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State wildlife managers look beyond ‘hook and bullet’ species

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State wildlife managers look beyond ‘hook and bullet’ species

May 31, 2023 | 10:15 pm ET
By Alex Brown
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State wildlife managers look beyond ‘hook and bullet’ species
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Only one population of northern leopard frogs remains in Washington state, and it’s threatened by water fluctuations due to irrigation. Wildlife officials want to translocate the frog and establish new populations. State lawmakers recently approved tens of millions of dollars to support wildlife managers’ plans to help the frogs and hundreds of other species. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

SEATTLE — The Cascade red fox, which lives high in the mountains of Washington state, is struggling to survive. State wildlife managers want to send researchers into the field to find out why.

They’re also aiming to vaccinate pygmy rabbits against a deadly virus, restore habitat to support the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and establish new populations of the dwindling northern leopard frog.

They hatched those plans nearly a decade ago, but never had the money to carry them out. Like most state wildlife agencies, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has historically gotten much of its revenue from hunting and fishing license sales, as well as from excise taxes on the sale of guns and fishing tackle. Consequently, it has mostly focused on managing animals like elk and trout.

That’s about to change.

Washington lawmakers recently approved tens of millions of dollars for wildlife managers to carry out their plans to help foxes, frogs, butterflies and hundreds of other species. It might be the most significant investment a state legislature has ever made to move wildlife management beyond “hook and bullet” species.

Along with the conservation funding, legislators mandated a broad review of the structure and mission of the agency. That review might point the way to a radically new approach to state wildlife protection — in Washington and around the country.

“Most state wildlife agencies have followed the North American model for wildlife for a century or more,” said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a Democrat who championed the measure. “It’s worth looking — is there a better model?”

‘An antiquated system’

Hunters and anglers have long taken fierce pride in the North American model of wildlife conservation and its early architects, including Theodore Roosevelt. Developed in the 19th century, as many species neared extinction, it established wildlife as a public trust, setting regulations to ensure sustainable populations and drawing conservation funding from the contributions of hunters and anglers.

Wildlife advocates acknowledge that the desire to preserve hunting and fishing opportunities staved off the wanton destruction of animals. But they argue that it’s time to view wildlife for its ecological importance, beyond just the “resource” species that are managed for maximum harvest.

“I used to joke that we ought to be part of the Agriculture Department,” said Fred Koontz, a former member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. “What we do is produce animals for harvest, we plant pheasants and fish, we’re producing crops.”

Koontz resigned from the commission in 2021, calling it a “politicized quagmire.” He’s among the advocates calling for Washington to change the governance of its wildlife agency. Unlike most state agencies, which are managed by professional directors, wildlife departments are largely guided by volunteer citizen commissions, often appointed by the governor.

Do we kill cougars because they’re killing elk that hunters want to hunt?

– Barbara Baker, Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission

Critics say that commission seats are often given out as political favors and overrepresented by hunting, fishing and agriculture interests, resulting in panels that lack scientific expertise and frequently fall into dysfunction. Volunteer commissioners, they say, are often heavily swayed by the vocal hunting and fishing advocates who show up at their policy meetings.

“Is this how we want to safeguard our wildlife in the face of extinction and climate change?” asked Kevin Bixby, co-executive director of Wildlife for All, a national campaign to overhaul state wildlife agencies. “Leave it up to a group of volunteers who may or may not know what’s going on? It’s really an antiquated system that needs to be changed.”

Bixby and others believe wildlife agencies should be run by a director, a career professional, who serves in the governor’s cabinet.

Barbara Baker, who chairs the appointed wildlife commission in Washington, said the agency is transforming from a game management department into a broader conservation role. Even department critics say the panel has taken encouraging steps under her leadership. But as the agency expands its mission, she acknowledged there are legitimate disagreements over whether the volunteer panel is best suited to set its policies.

Regardless of the agency’s governance, she said, it will face thorny issues as it seeks to define its purpose.

“Do we kill cougars because they’re killing elk that hunters want to hunt?” she asked. “Do we understand that cougars eat meat and value their place in the ecosystem? Those are questions that are extremely volatile.”

‘The extinction crisis’

To take on a more expansive vision of wildlife management, state agencies will need more money than the hunting and fishing revenue that has long funded conservation work.

“Unlike for traditionally hunted or fished species, where there’s secure, stable funds, that funding source has been missing for non-game wildlife,” said Hannah Anderson, wildlife diversity division manager at Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The agency will receive an initial investment of $23 million over the next two years to support its struggling non-game species, with an ongoing annual commitment of $15 million. Lawmakers say they hope the funding will help the department expand its priorities.

“We need to move beyond fish and wildlife for the purpose of human harvesting,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat who championed the provision. “That work can continue, but we need to be dealing with the extinction crisis.”

Over the next two-year budget cycle, nearly half of the agency’s $718 million operating budget will be drawn from general taxpayer revenue, a much higher percentage than most other states. Leaders at the Department of Fish and Wildlife lobbied hard for the money, after years of waiting on a stalled congressional effort to provide federal funding for states’ wildlife work.

Koontz and others say the new money for at-risk species is a promising start, but they note that it still represents a fraction of the agency’s overall budget.

Claire Loebs Davis, president of Washington Wildlife First, a nonprofit seeking to transform wildlife management in the state, said she hopes that study will lead to legislation “to change the mechanics of the agency and make it more responsive.”

But many hunting and fishing advocates, while supportive of the overall funding boost, are concerned about the agency review provision.

“There are concerns about how it would impact hunting and fishing if they completely changed the department structure,” said Marie Neumiller, executive director of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, a conservation group that has challenged an agency proposal to curtail spring bear hunting.

“Restructuring it completely, that’s quite a task. In the meantime, would wildlife management suffer because of that effort?”

Recommendations from the agency review are due by next June. If the review leads to serious proposals to overhaul wildlife management, Washington is likely to draw attention — and plenty of backlash — from hunting and fishing groups across the country. Proponents of change say residents will still have plenty of opportunities to hunt and fish, but that it’s time for the state’s mission to expand.

“What is the paramount purpose of the government’s role in wildlife conservation?” said Koontz. “We’re still stuck on the idea that it’s about sustaining [human] use of the animals, and the priority has always been a very small subset of species that are recreationally and commercially important.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Stateline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Scott Greenberger for questions: [email protected]. Follow Stateline on Facebook and Twitter.