If you were nervous to hear that some guy from the state Department of Ecology was taking the reins at WDFW – guilty as charged – you can breathe a bit easier.
Over the course of a 30-minute interview yesterday, I came away with the impression that Kelly Susewind has done a little fishing and hunting in Washington in his time and will likely give us and our causes a fair shake.
“Basically, my life was hunting and fishing, and I tried to fit in everything else around them,” recalls the Aberdeen native about his younger days.
He took his share of upland and migratory birds then, but says his favorite game to hunt now is the big kind.
“Elk – I just love chasing elk,” he says.
A stint in Alaska put Dall sheep on his bucket list, while five or six years ago, a premo late-season Alta Game Management Unit mule deer permit taught him he didn’t always have to shoot the first big buck he saw.
“I saw four-points every day. I had never seen one without shooting it,” Susewind says.
And I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I now know a collector who might be willing to make a deal for your Remington Model 31 …
On the fishing front, Grays Harbor, the Olympic Peninsula and Washington Coast provided plenty of opportunity.
“I’ve really enjoyed Westport, but also the rivers, the fall runs of salmon,” Susewind says.
And while last Saturday he told The Outdoor Line on Seattle’s 710 ESPN that he’s “drifted away” from fishing over the years, he says he wants to get back into it.
AFTER GRADUATING FROM HIS LOCAL COMMUNITY COLLEGE with an associate’s degree, Susewind (pronounced SOOS-uh-wind) went to Washington State University where he earned a bachelor’s in geological engineering.
He landed at the Department of Ecology in 1990, working his way through a variety of roles, most recently as the director of administrative services and environmental policy.
At 57, he decided it was time for a career change, one that might be a better fit with his interest in natural resource management – a “passion” fueled by all that time spent afield.
But also one that would put him on one of the hottest of hot seats in the state: The director’s chair at the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Everybody’s Pissed At You All The Damn Time For Something Or Other.
Which begs the question, Why in the hell would you even want the job, Kelly?!?!
“I’m still working on that answer. No, not really,” Susewind jokes. “I did pause, ‘Why would you jump into that blender?’”
There’s been a little bit of everything in WDFW’s KitchenAid of late, from hearty cupfuls of wolf management and court battles over furry fangers, to the everyday salt and pepper of salmon, steelhead and big game issues, to dashes of recent agency missteps and sex scandals.
Then there are looming budget battles in the legislature and questions about how the agency steadies its financial footing for the future.
“I see these challenges as something I want to be involved with,” says Susewind, who will be paid $165,000 a year to deal with them.
WHEN FORMER HONCHO JIM UNSWORTH LEFT UNDER pressure earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Commission put out a help wanted ad that said WDFW’s next director would lead the agency through a “transformative” period.
Ultimately, the nine-member citizen oversight panel unanimously chose Susewind, a self-described “wildcard” among a slate of candidates who had decades of experience specific to the field.
But perhaps they wanted someone who could see the big picture a little better.
“We’re a small state with 7 million people and a couple million more coming. There’s a budget hole to patch. We also need to look a decade or two down the road,” Susewind says.
He feels – as do a number of senior agency staffers and outside advisers – that hunters and anglers have carried too much of the funding burden since the Great Recession 10 years ago, when WDFW’s General Fund-State ration got cut by almost half.
It has yet to be fully restored, but Susewind et al are hoping to reestablish a better balance between license revenue and general tax dollars beginning with the 2019-21 budget.
“I see our outdoors as defining us as a state,” he says. “We’re at a critical point now – it could go either way.”
Susewind says he wants WDFW to be “more relevant to Washingtonians.”
“Anglers and hunters get it. That’s 1 million people. But there are 6 million more out there. We’ve really got to reach those people. If we could get the state as excited about the resources as they are about the Seahawks, it would be a better place,” he says.
He wants to strengthen existing partnership, and vows to be “pretty engaged” with stakeholders, tribes and others.
Commissioners lauded Susewind for meeting in his first days on the job with livestock producers over a previously proposed wolf collar data sharing plan change that would have switched things up halfway through the grazing season, but was ultimately put on pause by the citizen panel.
WDFW spokesman Bruce Botka says there’s been an “obvious sense of encouragement around headquarters” with the arrival of the new director.
And after talking with him, you can’t help but get a little excited about Susewind and his program … before the enormity of the job sobers you up again.
SUSEWIND ACKNOWLEDGES THAT HE NEEDS TO get up to speed fast on one of if not WDFW’s most important roles – fisheries management.
With Aug. 1 his first day, he will have a longer learning curve than his predecessor, who was thrust into the always contentious North of Falcon salmon season-setting process almost immediately. That year saw outrage over the closure of a key fishery, and talks the following year dragged out more than a month longer than usual and cost us opportunity.
Expect Susewind to work more collaboratively with the tribes than that, if his quote in the Port Townsend Leader is any indication: “It does no good to fight with each other.”
As for that other subject that can make Washington sportsmen a little rabid – wolves – they’re “on the landscape to stay,” Susewind says, echoing WDFW’s company line over the years.
“The only way to make that work is have them compatible with other uses on the land,” he adds quickly.
He says the species has to be managed and that the agency is engaged with the lawsuit from out-of-state groups challenging its hard won lethal removal protocol.
“We really need to have a postdelisting plan put together,” he notes too.
That’s easier said than done, if a recent wall full of Post-it Notes outlining the process is any indication, but it’s also a start and one hunters will want to watch closely.
“In the meanwhile, we need to strive to meet recovery goals,” Susewind adds.
We’re there in the state’s northeast and southeast corners, but many more are required throughout the Cascades to hit the current benchmarks.
SUSEWIND IS THE SECOND WDFW DIRECTOR FROM the harbor. Phil Anderson hails from Westport and resigned at the end of 2014 on his own terms after five years in the position and two decades at the agency.
“I’m looking for this job to be my job going into retirement,” Susewind says. “I hope I’ll be here eight, ten years.”
That of course depends on whether the Fish and Wildlife Commission will keep him around that long.
And that depends on what he can accomplish towards improving the state’s fishing and hunting opportunities; safeguarding its fish, wildlife and habitat; strengthening WDFW’s budgetary position; and working with its host of stakeholders.
One thing’s for sure: Susewind has motivation to try hard.
“I’ve got a brand new grandson,” he says. “I want him to fish and hunt like I did.”