“At WDFW, every day is Earth Day.”
So reads the press release that popped into my in-box right before noon today.
I recoiled, nearly breathless in shock for a moment.
What, is the agency mockingly known by some as the Washington Department of No Fish & No Wildlife now the Washington Department of Forbes & Wolves?
The Department of Flowers & Woodpeckers?
Frogs & Wolverines?
Fescues & Warblers?
“But we’ve always been that Department,” defends Craig Bartlett, a spokesman in Olympia.
His was one of two names on the press release, so I’d given him a buzz immediately after receiving it.
The Earth Day statement comes straight from the top, director Phil Anderson.
“Our first priority,” Anderson says in the release, “is to conserve our state’s fish and wildlife. As new challenges to those resources emerge, we have a responsibility to address them. At WDFW, every day is Earth Day.”
Anderson’s been in the Department’s driver’s seat since December 2008 after the previous head, Jeff Koenings, resigned. And from the get-go, Bartlett says he has stressed conservation above all else.
Once upon a time, Washington’s fish and wildlife agencies sang a somewhat different tune.
Recalls one longtime Washington hook-and-bullet writer, a former Department of Game director noted in an old state fishing guide that the measure of their success was fish in the creel and birds in the bag.
“I used to beat up on the WDFW with that quote all the time back in the 1980s,” he remembers.
Times changed. Goals shifted.
“There definitely has been a change since the 1970s and 1980s – by necessity,” acknowledges Bartlett. “Environmental conditions have changed. The Department’s point is, that has to be recognized. Fish in frying pans – we want to keep that possible, but measured against environmental conditions.”
Thursday is, of course, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. WDFW notes that since that first one back in 1970, (just under two years before this editor was born), the state’s population has doubled to 6.8 million. Another 6.8 million will be here by the time the 80th anniversary rolls around.
We’re also nearing the 40th anniversary of the Federal Endangered Species Act. Since it was signed by President Nixon in 1973, stocks of Washington Chinook, coho and steelhead have been listed for protection – as have caribou, Columbian whitetails, turtles, whales, grizzlies, sea lions, pelicans, owls and a whole host of other critters. More are under consideration while a wider host of species fall under state protections.
Anderson says that rapid growth has “greatly accelerated the loss of natural habitat available for native fish and wildlife.”
Back in 1970, there was no North Cascades Highway, only one functioning dam on the Snake and no mile after mile after mile of giant white windmills harnessing the Columbia Gorge’s hurricane. A few years before then, my family hunted blacktail where today are thousands upon thousands of new homes on “Redmond Ridge” not far outside Seattle.
Anderson adds that “conserving natural habitat is unquestionably the greatest single challenge we face as resource managers.”
According to WDFW, a document that guides its strategic planning found that 70 percent of the state’s arid grasslands and estuarine wetlands are now gone as is 50 percent of the Eastside’s prairie habitats. Anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the land along our rivers and streams has changed, and 90 percent of the old-growth forests have been tipped over.
Yeah, and wildlife populations might be better off today, the fish-hunt writer retorts, if the old Departments of Game and Fisheries as well as WDFW had actually stood up to some of the development rather than just mitigated for it.
They do own or manage around 850,000 acres of the state and have wildlife easements with many farmers and ranchers. And Dan Budd and the folks in the real estate office are always buying land – especially in Okanogan County, home to some of the most desirable getaway property in Washington and one of the state’s largest deer herds and even sage grouse.
Where once upon a time, it was those muleys as well as elk and pheasants and salmon and steelhead in the bag that mattered most, these days, WDFW is casting a wider net, looking at landscape- or ecosystem-level planning, by budgetary necessity.
“We can’t afford to manage just one species at a time,” Anderson explains. “We need to plan for the greater good.”
Then there are invasive species to deal with, and not just that yellow-flowered shrub a former governor’s wife spotted in Scotland and thought would look lovely in the median of I-5. WDFW has to be on the alert for stuff like zebra and quagga mussels which they say “can take a heavy toll on native species and cause million of dollars in damage to public infrastructure.” Anderson says checkpoints have stopped 17 boats with mussels so far.
My shock at his use of the phrase “Every day is Earth Day at WDFW” wore off.
After all, it’s not like anglers and hunters don’t realize how important habitat and conserving wildlife is. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has alone conserved or enhanced something on the order of 5.7 million acres of habitat.
And last year, Washington outdoorsmen and others supported WDFW with 134,000 hours of free volunteer work. Valued at $15 an hour, “That’s 2 million dollars of work that wouldn’t have been done otherwise,” WDFW’S deputy director Joe Stohr in Olympia told me last summer. “There’s a huge passion for the resources.”
“Fisherman and hunters are among this nation’s first conservationists,” Bartlett acknowledges. “We rely on them to be our eyes and ears out there.”
He says the agency saw the occasion of Earth Day as a good time to show the general public that they do more than just set fishing and hunting regulations.
“It was an opportunity to remind people of our other missions,” he says.
As much as we might squirm about the Department we all watch so compulsively touting its greenness, well, we hunters and anglers have to admit that we’ve been green all along – it’s just that the shades on our sleeves are patterned to blend in with Washington’s woods and shrub-steppe.
And while Earth Day might once have been the province of hippies and tree-huggers, Anderson himself is a hunter and angler.
“Phil sees a symbiosis between hunting and fishing and conservation,” says Bartlett. “It’s not one at the expense of another. It’s trying to keep populations at a surplus that can be taken.”
In an increasingly tough place to do so.