Washington’s management of fish and wildlife must be reformed

Even on Vashon, I suspect most of my neighbors, as I once did, assume the state has a progressive Department of Fish and Wildlife. It’s not true.

Washington Wildlife First will host “Conservation, Conversation & Cocktails” from 5 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 6 at the Vashon Center for the Arts, for islanders who wish to learn more.

When I started a legal practice focused on wildlife law in 2017, my first lawsuit was against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, challenging its killing of state-endangered wolves.

Despite following wildlife issues closely, at that time, I had heard relatively little about state management issues and generally assumed Washington must be doing a decent job.

I was shocked and appalled by what I discovered. Although entrusted with protecting and preserving fish and wildlife on behalf of all Washingtonians, I learned the Department is controlled by a small cadre of special interests and caters to the demands of hunters, who comprise less than 3% of the Washington population. I learned management frequently distorts or disregards science and data, ignores the values and interests of most Washingtonians, and far too often, violates the law.

Although I have since filed a dozen more suits against the Department, I soon realized these problems were too pervasive to be solved through legal action alone. For that reason, I joined with a small group of dedicated wildlife advocates to form Washington Wildlife First last year.

One of our nonprofit’s biggest challenges is to educate Washingtonians about why such reform is necessary. Even on Vashon, I suspect that most of my neighbors assume, as I did, that Washington has a progressive Department that aligns with the state values.

The reality is the opposite. Consider:

• The Department has killed 41 state-endangered wolves, including destroying five packs. Roughly 85% of these wolves were killed after conflicts with livestock on public forest land. In most cases, the Department killed wolves even when it knew livestock owners had done little or nothing to protect their cattle, and even when livestock owners had deliberately grazed cattle on top of core wolf areas like den sites. A recent poll commissioned by Washington Wildlife First revealed that in these circumstances, less than 20% of the Washington public supports killing wolves.

• Beavers are keystone species that bring enormous benefits to the ecosystem, including helping myriad other species to survive the impacts of climate change. In 2012, the Washington legislature recognized these benefits and approved a program to relocate “nuisance” beavers to improve habitat elsewhere. Yet the Department still allows roughly 2,000 beavers to be killed every year—many of which are trapped just for their fur. Unsurprisingly, only 12% of the Washington public supports this policy.

• In 2018, the Department launched an initiative to increase production at its salmon hatcheries by 50 million fish a year. Although this increase was purportedly to provide more prey for Southern Resident Killer Whales, there was no science to show it will help orcas. To the contrary, the Department ignored warnings from its own scientists that this increase could significantly harm the wild salmon population on which orcas depend. Even worse, it refused to subject the project to the environmental review required by the State Environmental Policy Act, to analyze the harm it might do to wild fish and orca populations.

• Over the past two years, the Fish and Wildlife Commission debated spring bear hunting, a practice that targets black bears right after they emerge from hibernation and often leads to the orphaning of nursing cubs. This hunt is legal in only eight other states and opposed by 80% of Washington voters, including 69% from hunting households, but has been staunchly supported by Department management. During one discussion, Department Director Kelly Susewind became visibly emotional while scolding Commissioners for believing that if they banned the hunt, bear hunters like him would still have sufficient “opportunity” to kill bears between August and November: “Don’t say my opportunity [to kill bears] in the fall replaces my opportunity in the spring. It does not. .…Don’t tell me that it is the same thing, and that if I kill a bear in the fall it is the same as if I kill a bear in the spring. It’s just not.”

Susewind’s insistence that his personal preference for killing bears in the spring rather than the fall should trump the values of the Washington public illustrates the enormity of the task that faces us. Yet we have already made remarkable progress. We helped place progressive Commissioners on the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, bringing us to the tipping point of real change. We led a successful campaign to end spring bear hunting, which culminated in a 5-4 vote to eliminate the hunt—the first time in recent memory that the Commission refused to rubber-stamp a management recommendation. And we have united a coalition of about 50 local, state, and national organizations to join us in advocating for reform.

But to achieve lasting change, we need to create greater awareness about the need for reform. For that reason, we plan to start hosting public information and discussion sessions—the first of which will be from 5 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 6, at the Vashon Arts Center. I hope many of you will join me there.

Visit www.wawildlifefirst.org to learn more about Washington Wildlife First. Registration is not required for our December 6 event, but it will help us if you let us know you are coming by visiting www.wawildonvashon.org.

Claire Loebs Davis is the managing partner of Animal & Earth Advocates and the board president for Washington Wildlife First. She has lived on Vashon with her family for the past 15 years.

Correction: In an earlier online version of this commentary, the author stated that in 2018, the Department of Fish and Wildlife launched an initiative to increase production at its salmon hatcheries by 50 million fish a year. The passage now states correctly that the initiative aimed to increase production by 50 million salmon per year.