The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is fighting for its life at the Washington Legislature without one of its biggest guns.
George Orr of Spokane completed his four-year term on the nine-member commission in January and checked out without interest in the usual reappointment.
“I’ve been filling out public disclosure forms since 1980,” said the 68-year-old retired Spokane firefighter, union leader and former state legislator. “I haven’t missed many years in that time without some sort of campaigning, appointment or election.”
On Friday, the remaining panel members issued a statement opposing Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to reduce the commission to an advisory role while taking away its authority to hire and fire the Fish and Wildlife director.
Organized sportsmen have united against the proposal, which is included in legislation that would merge the Fish and Wildlife Department with other natural resource agencies, including state parks.
The proposal was approved by a senate committee on Monday with a few tweaks, one of which would continue the commission’s current role of setting hunting and fishing seasons and policy for the Fish and Wildlife Department.
Under the substitute bill, the governor would assume authority to appoint the head of the merged agency from a list of five candidates approved by the commission.
But Orr, one of the most outspoken and quotable members of the commission, isn’t fighting this battle for sportsmen.
Nor will he be making decisions at the Spokane Convention Center March 4-5 when the commission convenes in Spokane to hear presentations and proposals for 2011 big-game hunting seasons.
“The commission plays an important role,” he said, noting that just being on the front line to listen to the public is a valuable service to the state.
“It can be frustrating,” he said. “People don’t want to understand the whole issue. If they want more funding for fish hatcheries, they don’t care about funding for habitat or anything else.
“People don’t want to hear about a few restrictions on lead fishing tackle that might inconvenience them even if it means saving loons and swans.”
As a case in point, he mentioned the proposal for a four-point minimum on whitetail bucks in northeastern Washington Units 117 and 121, which will be discussed at the commission meeting on March 5.
“What science there is on the subject suggests we shouldn’t mess with antler restrictions on whitetails in that region,” he said. “But it becomes a political issue pushed by a relatively small group of people and here it is, still being considered.”
Fish and wildlife officials were forced by a formal petition to study the four-point proposal last year. A stakeholder group was formed and after several meetings, voted 7-3 in favor of the antler restrictions.
But a majority of people showing up at each of the four public meetings on the issue last year opposed the four-point restriction, Fish and Wildlife officials confirmed.
Orr has not always sided with sportsmen on commission issues.
When shellfishers recently pushed for more liberal recreational limits on crabs, Orr took a minority commission position and sided with the commercial crabbers who would, in turn, have to accept lower quotas.
“If recreational crabbers who live in Puget Sound get to keep more crabs, that means higher prices and fewer crabs available for people who live elsewhere and want to buy crabs from the supermarket,” he said. “Everybody has a stake in those crabs, not just the people who can go out their door and catch them.”
As he talked, Orr seemed to blueprint his thoughts for leaving the commission.
“Everybody wants to lynch sea lions, cougars and tribes even though they all have legal status in our society.
“I think the Fish and Wildlife Department staff is well-educated and extremely loyal to protecting our resources. I feel comfortable that our fish and wildlife are in good hands.
“I have grandkids to chase, grapes to grow and fish to catch.”