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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Claire Loebs Davis: I agree, Commissioner Thorburn; conservation should not be driven by ideology

By Claire Loebs Davis

By Claire Loebs Davis

Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Kim Thorburn claims hunting is “under attack” in the state.

Thorburn’s inflammatory rhetoric is an irresponsible attempt to ignite the very “culture wars” she pretends to bemoan, and to distract from valid criticisms of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Thorburn would have us believe that any ethical limit on the “time, manner and quantity” of killing animals is grounded in an “ideology that is fundamentally anti-hunting.”

That is nonsense, of course. Ethical hunting is not an “anti-hunting” ideology: One goal of the Game Management Plan that Thorburn is supposed to follow is to promote “high standards of hunter ethics and … principles of fair chase.”

Certainly, hunters often disagree about how to define ethical hunting, just as many nonhunters whom Thorburn promised to represent disagree with her positions. Although Thorburn fabricates a simplistic “us” versus “them” conflict, hunters and nonhunters are not monolithic groups with opposing “ideologies.”

Indeed, I suspect most hunters and nonhunters alike would agree that WFDW should respect science and follow the law. Unfortunately, it does neither.

That is why my firm has sued WDFW, on behalf of both hunters and nonhunters. Our recent lawsuit challenges WDFW’s failure to follow the law and properly notify the public before establishing a 2021 recreational spring bear hunt.

In another case, the Washington court of appeals recently confirmed WDFW was operating an illegal program allowing select individuals to use hounds and bait to kill bears – at the same time it prosecuted others for using those same illegal methods.

Management ignored staff warnings that its secret program was illegal and unscientific.

This is not unusual. I recently spoke with numerous WDFW employees from around the state, working in fisheries, wildlife, habitat and enforcement. They are pleading for help.

Most will not speak publicly, for fear of retaliation. But many are now appealing directly to the commission, having been given new hope by Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent pro-science appointments, Fred Koontz and Lorna Smith.

While staff have many grievances, chief among them is the widespread concern that management routinely suppresses facts, ignores science and marginalizes its experts.

Former WDFW carnivore biologist Gary Koehler agrees.

“Administrators seem to have an agenda, and they launder the scientific evidence, selecting certain bits of information and ignoring the rest, so it does not challenge their desired result,” he said.

Take WDFW’s management of cougars. Last year, WDFW liberalized cougar hunting rules, ignoring scientific warnings about the potential impact, and failing to disclose that it has also exponentially increased the number of cougars it hires professional houndsmen to kill.

WDFW’s public database shows 108 nonhunter cougar deaths in 2020, not including 14 incidents where permits were issued but no resolution reported, 15 kills only reported to WDFW biologists, or any kills by the Klickitat County Sheriff’s “posse.”

This means there were likely at least 150 cougar deaths in 2020 in addition to hunting season – about three times the average of 52 nonhunter deaths each year from 2009 through 2018. In some areas, WDFW kills almost every cougar reported, including cougars spotted hunting deer or walking through the forest.

In Eastern Washington’s District 1, WDFW killed at least 75 cougars, none of which count toward the area’s maximum hunting quota of 87.

Dave Jones, president of the Fish and Wildlife Officers’ Guild, said this “defies logic.”

“I do not understand how we claim to be science-based, when we are killing every single cat in certain areas,” Jones said. “This policy is not science-based, it is pressure-based and politics-based.”

Koehler agrees, and said when WDFW kills too many cougars, it creates more conflict, by destabilizing cougars’ social structure.

“They’ve trapped themselves in a vicious cycle,” he said. “They kill more cougars, so they get more complaints, so they kill more cougars.”

Koehler said commissioners must demand to hear directly from WDFW experts, who have produced some of the best carnivore science in the country.

This week, the commission will vote on whether to deal another blow to the cougar population, by allowing year-round “nonlethal” hound pursuit. WDFW experts say the rule will damage the cougar population and facilitate illegal hound hunting. Some staff believe it is just a ruse to get around voters’ 1996 ban.

Will commissioners listen to their experts, examine science and follow the law? Or will they take Thorburn’s lead, disregarding facts and demonizing informed citizens as anti-hunting ideologues?

WDFW manages wildlife for all Washingtonians, and we should all demand better.

Claire Loebs Davis is a resident of Vashon, Washington, and the founder and managing partner of the law firm Animal & Earth Advocates.

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