humane Society of the United States, said she believes such a public response and engagement sends a clear message — and hopes that it is heard and taken seriously.

“Consider the will of the Hoosiers,” she said.

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