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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Upcoming vacancies on influential Washington fish and wildlife commission have opposing coalitions jockeying for influence

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)

Upcoming vacancies on an influential fish and wildlife commission have two opposing coalitions jockeying for influence over the appointments.

Three seats on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission are up for appointment Dec. 31. The commission, a nine-person governor-appointed body, has broad authority over WDFW, including hiring the agency director and setting rules and regulations .

The governor may reappoint current commissioners or appoint new ones to the six-year terms. Three commissioners must be from Eastern Washington, three from western Washington and three are considered at-large seats. On Nov. 19, Don McIsaac, announced his resignation, effective Dec. 31. Barbara Baker and Kim Thorburn, whose seats are also coming open at the end of the year, have both said they would like to continue to serve.

While commission members agree on many things, several high-profile debates have divided the volunteer body in recent years. Most recently, a decision to end spring bear hunting was made on a 5-4 vote and was, at points, acrimonious.

Thorburn, James Anderson, McIsaac and Molly Linville all supported the continuation of the hunt and have generally agreed with one another on other issues.

The spring bear hunt – which became an issue in 2021 – catalyzed hunter and anglers, said Dan Wilson, the Washington co-chair for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. This year, a variety of groups all generally advocating for wildlife and habitat management conforming to the tenets of the North American Model, formed the Washington Fish and Wildlife Conservation Partnership.

There are 15 organizations in that group, including Sportsmen’s Alliance, Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Northwest Steelheaders.

“It came out of the commission appointment and spring bear (hunt) and the sense that we need to be more organized if we’re going to be proactively engaged in these processes,” Wilson said.

One of that group’s first actions was to send a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee supporting the reappointment of Thorburn, who is considered pro-hunting and fishing by Wilson and others. In the letter the group called Thorburn a “staunch advocate for the North American Model of Conservation, the most successful wildlife management and recovery model in the world.” Wilson said they had other individuals they’d like to see appointed but did not provide those names, although he said those names have been shared with the governor’s office.

Thorburn does not hunt or fish.

On the other side of the issue sits an equally diverse group that is generally arguing that fish and wildlife management – under the North American Model – is too focused on game species and not up to the task of dealing with widespread biodiversity loss, an ever-growing human footprint and climate change. Those groups are headed by Washington Wildlife First and have formed the Washington Wildlife Coalition, which includes the Center for Biological Diversity, the Wild Fish Conservancy and the Humane Society of the United States.

Claire Loebs Davis, President of Washington Wildlife First, said that while a minority of the state’s population hunts, WDFW still largely caters to its interests.

“For far too long, hunters, anglers, and commercial special interests have controlled the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, and thus the state’s fish and wildlife management policies,” she said in an email.

Davis believes hunting and angling interests should be considered but not prioritized. At the end of the day, he said, the question is not whether new commissioners hunt or fish “but whether they understand that their responsibility to the Washington public is much broader than just to represent the interests of those constituencies.”

As part of that campaign, Washington Wildlife First commissioned and released a poll finding that the 16% of Washingtonians believe commission appointees should be hunters and anglers focused on protecting hunting and fishing, while 75% believe the governor appointees should reflect the values of all Washingtonians.

Wilson, the BHA co-chair, agrees the commission needs more diversity, although he points out that the commission structure precludes most people from serving. It’s an unpaid volunteer position requiring travel and extensive preparation for monthly meetings

“They are supposed to represent the entire state, but when you look at the commission you mostly see people of a single age demographic and a single ethnic background,” Wilson said. “While it’s great to have retired lawyers and scientist on there, it’s also important to have folks that don’t come from an exclusively academic or white-collar professional background.”

The structure and appointment process has been criticized in the past.

Last year, during one of the many votes on spring bear hunting, the commission tied 4-4 because Gov. Inslee had not filled two vacant seats despite state code stating he must do so within 60 days. Prior to that, hunting and angling groups protested when former commissioner Fred Koontz and current Commissioner Lorna Smith were appointed arguing those two appointments threw the commission out of balance and pushed it away from traditional hunting and fishing interests. In the past, the commission has had a representative from the commercial fishing industry.

Per state code, the “governor shall seek to maintain a balance reflecting all aspects of fish and wildlife, including representation recommended by organized groups representing sportfishers, commercial fishers, hunters, private landowners, and environmentalists.”

There is no “prescribed formal outreach or consultation process” for the vacant WDFW commission seats, said Jaime Smith, the executive director of communications for Gov. Inslee in an email. However, the governor’s office frequently receives recommendations or comments.

“We’ve received feedback from organizations representing commercial interests as well as organizations representing sport and recreational interests,” she said of the vacant WDFW commission seats.

The governor is looking for candidates who understand fish and wildlife issues, including the “increasing responsibilities facing the agency.”

“The governor is seeking applicants that are open minded, willing to seek compromise, have an even temperament and demeanor, and will demonstrate respect and professionalism to the other commissioners and the public,” Smith said.

Davis also has complaints about the commission structure and believes it’s fundamentally undemocratic, although for the time being her organization is focusing on changing the system from within. Overhauling the governance structure is a “longer-range goal,” she said.

Marie Neumiller, executive director of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, said prior to the last round of appointments her organization reached out to the governor’s office with their input. They never heard back. Neumiller submitted an application for this round (see sidebar).

“I would really like to see the governor’s office be open about the process and how they are taking people into consideration,” Neumiller said.