The first time East Middlebury’s Pat Berry heard the suggestion that he ought to consider being the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, he responded with an adamant “no” and hung up the phone.
It was not a job he ever imagined taking. Though an avid upland bird hunter with a long background as a professional fishing guide, it wasn’t even the outdoors that brought him to Vermont to study at Middlebury College in the late 1980s. He came to campus as a member of the class of 1991 to play football and lacrosse. But an injury during his freshman year changed his plans.
“After I got hurt,” Berry explained in a recent conversation, “I just fished. All the time.” And when he says “all the time,” he means it. Fall, spring, and even winter. He remembers his first January term at Middlebury. He kept a collection of tip-ups at a local lake and went out ice-fishing nearly every day.
When he graduated from Middlebury, he made his way out to Montana where he spent ten years as a professional fishing guide, and also earned a master’s degree in fisheries from the University of Montana before returning to Vermont.
This experience and education would eventually prove quite useful in his role as Fish and Wildlife commissioner — but only after he was convinced to take the job following stints working in a policy and legislative position in Montpelier for the Vermont Natural Resources Council and later as Director for Governmental Affairs and Environmental Advancement at Vermont Law School.
There were three factors that led to his change of heart. The first was simply his passion for fish and wildlife — a passion evident in conversations with Pat. But his passion alone wasn’t enough. The second factor was encouragement from many folks to take the position.
“People just started telling me that the state needed me,” he said. “They came from a wide variety of different views, yet with the belief that I could balance their many divergent interests.”
The third and final factor was the solid team he said Gov. Peter Shumlin put together.
Berry has been in the position just over two years now. Living in an age of increasing distrust of government, much of this time has been invested simply meeting with people and building trust in his department, their mission, and their willingness to listen.
But his record also shows many concrete and quantifiable accomplishments, especially related to conservation. He has raised more than $1.5 million in private money that has been used to set aside thousands of acres for conservation. He has also helped support a significant project to map the large unbroken blocks of habitat around the state, which could be of tremendous use to town planners. He is thankful that Gov. Shumlin has been supportive of Fish and Wildlife, in particular with regards to maintaining its budget.
Berry’s accomplishments have not been without ongoing challenges, however. The Vermont landscape continues to change, with increased development, shifting land use, and an increase in the posting of private lands.
“Fragmentation and parcelization is forever changing things,” Berry notes. “Often in bad ways.”
He thinks that the people of Vermont need to continue to rethink land use and development. To that end, he is committed to working with towns and planning commissions, zoning boards, and conservation commissions, helping towns make decisions to incorporate fish and wildlife values and to focus on working landscape.
One of the key resulting issues he needs to wrestle with continuously — and one of his passions — is providing access for the citizens of Vermont to the land and water resources of the state. In particular, he wants to increase access to hunting land available to Vermonters, and also make sure that current access to fishing waters is preserved.
Berry also emphasizes that he wants his department to continue to focus on habitat values and natural systems, and not merely on counting individual animals.
Yet despite the challenges, and also despite his initial reticence to take the job, he finds he actually enjoys it: “It’s the people I work with that I enjoy the most, both the constituents I serve and staff I work with.”
Speaking of his staff, he admires what he calls their “solid conservation ethic,” and adds, “they really understand ecological systems. They do a lot more than just stock (fish) and count (animals).”
The commissioner also enjoys going to meetings at fish and game clubs, Audubon chapters, and other conservation and wildlife organizations — in large part because people actually attend these meetings. Even when there is heated debate, it is because people really care, that is what Berry likes to see.
He readily boasts about the citizens of Vermont and how much they love fish and wildlife, noting that Vermont ranks first in the country for the percentage of residents who actively engage in wildlife watching, and second in the country behind only Alaska for the percent of the population who hunt and fish.
“The state is full of passionate people. Good people. People actually go to meetings. They care,” he said.
And that, maybe, is the central reason Berry is glad he didn’t continue to hang up the phone.