LEWISTON – Members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission have begun revising the state’s game management plan – a process that is proving as contentious as many of the panel’s recent deliberations.
The document covers the hunted species of the Evergreen State and is largely used as a road map by biologists and administrators with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as they structure hunting season proposals. But commissioners also consult the plan from time to time.
Earlier this spring and in the fall of 2021, the commissioners looked to the document during the emotional tussle over the proposed spring black bear hunting season. The majority argued hunting bears in the spring, when there is a chance newborn cubs could be orphaned, is unethical. They also said the population data collected by the professional biologists was inadequate for them to approve a spring season. The commission, split in a 5-4 vote, ultimately opted to kill the permit-only hunt for at least this year. Commissioners put off debate over the ethics of the hunt and whether it should even be considered until the revision of the game management plan.
That work is beginning now and is expected to include things like how much biological data should be collected and how locally precise it must be in order for hunting to occur; how the commission should balance the views of the general population with those of the minority of residents who hunt; and how should new and emerging science be incorporated into the plan. Commissioners are also expected to discuss how and when black bears and mountain lions should be hunted, if at all.
With those big policy questions looming, agency staff recommended a two-pronged approach. Under the proposal, the policy questions to be decided by the commission would be teased out. In the meantime, the staff would plow ahead on more mundane but important topics.
Members of the commission’s wildlife committee, led by Kim Thorburn, of Spokane, ultimately opted to approve the two-pronged approach, but not before spending much of their two-hour meeting Tuesday in tangential discussions and arguing over a draft survey focused on the attitudes of Washington residents.
Commissioners Lorna Smith and Melanie Rowland tussled with Wildlife Program Manager Eric Gardner and Game Division Manager Anis Aoude over the Human Dimensions Survey and the timeline for completing the overall Game Management Plan.
The survey and another that drills down on the feelings of hunters is done by a contractor. Both are conducted each time the management plan is updated. A draft of the Human Dimensions survey has been completed and submitted to the department. The hunter survey began this week and will take about a month to complete.
Rowland and Smith said it is vital they be given the surveys as soon as they are submitted.
“I would really like to know what the general population’s views are at this time,” Rowland said.
Gardner and Aoude said they were happy to pass it along, but noted during the last three iterations of the plan, agency staff waited until both surveys were completed before doing so, in part to make sure the work lived up to contract specifications and because the two surveys are considered companion pieces.
“We usually get both products and then we can consider them in totality and say, ‘Are there unanswered questions? Are there things we would like more analysis on? Please provide that to us,’ ” Gardner said.
Smith, who obtained a copy of the draft from the contractor, said commissioners should get information simultaneously with staff.
Smith and Rowland also pressed Gardner and Aoude on timing of the overall plan, saying it urgently needs updating and to incorporate the latest science as soon as possible.
The plan was last revised in 2015 and is expected to have a six-year lifespan. Updating the plan was initially purposefully delayed so that it was staggered with the time-consuming process of setting three-year hunting season packages. More recently, work has been delayed after the new commissioners signaled they are interested in looking at broad policy topics like how, if and when predators should be hunted and how much data needs to be collected to justify hunting seasons. Making room for that debate led agency officials to propose the two-pronged approach, a departure from the way previous revisions have been conducted.
“We are really behind on what we told the public we were going to do on updating the game management plan and updating the science,” Smith said.
Rowland, appointed earlier this year by Gov. Jay Inslee, said she was “very surprised” to learn the plan had not yet been updated.
“I am very concerned having us, at this point, in charge of regulating the taking of animals with not-current science or population information or enough monitoring,” she said.
Gardner said biologists routinely keep up with new science and literature and that the plan is intended to have a long shelf life.
“It’s very much a living document,” he said.
Thorburn and commissioner Jim Anderson worked to pull back from the tangential discussion and instead decide if the committee agreed with the two-pronged approach proposed by the department.
Thorburn said the discussion, which she felt implied Smith and Rowland did not trust the information from the department, must be frustrating for the professional game managers.
“I’m hearing we are sort of to behave like staff and not trust our staff to carry out their responsibilities,” she said.
Agency Director Kelly Susewind agreed.
“This is frustrating and embarrassing to me that we are having this kind of conversation on a public call,” he said, adding there was simple miscommunication about sharing of the survey. “I think it’s time to move on. I disagree the commission should get draft documents at the same time as staff. We can do that. We have multiple programs, multiple things going on. Our staff are overwhelmed and there are hundreds of them. I don’t quite know how we would expect the commission to stay up on all those as well.”
In an interview following the meeting, Thorburn said the commission, which has been remade over the last two years with the appointment of four new members, including Smith and Rowland, is struggling to determine what its roles and responsibilities are versus those of the department. She believes some commissioners have an anti-hunting outlook and are attempting to clog the process.
“They don’t want to admit their decisions are based on their own advocacy biases, so they have the tactic of paralyzing the staff effort, demanding impossible work loads of them and, when they come back (with products), saying, ‘That isn’t what we asked for.’ ”
Rowland and Smith did not respond to requests for comments.
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