The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission chose Kelly Susewind, of the Department of Ecology, as the new WDFW director.
In a phone call immediately after the vote late this morning, Susewind told Commission Chair Brad Smith he was “very excited and very nervous.”
Susewind is something of an unknown and wildcard to Washington’s rank and file anglers and hunters, but the commission supported his appointment unanimously.
He has worked for the Department of Ecology for over two and a half decades, most recently as the director of administrative services and environmental policy.
According to a WDFW press release, he originally hails from the Grays Harbor area and went to Washington State University, where he earned a degree in geological engineering.
“I’m honored to have the opportunity to serve the people of Washington at an agency whose effectiveness is critical to our ability to conserve fish and wildlife resources while providing outdoor recreation and commercial opportunities throughout the state,” Susewind said in the release. “The public has high expectations for WDFW, and I’m excited about being in a position to deliver the results they deserve.”
Pat Pattillo, who retired a few years ago from the agency after a long career in salmon management and who continues to keep a close eye on fisheries as well as advocates for sport angling, was very positive about the choice and the relative speed at which the process had moved along.
“I believe Kelly has the abilities to lead the department and communicate effectively with the many partners WDFW needs to be successful. Leadership from the top of the agency has been missing over the last two years and while capable managers for fish, wildlife, enforcement and habitat kept the wheels from falling off, it has been an agency without a head,” Pattillo said.
He said that Susewind will know whom he needs to establish relations with — “the public, legislature, tribes and other management authorities.”
“It will take energy and, from what I’ve heard, he has that capability,” Pattillo said.
Rep. Brian Blake, the South Coast Democrat in charge of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee which sees many WDFW-related bills, said Susewind had his “full support.”
“He is a lifelong hunter and I expect that he will be a force for positive change at DFW,” he said.
Fellow hunter Commissioner Jay Kehne of Omak nominated “Candidate P,” Susewind, for the position and was seconded by Vice Chair Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon.
Susewind will oversee a staff of 1,800, land base of 1,400 square miles and harness a $437 million two-year budget to hold and conserve fisheries and hunting opportunities and provide scientific rationale for what it’s doing.
He also must deal with a potential $30 million budget shortfall in 2019-21 that could force the closure of the Omak and Naches trout hatcheries and other potential cuts unless the gap is filled by the legislature.
“He’s a good manager, great people skills and a real CEO type,” said Tom Nelson, co-host of a Seattle outdoors radio show on 710 ESPN.
Susewind’s soon-to-be old boss, DOE’s Maia Bellon, tweeted out her best wishes, “Congratulations, Kelly! Thank you for all the hard work and years of service at @ecologywa. We wish you all the best at @wdfw, and look forward to collaborating with you in your new role.”
When the Fish and Wildlife Commission put out its help wanted ad around four months ago, it said the next director would lead the agency through a “transformative” period.
“Obviously the Commission wants to take the department in an entirely new direction. Change is very difficult, and taking over WDFW is nearly as complex as taking over a federal resource agency, with many of the same challenges,” said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. “We welcome the new director and look forward to working with Mr. Susewind on conservation and recovery of our fisheries, growing participation in fishing and protecting the jobs in the sportfishing industry.”
Chair Smith said that “the appointment marks the beginning of a new era in the department’s history” and spoke highly of WDFW staff and what they could all accomplish together.
Susewind begins work Aug. 1 and will be paid an annual salary of $165,000.
Nineteen people applied for the position in the wake of Jim Unsworth’s resignation this past winter. That pool was cut to seven in April and then three last month.
One of the three, Joe Stohr, who has been acting director since Unsworth left, sat at the end of the long table as the members of the citizen panel made their choice known. He was consoled by Smith after the vote, and after Smith phoned Susewind, Smith publicly added, “Joe, you have all of our respect.”
There will be some who will be unhappy that, once again, a new director is coming from outside the agency.
Commissioner Jay Holzmiller of Anatone likened the panel’s last selection to “a kid getting cocky on a bike.”
“We got our knees and elbows skinned up,” he said before casting his support for Susewind.
One of the primary reasons for Unsworth’s departure was his handling of Puget Sound salmon fishing issues. Some hoped that the new director would come from this world.
“On the fish side, I don’t believe anyone thinks salmonid biology is (Susewind’s) strong suit but he’s a real quick study,” said Nelson, who added, “I think Susewind is a strong choice and I’m looking forward to working with him.”
But there were many issues that came to a head during Unsworth’s term, which also suffered from the bad luck of coinciding with sharply declining salmon runs due to the North Pacific’s “Blob,” the pool of warm water that has crushed several years of returns.
Mark Pidgeon said that the Hunters Heritage Council and Washingtonians for Wildlife Conservation were welcoming Susewind “with open arms.”
“We think that he will make an outstanding Director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. We realize that he is taking over a department facing many crises and he will have many difficult tasks facing him. Both our organizations look forward to working with him to build a better and brighter future for WDFW,” said Pidgeon.
Among Susewind’s immediate challenges will be that looming budget gap, and as a member of WDFW’s Budget Policy and Advisory Group helping the agency navigate those dangerous straits, Pidgeon advised the new top honcho to “open lines of communications, especially to the hunters and fishers.”
“These users have felt shut out. The best way to bring more money in the coffers is sell more licenses, talk with us and see what we want,” he said.
Pidgeon is also on WDFW’s Wolf Advisory Group.
“I want the new director to know he can call on me anytime.”
Wanda Clifford of the venerable Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, one of the state’s oldest sporting organizations, also extended that offer of help.
“We are very pleased with the hire of Kelly Susewind and look forward to working with with him. We would hope that Kelly will have a better understanding of the hunting community and the number of hunters that put time and funds into our statewide budget. We feel that in the past the thoughts, needs and suggestions from the hunting community have not been respected when in reality a large part of the department’s budget comes from the purchase of license and tags, and as a user group are often put on the bottom.”
With INWC based in Spokane, from where it puts on the annual Big Horn Show, and in the corner of the state where most of Washington’s wolves roam, you can bet that the predators were on Clifford’s mind as well.
“We also would like to see our new director work on the large wolf issue that we face here on the east side of the state,” she said, and wished Susewind good luck.
Editor’s note: My apologies for misspellings, etc., pain in the butt to report breaking news and reaction by phone on a weekend.