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Sports >  Outdoors

New poll suggests Washington wildlife management is ‘out of touch with the public,’ may have political implications

Nov. 10, 2022 Updated Fri., Nov. 11, 2022 at 7:59 p.m.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources, according to the agency’s webpage.  (WDFW)
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources, according to the agency’s webpage. (WDFW)

A majority of Washington voters believe state wildlife managers’ goal should be “preserving and protecting fish and wildlife,” according to poll commissioned by a nonprofit dedicated to reforming the state’s wildlife management agency.

That language was pulled directly from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s mission statement and was juxtaposed against the second part of the mission, which calls for the maximization of “hunting and fishing opportunities.” Twenty percent of those polled said that should be WDFW’s goal.

The department’s full mission statement is “to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.”

That finding – among others – shows that the “department is out of touch with the public,” said Samantha Bruegger the executive director of Washington Wildlife First. The nonprofit, founded in 2021, has been presenting the findings at the Wildlife Society’s annual conference in Spokane this week.

“I think our poll did a great job of showing that department policy has a massive gap between how the public values these species and how the department manages those species,” she said.

Opponents of Washington Wildlife First’s efforts to reform state management criticized how the questions were phrased, arguing that the phrasing led to predetermined answers or set up false dichotomies.

“I think my thoughts would be surmised that if you have an end-goal in mind it doesn’t matter how independent your polling organization is,” said Dan Wilson, the Washington co-chair for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “If you have leading questions, you’re still going to get answers that are favorable to your position.”

Wilson said that preserving and protecting the state’s wildlife is not incompatible with maximizing hunting opportunity, a core tenet of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling, a national polling company based in Raleigh, North Carolina, which “conducts surveys for politicians and political organizations, unions, consultants, nonprofits, and businesses.”

Between Oct. 17 and 18, pollsters surveyed 713 registered voters in Washington with 60% reached by text message and 40% by telephone. The survey’s margin of error is +/- 3.7%.

Claire Davis, an attorney and the president of Washington Wildlife First, said staff drafted the questions and sent them to the polling agency, which then lightly edited them.

“Our attempt was to be as fair as possible so you can read the questions and evaluate for yourself what the answers mean,” she said. “For some questions there is some information built into the question … that’s not unusual in polling.”

Pollsters also asked respondents if they “support or oppose the use of taxpayer money to recruit and reactivate more hunters,” a reference to a portion of WDFW’s recently published recreation plan part of which calls for new hunter recruitment. Of those polled, 56% opposed using taxpayer money for that effort and 27% supported doing so.

Pollsters also asked participants questions about a 2021 state audit finding, among other things, that 21% of WDFW employees reported being bullied at work in the past year while 30% reported witnessing bullying directed at others in the past year; 68% of respondents said they found that “very disturbing.”

Davis said she was “astonished” the audit hadn’t received more attention.

Respondents also had strong views on carnivore management with 80% opposing spring bear hunting. In households with active hunters, 69% opposed the spring bear hunt. That opposition was spread around the state with 81% opposing spring bear hunting in King County and to 77% in Eastern Washington.

The survey also found that 38% of Washingtonians support killing state-endangered wolves in response to predations on cattle; 25% supported killing wolves for preying on cattle grazing on state forest land and 22% supported killing wolves “when owners have not taken reasonable steps to protect livestock.

Julia Smith, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s wolf policy lead, said there were “no surprises” in the wolf responses and that the findings match WDFW’s current management.

“It’s a near even split between support and oppose lethal removal of wolves, with 20% unsure,” WDFW spokeswoman Staci Lehman said in an email. “We already do not kill wolves unless owners have taken reasonable steps to protect livestock.”

More broadly, Lehman said WDFW “understands that people’s values and attitudes vary.” She cited a WDFW survey conducted in 2021 showing 48% of Washingtonians approve of some lethal control of carnivores to protect deer, elk and moose populations in Washington, compared to 30% who oppose.

Davis agreed that in broad strokes the two polls complement each other. She argued, however, that the Washington Wildlife First poll asked more specific and concrete questions and sampled a broader range of Washingtonians; of those polled, 32% lived in King County, 15% in North Puget Sound, 16% in South Puget Sound, 17% in Eastern Washington, 10% in southwest Washington and 7% in the Olympic Peninsula, and 3% in central Washington.

“You don’t take everything based upon one poll,” she said. “You look at a variety of different polls. We are not saying our poll is the be all and end all.”

Political considerations

Aside from revealing what the general public thinks, the poll may also have political implications. Three seats on the nine-person commission charged with overseeing WDFW are open for appointment in December, including Eastern Washington Commissioner Kim Thorburn, a vocal critic of Washington Wildlife First and its reform mission. While Davis said the poll wasn’t intentionally timed to coincide with the reappointments, she hopes it influences the governor’s decisions.

“We did the poll when we could gather the resources to do the poll because polling is not inexpensive,” she said. “But we certainly believe that its very important for Gov. Inslee to take the results of the poll into consideration when we’re looking at the appointment of the next three commissioners.”

Thorburn, who headed the Spokane Regional Health District till 2006, said she has “a huge distrust of ‘science’ by special interest groups.” She cites the tobacco wars – in which tobacco companies published study after study defending smoking – as evidence for her distrust.

Methodology aside, she has a larger critique.

“I don’t believe good policy that mostly has to do with societal values is made by imposing majority values, especially when they completely lock out a minority culture,” she said in an email.

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