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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Wildlife conference in Spokane receives flak over inclusion of ‘animal extremists’ groups

Dusk sets in as Corinne Holmes, center, follows her father Josh Holmes, right and mentor Grant Samsil, left, with the First Hunt Foundation as they head back to the truck after her first evening sit while hunting for turkeys during a spring turkey camp for new hunters on Friday, Apr 22, 2022, near Colville, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Dusk sets in as Corinne Holmes, center, follows her father Josh Holmes, right and mentor Grant Samsil, left, with the First Hunt Foundation as they head back to the truck after her first evening sit while hunting for turkeys during a spring turkey camp for new hunters on Friday, Apr 22, 2022, near Colville, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

A well-respected wildlife conference is getting flak from some in the hunting community following inclusion of two advocacy groups focused on reforming state wildlife management.

“All are welcome,” Ed Arnett the CEO of the Wildlife Society said in a voicemail shared with The Spokesman-Review.

Conference organizers notified law enforcement and conference security while simultaneously reminding attendees to adhere to the organization’s guidelines for professional behavior. Due to the size of the annual conference it’s “standard procedure” to do so. There was no evidence of a specific threat, he said in an email.

He said the Wildlife Society has been in contact with the Spokane Police Department and security for the convention center to make sure that “everybody is safe at our conference.”

“I’m not expecting any shenanigans, but I believe we’re prepared for it,” he said.

Most of the weeklong conference schedule reads like a syllabus for a master’s level course in ecology. For example: “Harnessing data ranging from landscapes to individuals to advance conservation and wildlife ecology,” or “Biometrics and Population Monitoring III.”

Two events, however, have drawn the ire of hunting advocacy groups. On Monday night, Washington Wildlife First – an organization dedicated to reforming the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife – will host a meet-and-greet and show an animated film based on a poem written by the late Spokane-based wolf advocate Hanke Seipp.

Then on Thursday, Wildlife For All – a national organization also dedicated to reforming state wildlife management – is hosting a panel discussion titled “Transforming State Wildlife Management to Be More Ecologically Focused, Democratic, and Compassionate.”

“This session will explore the proposition that the current system of state wildlife management in the U.S. is out of alignment with modern ecological understanding, public attitudes, public trust principles and norms of democratic governance, and that systemic problems hinder states from meeting the challenge of protecting wildlife today,” states the panel description.

The controversy started when Sportsmen’s Alliance wrote an article in late October titled “Animal Extremists Allowed Seat at Scientific Conference.” The national organization focused on protecting hunting and fishing access criticized the inclusion of the two groups.

Both groups advocate for state wildlife agencies to focus more on species and habitat conservation and less on hunting and fishing opportunity. They broadly argue that climate change and biodiversity loss means the North American Model of Wildlife Management – which is largely credited for pulling numerous species from the brink of extinction in the 1900s and relies on hunting and fishing license sales to fund conservation work – is outdated. Neither organization says it is anti-hunting, although some in the hunting community disagree.

“The Wildlife Society, the organization responsible for ensuring science is used in wildlife management, is allowing an organization intent on destroying a century of scientific management to air their anti-hunting beliefs at the national conference to a roomful of biologists,” the Sportsmen’s Alliance article states. “I say belief system because Wildlife For All has no science to back up their positions or beliefs. Rather, they have theories … theories that contradict not just the North American model of Wildlife Management, but the … position statements of The Wildlife Society itself.”

The Wildlife Society, which has about 12,000 active members, is dedicated to sustaining “wildlife populations and habitats through science-based management and conservation.” In 2020, the society published a position paper on the animal rights philosophy calling it ”incompatible with science-based conservation and management of wildlife.” The society is generally well respected by hunters and anglers.

“Make no mistake, the Wildlife Society has very strong policies that strongly support hunting and trapping,” said Gordon Batcheller, a retired New York state biologist and the president of the Wildlife Society.

“This conference, for us, is all about professional growth and inclusiveness and the willingness to hear view points we may not agree with.”

Samantha Bruegger, the executive director of Washington Wildlife First, said the Sportsmen Alliance article alongside a string of other articles critical of her group caused the Wildlife Society to alert security at the Convention Center and the Spokane Police Department. The Wildlife Society also posted its guidelines for professional behavior prominently atop its webpage and emailed them to attendees.

Bruegger shared a voicemail from the CEO of the Wildlife Society with The Spokesman-Review Friday. Spokane police spokeswoman Julie Humphreys said it’s “pretty normal for us if we get large gatherings to be notified” although she did not know specifics about The Wildlife Society conference, Saturday.

Bruegger called the Sportsmen Alliance article “dangerous rhetoric” and urged inclusivity.

“I think we’re all stronger when we’re civil and able to have these kind of tough discussions in a safe way,” she said.

Dan Wilson, the Washington co-chair for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, believes organizations like Washington Wildlife First are focused more on social issues and less on science.

“It could be problematic that an organization that demotes science-based management to a secondary role in wildlife would be at a scientific conference,” he said, adding that the inclusion of those two groups “seems to undermine their values.”

In particular, he pointed to the decision to end spring bear hunting in Washington – a move that was championed by Washington Wildlife First, despite the fact that state biologist recommended the hunt continue and said it was ecologically defensible.

“That is really adopting a lot of social or cultural positions into a scientific management model,” he said.

That being said, Wilson noted that the conference can invite whomever they like and that he still “has a lot of respect” for the Wildlife Society.

Washington Department of Fish Wildlife Commissioner Kim Thorburn, of Eastern Washington, is a frequent and vocal critic of the views espoused by both Washington Wildlife First and Wildlife for All calling them “animal rights ideologues.” She wrote to Wildlife Society organizers airing her concerns. She said organizers were unaware of the Washington group’s efforts to undermine state management prior to selling them booth space.

Still, Thorburn defended the groups’ presence.

“My position is that they shouldn’t be prohibited from being there, especially since I’ve learned that the society does not currently have procedures about vetting conference applicants with political positions that are harmful to wildlife conservation and management,” she said in an email. “I do hope, and this was the ask in my letter, that the society makes it very clear that, as the national professional association of wildlife biologists and managers, these folks represent an ideology that is antithetical to their profession.”

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