MIRANDA WECKER. (TVW)

In Senate Committee Hearing, Wecker Calls Wolf Recovery Most Important Issue Facing WA FWC In Near Future

If the last time she was before the same state Senate committee she endured a “light sauteing,” Miranda Wecker left legislative quarters this afternoon slightly blanched, perhaps al dente.

During her confirmation hearing, the chairwoman of the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission provided answers on two of the most complex issues in managing the state’s critters and their fans today, the split between sport and commercial fishing, and wolves, and won praise from one senator for being able to see the citizen panel has many different viewpoints to balance.

It was Wecker’s second time before the Natural Resources and Parks Committee, which provides recommendations to the full Senate (but not always) on gubernatorial appointees (five fellow members have been confirmed). She has been on the commission since 2005, and in 2009 was here, a hearing which the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported on.

This go-around, Wecker was on the lukewarm seat before a handful of senators, answering their questions about Puget Sound, WDFW outreach, and what she saw as the most important issue in front of the citizen panel in the coming years.

The name of the lawmaker who posed that last one would be a familiar to Wecker. His signature was the first she would have seen at the bottom of a letter the commission received last spring directing it to consider an emergency rule allowing lethal removal of wolves attacking livestock and pets in the eastern third of the state without a permit from WDFW. She and the commission quickly approved the measure (which also freed up wolf work funding for the agency) and this week, Wecker answered Sen. Kirk Pearson that wolf recovery was that important issue, calling it “one of the most challenging I’ve ever had to face in my professional career.”

“It’s obvious department staff feel the same way,” she assured the senators.

She made sure to thank them for that funding deal.

MIRANDA WECKER. (TVW)

MIRANDA WECKER. (TVW)

In a follow-up question, Sen. Brian Dansel, a Northeast Washington Republican who last fall defeated fellow conservative John Smith who was key to the deal but still might otherwise have given Wecker a harder time on Canis lupus issues, asked if the wolf management plan was working.

After she noted that a poll found 70 percent of the state support their recolonization and that just slightly fewer also support managing their impacts on game, livestock and rural communities, Wecker said that she thought “we’re doing a good job.”

And noting that Washington’s wolves are now on a Northern Rockies-like recovery pace, she said that after they meet state goals, she would like to see them “managed as any predator or big game species.”

Dansel asked which she meant.

Wecker replied that they were one and the same — that the terms in WDFW’s lexicon were not exclusive to deer and elk, cougars and bears.

Pearson, who chairs the senate committee, reminded her of another hot wildlife topic, and one much closer to home for the Republican who represents the North Cascades – Skagit Valley elk — to which she also added the “confounding” problem of hoofrot in Southwest Washington elk.

Pearson agreed that he was hearing a lot about the problem too.

SEN. KIRK PEARSON. (TVW)

SEN. KIRK PEARSON. (TVW)

At the outset of the hearing, Pearson noted that the committee had received a “significant amount of input regarding your appointment.”

He said recreational fishermen were “very supportive,” and characterized commercial interests as having “concerns.”

“How do you balance the needs of both?” he asked.

Wecker said it was a particularly sensitive question where she lives in Pacific County, home to netters and a very active sport fishery (she describes herself as an angler as well as hiker, skier, three-time turkey hunter and married to a lifelong hunter).

She said that she believed that some of her and the commission’s views have been misinterpreted as anti-commercial.

“They are not,” Wecker said.

She said that the commission’s goal was to help wild stocks, target abundant hatchery salmon and steelhead, and move commercial fishing “into the future” by using more selective techniques.

Over the past few years, WDFW has been testing beach and purse seining gear in the Lower Columbia, and early last year, Wecker et al approved reforming the big river’s salmon fisheries to move gillnetters off the mainstem.

True, that represents a windfall for sport anglers’ coolers, but it also moves towards “cleaner,” more modern commercial fisheries that are sustainable over the longer haul.

Perhaps commercial anglers’ ire towards the commission that Wecker might have faced was otherwise tempered by last year’s appointment of Bob Kehoe of the Puget Sound Purse Seine Vessels Association. He had a similar hearing a couple weeks ago.

Sen. Marko Liass of Edmonds thanked the Fish and Wildlife Commission for expanded crabbing opportunities in Puget Sound and asked how Wecker balanced attention on the basin versus the Columbia and coast.

“Puget Sound is where some of the most serious challenges are,” she said, including its productivity for some stocks.

Recent research that we’ve written about in Northwest Sportsman (January 2014) suggests that just one in five wild steelhead smolts are surviving their trip to the ocean through our local saltwaters, and only one in eight hatchery steelhead smolts are.

She spoke to the need to sustain Puget Sound’s wild salmon runs while providing abundant opportunities to catch hatchery stocks in mark-selective fisheries.

And while acknowledging that comanagement with the tribes can give constituents “heartburn,” she said that WDFW needs the tribes’ help to come up with a mutually acceptable plan for Puget Sound Chinook that works for federal overseers.

“We place that high,” she said of its priority as the plan is updated and renegotiated.

Switching subjects, Liass, a Democrat who said he is the son and grandson of hunters, said that the “sensible science” behind hunting management decisions wasn’t trickling down to the state’s sportsmen, per se, and asked Wecker how that could be improved.

She pointed to an expanded WDFW public affairs office, which last year for the first time produced deer and elk opener preview press releases, the web and new media.

Wecker also said that in attempting to provide lots of opportunities, it ends up inflating the size of the hunting pamphlet.

After 21 1/2 minutes on the other side of the table from her usual seat at the head of the commission, Wecker was thanked for appearing and wished a “very nice day.”

In a phone call afterwards, Sen. Pearson said he thought that Wecker had answered the questions “very well,” but noted the “countless” emails and letters from sport and commercial fishermen which had poured in to his office. He said he would be considering making a recommendation on her appointment to the commission next week, but gave no firm timeline.