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

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Kim Thorburn: Conservation should not be driven by ideology

By Kim Thorburn

By Kim Thorburn

I have the privilege of serving as a fish and wildlife commissioner. What an honor to make policy for conservation of the state’s diverse fish and wildlife! My statutory mandate (RCW 77.04.012) is clear: “The wildlife, fish and shellfish are the property of the state.” As a commissioner, I “shall preserve, protect, perpetuate, and manage the wildlife and food fish, game fish, and shellfish in state waters and offshore waters.”

My mandate permits me “to authorize the taking of wildlife, food fish, game fish, and shellfish only at times or in manners or quantities” as in my judgment “does not impair the supply of these resources.” It also says I “shall attempt to maximize the public recreational game fishing and hunting opportunities of all citizens, including juvenile, disabled and senior citizens.”

My mandate does not say I shall limit taking of wildlife because some Washington residents don’t like certain times, manners or quantities. The restriction is to not impair the supply of the resource. I am required to use my judgment. Determination about supply impairment can be challenging. Simply put, I ask myself, “Does a species’ population health support takings in the time, manner, and quantity under consideration?”

Simply asked is not always straightforwardly answered. Wildlife do not submit census forms and estimating population size requires a variety of data. I’ve experienced the complexity from hours in the field collecting population data by numerous methods. Other components of population health involve survival analysis and whether there are enough young to replace mortality. Habitat affects population health, especially as drought and development take their toll. The commission considers all these data in setting time, manner and quantity of takings.

My mandate does not say anything about ethical hunting; it requires legal constraints on time, manner and quantity to prevent resource impairment. I’ve heard many claims about some regulated hunting activity being unethical. This charge was used in the 1996 initiative campaign that banned hound hunting and bear baiting in the state. I heard it frequently while debating a ban of legally sanctioned coyote contests. Now the commission is hearing declarations that hunting black bears during spring is unethical. Recently, I heard the often repeated assertion that hunting for meat is OK but not trophies. Neighboring states are dealing with moves that trapping is unethical. These claims arise from an ideology that is fundamentally anti-hunting.

The ideology shows little understanding of hunter culture. I love to be in the woods during fall when the largest number of hunting seasons are open. Meeting hunters, I understand the experience of the season’s outdoor beauty, the time with family, the camaraderie of hunter camp, the thrill of the hunt and the excitement from prize quarry. As a hard-core birder, I appreciate every aspect of the hunt and disagree with an ideology that finds hunting unethical.

Hunters subscribe to an ethical premise called “fair chase.” I learned early in my commissioner term that there are unsettled questions about what comprises fair chase. We debated a rule about eliminating baiting for deer and elk hunting. Hunters testified passionately on both sides: attracting animals with bait was not fair chase versus baiting improved the chance for a clean shot and success for hunters with limitations. The commission concluded there was no evidence that baiting impaired the resource supply except in instances of massive amounts. We enacted a rule that restricted bait quantity.

Many view hunting as contrary to wildlife conservation. There are numerous uncontrollable factors that influence wildlife population health, but hunting can be a fine-tuned conservation tool. Management of overabundant species that threaten more vulnerable species is a case in point. For example, there is solid evidence that coyotes are a significant nest predator of Washington’s imperiled prairie grouse species. Carefully timed coyote contests could have been used to relieve the threat.

The anti-hunting ideology complains that hunting’s role in wildlife management means game species receive more conservation attention than nongame species. I coordinate volunteer projects for recovery of some at-risk species. Many hunters volunteer because of appreciation for wildlife diversity and ecosystems. Most ideological conflicts that consume the commission concern a few totemic species, mostly carnivores, not facing population health threats. The conflicts devour huge amounts of resources that might otherwise serve critical wildlife conservation needs.

Ideological conflicts are culture wars. They are started and fueled by ideologues. Hunting is under attack in Washington with ideologues picking off one legal hunt after another, using emotional rhetoric like “unethical” to vilify hunters and hunting. My ears still sting from an anti-coyote contest advocate who called contestants “fringy.” Resolution of wildlife conservation conflict will be more durable through respectful collaborative processes, not picking partisan ideological sides.

Kim Thorburn is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife commissioner. The views in this opinion piece are hers and do not necessarily represent the WDFW Commission or WDFW.