Jim Unsworth is resigning as director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the agency announced late this afternoon.
He submitted a letter today to the Fish and Wildlife Commission that his last day will be Feb. 7.
“Over the last three years, Jim has done an outstanding job of guiding the department through the complex challenges that come with managing natural resources in Washington,” said Commission Chair Brad Smith in a press release. “We greatly appreciate his contributions to the department and wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Those are said to be “personal and professional goals.”
An interim director will be named shortly, with a national replacement search launching as well.
While Unsworth’s term at WDFW’s helm that began in early 2015 has seen highs, overall it has been a rocky one marked by intense allocation battles with Western Washington tribes over declining salmon returns, an ill-fated license fee increase bid, an embarrassing run-in with state senators during a legislative hearing, and overreaching promises, among other headaches.
But that things were not going to work out for Unsworth in Washington began crystalizing early last month with two key events — and surely the recent bevy of Fish and Wildlife Commission executive sessions couldn’t have all been to talk about Chinook in private.
Unsworth lost a key public supporter, Seattle outdoor radio show host Tom Nelson, over the proposed Skagit-Sauk wild steelhead fishery after WDFW staff were only able to initially offer 14 days after a nine-year closure despite untempered statements from the director that made it seem as if there would be far more opportunity this winter and spring.
And he suffered a very public rebuke from the vice chair of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Larry Carpenter, over leaving the citizen panel out of the loop on development of the proposed Puget Sound Chinook Harvest Management Plan.
“It’s very critical, and not having discussions with the commission, I think, is an unacceptable practice,” Carpenter said during a well-attended TVW broadcast of the meeting.
To a degree, Unsworth’s hands were tied on that one because of the federal-court-mediated, open-case nature of the discussions with area tribes and federal Department of Justice officials.
But still, the magnitude of the proposal’s potential impacts has left Puget Sound anglers and the salmon fishing industry fearing for the future. Only after the Fish and Wildlife Commission pressed the issue yesterday has a glimmer of hope shown through all of the gathering clouds.
“Jim Unsworth resigning is evidence that the Puget Sound Chinook Plan was a flawed plan from the get-go,” said Nelson, the cohost of 710 ESPN Seattle’s The Outdoor Line. “His signature on the document might as well have been his resignation.”
Unsworth had the very bad luck to come into the directorship as some salmon runs tanked due to The Blob and compounding, long-term habitat and predation problems.
He hardly got much of a pass in spring 2015 when a key central Puget Sound Chinook fishery was closed and we lost access to the Skokomish River and its state-reared kings.
But the following year saw negotiations with the tribes go a month and a half longer than usual, resulting in all sorts of angst and lost business, and a month after that WDFW began pitching a license fee increase complete with new $17 and $10 catch cards for four species.
Just a few months later he and fellow honchos had the unenviable task of telling the same senator– the one who had gone to bat for the agency over hatchery winter-run production elsewhere — they didn’t have a compelling story to tell about the large loss of Cowlitz steelhead smolts.
Indeed, a 30-plus-year career in wildlife management in Idaho did not translate well to dealing with Washington’s highly complex fisheries situations.
Yet Unsworth leaving will be no magic elixir that will make Washington’s fishing and hunting world suddenly all better.
For starters, WDFW is now leaderless going into a critical North of Falcon negotiations, and between that, the Chinook plan and NOAA requirements, among other outstanding items, one agency source describes things as “more topsy turvy than I’ve seen in my career.”
They would almost prefer having Unsworth around than not, even if sportsmen like Nelson feels that WDFW has been otherwise rudderless with him as director.
The source said Unsworth was human like any of us and that he tried hard. The question now becomes, what sort of person will the next director be and what will their priorities be in terms of fishing, hunting and habitat?
They will need to be a strong, effective leader to rebuild WDFW. 2017 was not a good year for its image in other respects, including reports on a “highly sexualized culture” at agency headquarters and another hatchery, holding the scientific high ground but losing the public low ground on escaped Atlantic salmon, a raid on a Rochester wild animal recovery operation and the seizure of a family’s pet raccoon.
But Unsworth’s time hasn’t been all bad.
Under his watch WDFW has begun simplifying its fishing regulations and — despite discontent over how much an outside advisor is being paid — the state’s wolf world is relatively calm.
WDFW’s press release pointed to other accomplishments:
* Initiating “a multi-year initiative to strengthen the department’s relationships with communities, increase support for conservation and outdoor recreation, and help ensure WDFW programs and services meet the public’s needs.”
“I have had some great experiences as director,” Unsworth told agency staff, according to the press release, “but by far the best part of the job has been getting to know many of you. I appreciate your professionalism, work ethic, and passion for fish and wildlife.”
The director was also known for fishing the state’s rivers and talking to anglers about things.
Now, he’ll have more time to do that in the near future, maybe on the Skagit-Sauk sometime in April.