Too wild? Legislators seek to tame Washington’s fish and wildlife agency

LEWISTON – Washington lawmakers are considering a pair of bills that could change the way the state’s fish and wildlife populations are managed.

The bills, which could dramatically alter the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and its governing commission, follow nearly a year of well-publicized policy fights among the state’s Fish and Wildlife commissioners.

Senate Bill 5721 would place the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission under the authority of the state Public Lands commissioner.

The bill would strip the Fish and Wildlife and State Parks commissions of their authorities to set policy and instead make them advisory boards.

The policy-setting authority would transfer to the directors of the Fish and Wildlife and State Parks.

Under current law, Fish and Wildlife commissioners are selected by the governor. The nine commissioners, who serve six-year terms, hire a director for the Fish and Wildlife Department and set policy for the agency, including the setting of hunting and fishing seasons.

The changes would be made by amending existing code, but that code retains the language that the state should preserve, protect and perpetuate fish and wildlife populations and that recreational hunting and fishing opportunities should be maximized. Instead of giving that responsibility to the commission, it gives it to the department.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said the changes will make the agency more accountable since the director will answer directly to the elected public lands commissioner rather than to an unelected commission appointed by the governor.

He also said he believes having the management of fish and wildlife, state parks and the state’s endowment lands under a single authority will allow for more efficient management.

“Combining these agencies will streamline and improve the operation of our parks, timber management and natural resource enforcement,” Van De Wege said in a news release. “This will eliminate redundancy, increase accountability, and improve service to the public.”

He said people who recreate on state land are often confused about who has management authority and what they need to access it.

“People do not know which pass they need for which park, or what agency or organization is responsible for which land,” Van De Wege said. “Placing all natural resource agencies under a single organization will result in a network of public services that everyone can understand and use far more easily.”

Land managed by all three agencies is accessible through the state’s Discover Pass and those who purchase hunting and fishing licenses may access land managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife even if they do not have a Discover Pass.

Van De Wege did not respond to a request for an interview, but his staff provided general background information about the bill and his approach.

A second bill would take a more deliberate approach. Instead of calling for changes to the governing structure of the Fish and Wildlife Commission and department, House Bill 2027 would convene a task force to study possible changes. The task force would also consider changes to the mandates of the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Department. The bill is sponsored by Reps. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle; Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles; and Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim.

During an interview with the Tribune, Fitzgibbon referenced the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s internal policy disputes as one reason for looking at possible changes to the governing structure.

“The Fish and Wildlife Commission has been pretty dysfunctional lately. They get into really intense interpersonal fights about every controversial issue that comes up, ”he said.

“For an agency this important to the state’s economy, to the state’s ecology and to the state’s culture, we just need a higher-functioning agency.”

Last fall, commissioners clashed over the spring bear hunting season and the 2022 season was halted when commissioners deadlocked on what was supposed to be a debate over permit levels but ended up being a referendum on whether the hunt was ethical and biologically supportable.

Agency biologists told commissioners the state’s black bear population was healthy and would not be threatened by the permit-only season. Last week, the commission voted to restart a rulemaking process that could revive the hunt.

This week, Gov. Jay Inslee appointed three new members to the commission – two to fill open seats and one to replace commission chairman Larry Carpenter, whose term expired in 2020.

Commissioners also have clashed over a monitoring project showing the Blue Mountain elk herd is being hit hard by mountain lion predation. Some commissioners said they are willing to look at increasing mountain lion hunting permits if recommended by the department. Others said hunting should be reduced instead and that the department’s elk population objective is too high.

Fitzgibbon said he has been contacted by constituents opposed to bear and mountain lion hunting and is concerned with “intense disputes between commercial and recreational fishermen.”

He does not have a predetermined idea of ​​what needs to change and said Inslee’s appointment of three new commissioners earlier this week may improve the functioning of the commission. But he thinks it’s appropriate for the legislature to explore changes that will help the Fish and Wildlife commission and department better achieve their missions.

“I’m not trying to tilt the scale in favor of any particular side,” he said. “I just want them to be able to reach decisions, stick to their decisions, defend their decisions and establish a strong agency culture.”

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