As 2018 draws to a close, we’re taking our annual look back at some of the biggest fish and wildlife stories the Northwest saw during the past year.
While the fishing and hunting wasn’t all that much to write home about, boy did the critters and critter people ever make headlines!
If it wasn’t the plight of orcas and mountain caribou, it was the fangs of cougars and wolves that were in the news — along with the flight of mountain goats and pangs of grizzly bear restoration.
Then there were the changes at the helms, court battles, legislative battles — ah, nelly, we could go on and on, but we’ll save some of our thunder for parts II and III. Meanwhile, here are events we reported on from January through May.
The month’s biggest Northwest fishing and hunting news came in late January when WDFW’s Jim Unsworth submitted his resignation letter, ending a rocky three-year stint as the agency’s director.
His tenure was marked by intense allocation battles with Western Washington tribes over declining salmon returns, an ill-fated license fee increase bid, an embarrassing run-in with state senators during a legislative hearing, and overreaching promises.
Some things were beyond Unsworth’s control, but among the final straws was developing the proposed Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan without knowledge of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which hires and fires directors.
As Joe Stohr held down the fort in the interim, the citizen panel soon launched a search for someone who would lead the agency through a “transformative” period.
California sea lions reached their “optimal sustainable population,” federal biologists reported in the Journal of Wildlife Management. The 275,000 roaming up and down the West Coast and up several rivers were at their habitat’s carrying capacity.
ODFW released news that it had its first pack of wolves in the North Cascades, and later in the year said the duo in southern Wasco County had had a pair of pups.
Better late than never — Washington lawmakers finally passed the 2017 Capital Budget, with $74 million for WDFW hatcheries (if only they’d purchased a new backup generator for Minter Creek!), critical wildlife habitat and fish passage barrier removal projects. The infrastructure budget was held up during 2017’s legislative session due to disagreements over how to address the state Supreme Court’s Hirst Decision and its impacts on rural landowners.
And late in the month, several Washington agencies pinned the August 2017 Atlantic salmon netpen collapse on an “excessive buildup of mussels and other marine organisms” that Cooke Aquaculture failed to deal with, allowing the nets to act as de facto underwater sails. The state legislature went on to end farming the fish by 2025.
Also in Olympia, Rep. Joel Kretz’s (R-Wolf Country) wolf translocation bill was not only translocated out of committee but the state House as well. “This is not the be-all, end-all solution by any means,” Kretz said. “But my constituents need something.” It died in the Senate.
The number of Northwest rivers getting the Google Street View treatment grew thanks to an outfit called FishViews. Basically, they strap a 360-degree camera in the middle of a raft, jab another one underneath the water and push off, recording video and environmental data the whole way, and posting it for all to see.
Oregon fish and game protectors added an even easier way to report poachers — dialing *OSP from your smartphone puts you in touch with the state police’s dispatch center.
WDFW also began to get more high tech with beta testing for the launch of the new Fish Washington app. The free app is meant to make it easy to see the fishing regs for the water you’re on as well as spotlight angling opportunities across the Evergreen State and how to take advantage of them. By year-end the app had 2.8 and 2.2 ratings out of 5 on the Apple App Store and on Google Play, where it is available for free.
The Oregon Hunters Association announced that 2017 saw a record payout of $24,200 through the Turn In Poachers fund, likely due to increased reward amounts. Later in this year, ODFW preference points instead of cash were made available for those whose tips lead to arrests or citations.
We looked into exactly how much of our fishing and hunting fees go to DFWs and the answer was surprising — and it wasn’t. Essentially all of your license dollars go directly to state fish and wildlife management. And what’s more, that money brings in even more federal and state dollars because for agencies to receive Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson excise tax revenues, the states must provide a 1:3 match for PR and DJ. The federal acts also “require the states to not divert funding from license fees,” WDFW’s Nate Pamplin added.
Using state and federal grants, Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission signed off on buying the last parts of a 31-square-mile wildlife area known as Big Bend in northern Douglas County. The multi-phase, multi-year deal secures sharptail grouse habitat and hunting access in a largely privately owned portion of Eastern Washington. WDFW hopes to build a new boat launch there for Lake Rufus Woods anglers.
Near the end of February, Colville wildlife managers reported that for the first time since a hunt opened in 2012, the wolf quota of three animals had been met on their sprawling North-central Washington reservation. Later in the year, the tribal Business Council would vote 9-1 to eliminate the quota in favor of an “unlimited” annual harvest.
And on the month’s last day, news broke that a WDFW IT staffer for Region 5 offices had been fired for allegedly stealing nearly $80,000 worth of fuel using his and other state staffers’ gas cards and pin numbers. According to fish and wildlife officers’ reports, Robert “Bob” D. Woodard used them to fill up his diesel pickup, his wife’s Honda, his old fishing boat, as well as his gas cans over a period of eight years.
The smelt run was so poor that for the first time in half a decade, there wasn’t even a chance to try to dipnet them on the Cowlitz River through the population monitoring fishery that federal overseers have allowed the state to hold on the ESA-listed stock. It followed on a 2017 opener that was, in the words of one observer, actually more about paddling the river along than dipping smelt.
In Washington’s opposite corner, wildlife biologists were “gobsmacked” at the size of a cougar they captured — a 197-pound, 9-year-old male mountain lion. It was tracked down, darted and collared for a research project studying how predators and prey, as well as wolves and lions, interact across the game-rich northern tier of the eastern half of the state. Northwest cougars would go on to be a big news story as the year wore on.
The National Marine Fisheries Service reported that the North Pacific was recovering from The Blob — the return of “friendly faces,” coldwater copepods, got them excited later in the year — but that it would take awhile for salmon to benefit from the demise of the giant pool of warm water that began to form in 2014 and altered the food web. The poor rearing conditions for young Columbia Chinook and coho that entered the ocean in 2016 and 2017, respectively, led to low returns this past summer and fall, but there is hope at least for the latter species as the spring 2018 survey found well above average numbers of juvenile silvers at sea.
Wayne Kruse, the last regular hook-and-bullet writer for a large newspaper in the Puget Sound region, announced it was time to “hang up my hoochie.” He enjoyed a long career towards the end of the era when sharing news about where the fish were biting, clams being dug and ducks flocking to were staples in Thursday sports sections of dailies.
Greg Schirato, a former WDFW wildlife manager, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree rape of a coworker, as well as 34 months for burglary in the first degree. Later in the year, his victim, Ann Larson, would come forward to accuse Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island) of sexual harassment and creating a hostile workplace following a consensual relationship they’d had a decade ago.
In March, WDFW reported that its wolf population grew for a ninth straight year, while in April ODFW said its numbers were also up 11 percent over the previous year, which led an actual Oregon wolf to heckle the wolfies who had been fretting the Beaver State’s growth had “stalled” and that it was “stagnant.”
In what was the kickoff of a year-long focus on helping out starving southern resident killer whales, Governor Jay Inslee issued an executive order that called for increased hatchery production of Chinook and formed a task force to come up with other ways to increase SRKW numbers. At that point there were 76 members of J, K and L Pods, but that would dip to 74 with the heart-wrenching loss of one calf that was carried by its mother for two and a half weeks, and the death of another young ailing orca, despite efforts to feed it Chinook. Lack of salmon, along with pollution and vessel disturbance were identified as major causes for their low numbers. Later in the year the task force would make a set of recommendations that now must be funded and see new laws implemented by lawmakers.
A footloose Oregon cougar discovered there was no room at the inn when it wandered into a room under construction at a hotel in The Dalles. With the big cat’s unusual behavior to come so far into the city it was deemed a “public safety risk” and put down, the sixth to that point in 2018.
A pair of relatively unlikely Washington fish and wildlife commissioners — at least according to conventional wisdom — said they wanted to know whether WDFW’s 2011 wolf management plan was actually working in a key area and if it could be tweaked. The effort was led by Jay Kehne, the Conservation Northwest staffer based in Omak, and Kim Thorburn, the Spokane birder, and later in the year WDFW began developing a timeline for coming up with a “long term wolf plan” for post state delisting management.
From the perspective of late December, federally restoring grizzly bears to the North Cascades seems a lot less likely than it did on March 23 when Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke told reporters gathered in Sedro-Woolley that “the winds are favorable” for the longterm effort. The embattled former Montana Congressman’s recent resignation from the post seems to have stilled the winds, for the time being.
Also in the North Cascades, federal fishery overseers were said to be “wrapped up in paperwork, ass-covering, scary numbers and veiled lawsuit threats” over whether they would allow the state to open the first catch-and-release opener for wild steelhead in the Skagit and Sauk Rivers since 2009. Public comment had wrapped up months before and the delay in approving a season, not to mention low level of state funding, ultimately narrowed the window of opportunity to just 12 days in April — but oh was it glorious to get back on the river again. A three-month 2019 fishery is out for NMFS review.
In an extraordinary moment during the annual North of Falcon salmon-season-setting process, tribal and state fishermen spoke together on the importance of habitat and working on key issues affecting Washington Chinook, coho and other stocks. Two longtime sportfishing observers called it “historic” and “unprecedented,” while Ron Garner, president of Puget Sound Anglers, who in a very rare honor would later in the year attend a NWIFC meeting, said that if all fishermen worked cohesively, we could “move mountains.” The history of acrimony between the groups was referenced by Lummi Nation’s G.I. James, who said, “It’s a bit weird. It’s the first time I’ve been with a bunch of (sport) fishermen and haven’t heard, ‘Why are the nets all the way across the river?’” Expect more along these lines in the new year.
Word that a second northern pike had been caught in Lake Washington but was released led yours truly to ask anglers who catch any of the unwanted nonnative species illegally introduced by bucket biologists to “Slash its gills, slit its belly, hack it in half, singe the carcass over high heat,” as well as offer a $50 reward. That caught the attention of KING 5’s Alison Morrow who, later in the year, put me on camera to talk about the problems with pike after a single female was caught within 10 miles of Grand Coulee Dam and roughly 40 miles from the Columbia’s anadromous zone. While hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on salmon and steelhead restoration weren’t at stake at Idaho’s Lake Cascade, IDFG said it was still “disheartening” when a walleye was caught there, forcing them to pull resources from elsewhere to check for more at the trophy perch fishery.
Fishing and hunting funnyman Patrick McManus passed away in early April at 84 years old. A true Northwest gem, McManus wrote for national magazines, and his works were compiled into beloved books such as A Fine and Pleasant Misery, They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They, Never Sniff a Gift Fish, and The Grasshopper Trap. Over his lifetime, McManus sold more than 5 million copies of those and a fictional series, and along with a Distinguished Faculty Award from Eastern Washington University, where he taught, in 1986 he won the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s highest honor, the Excellence in Craft award.
An intensive late winter survey found only three members of an international mountain caribou herd that haunts the Washington-Idaho-British Columbia border — a 75-percent decline since 2017. What’s more, all three were cows and none were pregnant. Later in the year Canadian officials announced a desperate plan to capture the last two members of the South Selkirk Herd — the third was killed by a cougar — and another small band of southern caribou and put them in a pen near Revelstoke, 100 miles north of the border. Unless it works and a bolstered herd is returned to the region, it may mean that the two caribou spotted separately in fall in Northwest Montana are the last wild ones to visit the Lower 48.
With $172,000 from Washington’s legislature, Dr. Samuel Wasser and his dung-detection dogs were a go for sniffing out wolf doots in the South Cascades, where the number of public reports has grown but no packs let alone breeding pairs are known to exist. Last week, the University of Washington researcher said DNA sequencing results should be available by late winter.
Also in the South Cascades, the first case of elk hoof disease was found east of the crest, near Trout Lake, and that led WDFW to initiate the first euthanizations to control its spread. The agency’s coordinator for the problem, Kyle Garrison, says that 12 elk have so far been lethally removed through a combination of state staff and landowner efforts and special damage hunt permits, and that surveillance and training continues. Hoof samples were sent to Washington State University and Dr. Margaret Wild, who in June was chosen to lead the state’s research into what’s causing the “polymicrobial, multifactorial disease” to strike wapiti. Funding came from a 2017 bill passed by the legislature.
Early Washington actions to help out orcas included a “difficult request” from WDFW that anglers and boaters avoid a fishy strip along the west side of San Juan Island, a key foraging area the marine mammals targeting Fraser River-bound Chinook. The voluntary no-go zone was panned by some in the fishing community, including Kevin Klein who called it a “feel-good ‘win’” for the species’ enthusiasts. Eventually another idea came out of the governor’s task force — a moving no-go bubble around the pods. As for Canadian efforts to help out orcas, fishing was closed seasonally in portions of the BC side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and San Juan Islands.
Speaking of the islands, just offshore of Anacortes, the jump-off point to the San Juans, crews from the Northwest Straits Initiative Derelict Fishing Gear Removal Project located 614 lost crab pots strewn across the bottom, some still fishing with dead Dungies attracting still more. “It’s probably about the highest density we’ve seen,” a rep told a KOMO reporter. The pots were being collected and while crab numbers were still relatively good in the North Sound, it’s a far, far different story at the other end of the Whulge. Areas 11 and 13 were shut down for harvesting Dungeness and even red rocks after the former’s numbers crashed due to excessive harvest, poor water conditions, and the distance larva must ride currents to here from primary breeding areas. State managers say they want to try and rebuild the populations.
What should have been an Idaho wildlife success story was derailed in federal court by a lawsuit. The Fish and Game Commission approved for the first time a grizzly bear hunt, with one tag on offer for the southeastern corner of the state, where Ursus horriblis has been recovered since the first years of this millennium and was delisted in 2017. But later in the year and spurred by the Humane Society of the United States, a U.S. District Court judge in Missoula effectively postponed the season in Idaho as well as Wyoming for the time being.
Washington State University and Rob Wielgus reached a $300,000 settlement for the professor to resign and leave as part of a deal in which neither party admitted wrongdoing following an academic freedom lawsuit. Wielgus once was a darling of wolf advocates but began to fall out of favor with some former allies, especially so after a summer 2016 claim he made led to a stunning rebuke from WSU.
Southwest Washington poaching suspects and others were hit with new charges in Oregon after county prosecutors in The Dalles filed 122 wildlife misdemeanors, including a combined 87 against the two men — Erik C. Martin and William J. Haynes — whose phones led game wardens in Oregon and Washington to discover a shocking amount of alleged illegal killing of wintering bucks for their antlers, as well as unlawfully chasing bear and bobcats with dogs. Cases in both states are still working their way through the court system.
The first of two fatal cougar attacks in the Northwest in 2018 occurred near North Bend, Washington, when an otherwise healthy lion went after a pair of bicyclists who successfully initially fended it off, but then came back and had Isaac Sederbaum’s head in its jaws before Sonja J. “SJ” Brooks attempted to flee but was run down and killed. The cougar was immediately tracked down and lethally removed, but it took longer to locate the one that killed Oregon hiker Diana Bober, who disappeared in late summer near Mt. Hood. A network of trail cams put up around the trail where her body was found turned up another otherwise healthy cougar and it was tracked down with the help of dogs and killed.
And finally, two weeks after a Thurston County judge dismissed one lawsuit against WDFW, over wolves, the Center for Biological Diversity was right back in superior court with another, this one concerning the removal of black bears damaging valuable private timber. The state agency ultimately had to temporarily halt issuing new depredation permits using dogs, bait and other methods banned by voters.
In the next installment, we tackle notable Northwest fish and wildlife events that occurred in June, July, August and September.