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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For nearly a year, Eastern Washington hasn’t been fully represented on the Fish and Wildlife commission. When will that change?

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources, according to the agency’s webpage.  (WDFW)

For more than a year, Eastern Washington residents have not been fully represented on the state’s wildlife commission, a situation some are saying is unfair and bad governance.

“It’s a huge, huge problem, absolutely huge, problem for Eastern Washington because their voices aren’t represented on the commission,” said Mark Pidgeon, the president of the Hunters Heritage Council, a statewide advocacy group.

Members of the nine-person commission are appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to six-year terms. After their appointment, they must be confirmed by the state senate. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission sets policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Three commission seats are reserved for Eastern Washington, three for Western Washington and three are at-large seats.

Since January, however, one of the commission’s three Eastern Washington seats has been vacant. Now, with the resignation of Fred Koontz on Monday, one of the at-large seats is too. Koontz resigned on Monday citing a “politicized quagmire.”

“Fundamentally, it’s an issue when we have a commission that only has eight people on it,” said Dan Wilson, the Washington chapter secretary for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “If it’s a tie vote it fails. That creates an issue just in good policy setting. We’re not actually using majority to set policy.”

That exact scenario played out earlier this year when the commission voted whether to reauthorize a longstanding spring bear hunt. The vote was tied, which led to a one-year suspension of the hunt.

On Wednesday, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, Ducks Unlimited and seven other organizations sent a letter to Inslee urging him to quickly appoint new commissioners.

“The unappointed seat apportioned to Eastern Washington on the Commission has resulted in a lack of representation by the State under law,” the letter states. “Furthermore, vital issues regarding our wildlife deserve to be decided by a majority vote to provide clear policy through a fully seated and confirmed WDFW Commission consisting of all nine members.”

The letter goes on to urge Inslee to appoint “commissioners who understand science-based wildlife and habitat management, including the nuances of predator mitigation and management objectives, as well as the impact to and protection of First Foods for indigenous people, which include salmon, elk, and deer.”

But why the long wait?

No one interviewed for this story had a clear answer as to why there has been a delay. Wilson believes the pandemic likely slowed the process and points out that in Eastern Washington much of the population density is in Spokane and per commission rules, there can’t be two commissioners from the same county. Current Commissioner Kim Thorburn lives in Spokane County.

Jon Snyder, the recreation policy adviser for Inslee, said it’s not unusual for vacancies to persist and said it’s a high-profile and high-stress volunteer position, which makes it less appealing to unpaid volunteers. Snyder said that an appointment is unlikely before the holidays and that the process would “ramp back up” in the New Year.

“It’s really important and it’s an important position to get filled,” he said. “But it’s not completely unusual for vacancies to happen like this.”

Commission appointments have been controversial in the past. When Koontz and current Commissioner Lorna Smith were appointed in January, some hunting and angling groups protested, arguing those two appointments threw the commission out of balance and pushed it away from traditional hunting and fishing interests. In the past, the commission has had a representative from the commercial fishing industry,

Per state code, the “governor shall seek to maintain a balance reflecting all aspects of fish and wildlife, including representation recommended by organized groups representing sport fishers, commercial fishers, hunters, private landowners, and environmentalists.”

As for the governor’s office, a spokesman for Inslee said they were “disappointed” Koontz resigned.

The governor’s office met with commissioners last week to “hear more about the situation and how they think it can be improved.”

“We would also love every seat on the commission to be filled, but the governor is not the only person involved in that process,” Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk in an email. “Stakeholders with very different priorities and opinions have a say, and commission candidates also have to pass a Senate confirmation vote. We will continue to work with our partners to identify and appoint strong candidates to these positions.”