LEWISTON — Washington lawmakers are considering a pair of bills that could change the way the state’s fish and wildlife populations are managed.
The bills, which could significantly alter the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and its government commission, follow nearly a year of well-publicized political tussles between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commissioners. ‘State.
Senate Bill 5721 would place the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission under the authority of the state commissioner of public lands.
The bill would strip the Fish and Wildlife and State Parks Commissions of their policy-making powers and make them advisory boards instead.
Policy-making authority would be transferred to the Directors of Fish and Wildlife and State Parks.
Under current law, fish and wildlife commissioners are chosen by the governor. The nine commissioners, who serve six-year terms, hire a director for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and set policy for the agency, including establishing hunting and fishing seasons.
Changes would be made by amending the existing code, but this code retains language that the state shall preserve, protect, and sustain fish and wildlife populations and that opportunities for recreational hunting and fishing shall be maximized. Instead of entrusting this responsibility to the commission, it entrusts it to the department.
Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said the changes will make the agency more accountable since the director will report directly to the elected commissioner of public lands rather than an unelected commission appointed by the governor.
He also said he believes managing fish and wildlife, state parks, and state endowment lands under one authority would allow for more effective management.
“The combination of these agencies will streamline and improve the operation of our parks, timber management and natural resource enforcement,” Van De Wege said in a press release. “It will eliminate redundancy, increase accountability and improve service to the public.”
He said people recreating on state land often don’t know who has management power and what they need to access it.
“People don’t know which pass they need for which park, or which agency or organization is responsible for which land,” Van De Wege said. “Putting all natural resource agencies under one organization will result in a network of public services that everyone can understand and use much more easily.
Lands managed by the three agencies are accessible through the state’s Discover Pass, and those who purchase hunting and fishing licenses can access lands managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife even if they don’t have a license. DiscoverPass.
Van De Wege did not respond to an interview request, but his staff provided background information about the bill and its approach.
A second bill would take a more deliberate approach. Instead of calling for changes to the governance structure of the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the department, House Bill 2027 would convene a task force to study possible changes. The task force would also consider changing the mandates of the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Department. The bill is sponsored by Representatives Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle; Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles; and Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim.
In an interview with the Tribune, Fitzgibbon referenced the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s internal political disputes as one reason to consider possible changes to the governance structure.
“The Fish and Wildlife Commission has been pretty dysfunctional lately. They get into really intense interpersonal fights over every contentious issue that comes up,” he said.
“For an agency that’s so important to the state’s economy, to the state’s ecology, and to the state’s culture, we just need an agency that works better.”
Last fall, the commissioners clashed over the spring bear hunting season and the 2022 season was cut short when the commissioners came to an impasse over what was supposed to be a debate over the permit levels, but ended up being a referendum on whether hunting was ethical and biologically acceptable.
Agency biologists told commissioners that the state’s black bear population was healthy and would not be threatened by the permitting season alone. Last week, the commission voted to restart a rule-making process that could revive the hunt.
This week, Governor Jay Inslee named three new members to the commission — two to fill vacant seats and one to replace commission chairman Larry Carpenter, whose term expired in 2020.
Commissioners also clashed over a monitoring project showing that the Blue Mountain elk herd is being hit hard by mountain lion predation. Some commissioners have said they are willing to consider increasing cougar hunting licenses if the department recommends it. Others said the hunt should be reduced instead and that the department’s elk population goal is too high.
Fitzgibbon said he has been contacted by voters opposed to bear and mountain lion hunting and is concerned about “intense disputes between commercial and recreational fishers”.
He has no predetermined idea of what needs to change and said Inslee’s appointment of three new commissioners earlier this week could improve the functioning of the commission. But he thinks it’s appropriate for the legislature to explore changes that will help the commission and the fish and wildlife department do their jobs better.
“I’m not trying to tip the scales in favor of any particular side,” he said. “I just want them to be able to make decisions, stick to their decisions, stand up for their decisions, and establish a strong agency culture.”