Eye On Olympia

Senators clearly unhappy with Fish and Wildlife Commission

It wasn't a quite a grilling. More like a light sauteeing.

Whatever the verb, it quickly became apparent this morning that members of the Senate natural resources committee are not happy with the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The hearing was to confirm commission chairwoman Miranda Wecker, an attorney and fishing specialist. But most of the hearing was devoted not to Wecker's professional credentials, but to Senators' irritation with the commission.

Sen. Jim Hargrove said the commission's been overstepping its bounds, deciding policy without consulting with lawmakers. Then, when complaints roll into the statehouse, he said, lawmakers feel blindsided.

The Fish and Wildlife commissioners are "not total free agents to set policy," said Hargrove. "...That's for us to decide here."

Hargrove and other lawmakers also suggested that the commission is basing its decisions on a "disproportionate" amount of comments from sports anglers compared to commercial fishermen.

Wecker defended the commission, saying that it's striving to ensure accountability of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. She said she'd welcome more communication, and that the commission is striving to do its best to ensure accountability in the agency and to protect the state's natural resources.

The senators didn't vote on confirming Wecker, but

it doesn't matter. She can continue to serve on the commission, regardless. In fact, most of the current commissioners are unconfirmed.

Sen. Ken Jacobsen, who sponsored a bill to strip the commission of much of its power, said "I've never heard so many complaints about commissioners" in 25 years in Olympia. And echoing Hargrove's concerns about the impact of sports fishermen on the commission's decisions, Jacobsen told Wecker that it looks like her group has "been captured by one constituency."

"Where's commercial fishing fit in?" Jacobsen said. "Is there a role for it? They certainly seem to be irritated with how you're operating."

Also apparently unhappy: Indian tribes.

The commission "is not impartial. It is political," said Steve Robinson, with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. "...I receive no joy from speaking before you today, but the facts are the facts." He said tribes feel the commission is not listening to them and that the situation threatens to rekindle the state/tribal fishing conflicts of years ago.

Wecker said she couldn't think of anything the commission has done that would create concerns for the tribes.

As for commercial fishing, she said "there will be a commercial fishing into the future as far as I can see, as long as we're able to maintain the stocks, which I think we will probably be able to do," she said. Several of the states major commercial fisheries are quite healthy, she said.

As for complaints that staffers speaking to the commission have been "hectored," as Jacobsen put it, Wecker said she's made it a point to have the commissioners treat people respectfully.

"I think there have been rough moments in the past, and not always the greatest tact and political sense," she said, "but the intention was not to embarrass or humiliate anyone. It was really about trying to get at the accountability side of the commission, to just ask questions."

Although only a handful of people testified, dozens attended the hearing. Most were sport anglers wanting lawmakers to vote to confirm Wecker. Also in the crowd: three other Fish and Wildlife Commissioners.

"I think we can continue to improve communication and most of the problems would go away," said commissioner Gary Douvia, from Kettle Falls.

"Conservation is our primary objective, and that's getting some pushback by those who don't share that conservation effort," Douvia said in an interview after the meeting. He said the commission works closely with the goals given to it by the governor.

Douvia also said that some conflict is virtually inevitable when managing fish and game.

"Generally whatever we decide, there's somebody who feels they didn't get what they wanted," he said. "Unfortunately, we have to decide on the side of a resource, so we often have somebody upset at every decision."

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