By Samantha Bruegger
I write on behalf of 10 organizations that advocate for Washington’s wildlife and wild fish. Our organizations are diverse in size and scope, areas of focus and expertise, and philosophy. Yet we are united behind efforts to reform the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and for that purpose we participate in a loose coalition of about 50 local, state, and national organizations.
Because our philosophies toward fish and wildlife management differ, our reform priorities are not rooted in any particular ideology. Rather, they follow fundamental tenets of good government.
First, the department must evolve to meet new challenges. To address the dual crises of climate change and global extinction, the agency must widen its focus from the management of individual species that it has designated as “game,” and take a broader approach to protecting and promoting healthy and resilient ecosystems.
The department’s request for $47.6 million over the next two years to address Washington’s biodiversity loss is a good first step. However, the department also needs to rethink the arbitrary division between “game” and “nongame” species, starting with replacing its game management plan with a broader management plan that would consider not only individual species, but the role each species plays in the broader ecosystem.
For example, the last game management plan, which expired last year, lumps beaver in with other “small game and furbearing animals,” for which it designates general hunting and trapping seasons. But we know beaver dams cool streams and create wetlands, increasing habitat that may help many bird, amphibian, mammal, and fish species survive climate change. For this reason, only 12% of Washingtonians support current rules that set a general beaver trapping season in addition to allowing landowners to kill beaver as nuisances.
Second, the department should be transparent and accountable – and follow the law. During a 2021 state audit, dozens of department biologists described how management ignores science and data when making policy decisions. This is consistent with our own observations that when addressing the Fish and Wildlife Commission, department management sometimes skews the presentation of science to support a predetermined conclusion, often ignoring or misstating important scientific contributions by its own staff. We advocate for an independent review process to ensure an impartial evaluation of science in advance of crucial decisions.
The state auditor’s report contained many other troubling revelations, including that 10% of employees had witnessed illegal or unethical behavior within the department over the past year; that 11% had experienced retaliation for reporting such behavior, challenging supervisors, or criticizing the agency; and that less than half of employees believed that department management was held accountable for inappropriate behavior. A recent poll showed 87% of Washingtonians were concerned by these findings, with well over half finding them “very concerning.” We agree and call for an in-depth investigation of these systemic problems.
Meanwhile, both the public and the commission struggle to obtain basic information about department operations that should be freely available. To obtain information, commissioners must often go through a formal process that can take weeks or months, while the department sometimes takes years to respond to public disclosure requests. Indeed, the department is so anxious to avoid scrutiny of some actions that it is willing to violate the law–for example, sidestepping the environmental review required by the State Environmental Policy Act before taking actions with potentially devastating ecological consequences. We call on the department to take its work out of the shadows and openly engage with both the Commission and the public.
Third, the department must represent all Washingtonians. The agency has made no secret of the fact that it views hunters and anglers as its main “customers” and often makes wildlife management decisions based on hunter demands. But Washington’s wildlife “belongs” to all Washingtonians, not just the 2.3% who hunt, and the department has an obligation to consider the values and interests of us all. This means actively soliciting the opinions of those who appreciate fish and wildlife in different ways and taking those viewpoints into account.
In December, three seats become open on the nine-member commission that supervises the department and enacts fish and wildlife regulations. These openings provide Gov. Jay Inslee with an important opportunity to move the department in the right direction. We urge Washingtonians who care about fish and wildlife to join us in asking Inslee to select forward-looking, broad-minded commissioners who will embrace transparency, prioritize innovative conservation strategies, and consider the perspectives of all Washingtonians.
Samantha Bruegger is the executive director of Washington Wildlife First. A long-time outdoorswoman who lives with her family in Brewster, Washington, she has spent her career advocating for wildlife and wild places. In addition to Washington Wildlife First, Bruegger is writing on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Endangered Species Coalition, The Humane Society of the United States, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Mountain Lion Foundation, Northwest Animal Rights Network, Predator Defense, The Conservation Angler, and Wild Fish Conservancy.