The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously named Joe Stohr as the acting director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife this morning.
Stohr, who has been deputy director at the state agency since 2007, takes over on Thursday, February 8, the day after current director Jim Unsworth leaves the position.
Over the years Stohr has fielded policy, legislative and budgetary questions from this magazine, and he’s also overseen risk management, capital projects and human resources.
“We know we are leaving the agency in very capable hands by placing Joe in charge,” Commission Chair Brad Smith said in a press release out in the afternoon. “His leadership and extensive experience will be very helpful as we begin the search for a new director.”
Prior to WDFW, Stohr worked for over 20 years with the Department of Ecology. Amy Windrope, the agency’s Region 4 Director, will step temporarily into his position.
A nationwide search is also being launched to find a permanent WDFW director.
While it’s likely that that person won’t be seated during this year’s North of Falcon salmon-season-setting negotiations with the tribes (which actually could be a good thing, says one source), whomever is chosen will be faced with the same highly complex and contentious Puget Sound fishery management issues that led to Unsworth’s resignation announcement in late January.
Essentially, the proposed and very unpopular with sport fishermen 10-year Chinook harvest management plan that came out in early December was the nail in the coffin for him.
Referencing a KING 5 interview, Puget Sound Anglers President Ron Garner said, “I’m getting a lot of praise and thanks, but we really got to praise the commission,” on 710 ESPN Seattle’s The Outdoor Line last Saturday. “They’re the ones that understood what happened and they got called on this to step up and do the right thing and they put a lot of pressure on the director. They’re the ones to thank; we just gave them a nudge.”
As Unsworth makes his way out the door, he gave an exit interview to outdoor writer Eric Barker of the Lewiston Tribune and which is out this morning.
He said he’d “enjoyed” his three years at WDFW’s helm, calling it “challenging,” especially on the fisheries front.
“We have some real difficult situations with anadromous fish and (Endangered Species Act) listings and conflicts with hatchery production and harvest allocations,” Unsworth told Barker. “Those are all big challenges, and certainly any time you do this kind of job you aren’t pleasing everyone and you are disappointing some people, and at some point it’s time to move on and give someone else a shot.”
Unsworth, who came from Idaho with a very deep background in wildlife management, urged people “to pay particular attention to (salmon) habitat issues and do what we can. That is the long-term fix.”
“We need to explore opportunities for hatcheries,” he also told Barker, “and produce as many fish as we can in some of these systems that are heavily impacted (by development) and do what we can for native fish.”
In the grand scheme, Washington’s wolf issues may be tame in comparison to Westside salmon problems — work with me here, 509ers, we’re talking like from the 100,000-foot-level — but Unsworth offered some guidance for when the state’s population of the furry fangers reach population benchmarks.
“I think you need to acknowledge the success states like Idaho and Montana have had with harvest management,” he told Barker. “Both of those states are excellent examples that you can reduce your livestock conflicts and other predation conflicts with hunting and still have abundant and widely distributed wolf populations. I think there are some great lessons to learn.”
In his Jan. 24 resignation letter to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Unsworth had recommended Stohr as interim director.
The last time a WDFW director exited in a similar manner, Dr. Jeff Koenings’ December 2009 resignation, it took nine and a half months before the commission chose a new permanent director, Phil Anderson. When Anderson announced in August 2014 that he’d be leaving at the end of the year, it took the citizen panel five months before choosing Unsworth.
Unsworth’s immediate plans are to take a breather, according to Barker, then continue with his passions, managing and conserving critters.