Colbert Chosen By Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission As New ODFW Director

Oregon has a new director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Debbie Colbert was chosen this afternoon by the Fish and Wildlife Commission following a lengthy closed-door executive session. The vote was unanimous, 6-0.


A current ODFW deputy director, Colbert will replace Curt Melcher, who retired at the end of March after 10 years as director and 40 years with ODFW. Commissioner Mark Labhart of Sisters made the motion to extend Colbert an offer for the director’s position, and he was seconded by Bob Spelbrink of Siletz.

Colbert is a historic choice, the first woman to become director of an agency with roots back to the late 1800s. She will be in charge of 1,200 employees based out of 33 offices scattered across nearly 100,000 square miles, a landscape of ocean beaches, cool mountain lakes, desert flats and deep canyons and populated by 4.2 million people and just a few mule deer, spring Chinook, mallards and more.

Both Colbert and the other finalist for the position, Kaitlin Lovell, were lauded as “remarkably talented” and “exceptionally well qualified” by commission Chair Mary Wahl, who added the public had sent in “an exceptionally high number of comments” about the choices.

Indeed, Oregon hunters, anglers and fishing guides admirably turned out in force to let their thoughts be known about who the commission should pick, strongly recommending Colbert, who was also backed by the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Oregon Hunters Association, Northwest Guides and Anglers Association and Oregon Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“In the decades that I have been working on fishery issues, I don’t think I’ve seen a more qualified candidate given the helm,” stated Liz Hamilton, NSIA policy director. “All of us who love fish and wildlife in Oregon, and the region, are extremely fortunate. Congratulations to Dr. Colbert – I’m excited!”

“We look forward to working with ODFW’s new Director, Debbie Colbert, to protect Oregon’s Wildlife, Habitat, and Hunting Heritage!” OHA posted on Facebook this afternoon.


Sportsmen might have preferred someone they recognized from Buoy 10 or an Eastern Oregon elk camp, but after 30 people applied for the job and 23 were deemed to have met minimum qualifications, the finalists were winnowed last Friday from four down to two, Colbert and Lovell, by a commission subcommittee and members of the Governor’s Office. They were then interviewed by the Governor’s Office and tribal representatives this week before a final round today.

“Debbie Colbert brings the breadth of experience needed to lead this agency forward,” Governor Tina Kotek said in an updated press release out from ODFW this evening. “She is known for collaboration and taking challenges head on to improve critical fish and wildlife habitats in Oregon. I am grateful to the Commission for bringing a strong leader into the role.”

Colbert is an internal ODFW candidate with a background overseeing multiple different agency programs since 2021 – she oversees Fish, Wildlife and Habitat – as well as engaging with state lawmakers, a critical Salem relationship given upcoming two-year budget proposals and a potential fee increase.

“I’m excited about this opportunity, and about this opportunity right now,” Colbert told commissioners this morning before taking select questions from the ODFW union representing 800-plus members and the public. “I feel like we’ve got momentum, we’ve got good relationships, we have a lot of buy-in around the urgency and the need, and honestly, we’ve got some problems. We got some problems that are coming, but I think that that is going to even motivate us all more to come to the table to look for solutions. I think that I bring the right combination of background, statewide experience and existing relationships to advance the work for the agency.”

That Q&A session also helped both candidates flesh out their positions on key matters sportsmen watch, including how they see the role of hunting in natural resource management.

“I’m just going to ask people to look at my record and, you know, talk to the hunters and hunting organizations that I’ve worked with,” said Colbert. “I think that they would tell you that I respect that hunting brings a connection for so many people to the Oregon outdoors and, frankly, to their family. It’s a very deep connection, and I would say that from my perspective, I don’t think that we should ever discount the impact hunters have had on conservation of species and habitat in our country and in our state, historically and today.”

Colbert also recognized the significant contributions of license revenues for restoring wildlife as well as the volunteer efforts of hunters on habitat projects that “lift all species, not just those that are hunted.”

Answering the same question, Lovell, the outside candidate who is a senior manager of the Science, Fish and Wildlife Division in the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, stated, “Hunting is in the DNA of this agency. That is not going to change. I can support that even though I’m not a hunter.”

She gave commissioners an unexpected example of how she could say that.

“I’m a vegetarian – I have been since 1996 – yet my husband and son are not. I’m the farmer in the family, so I actually raise livestock for them to eat, and on the day that comes when I need to slaughter my pigs, I’m the one out there doing the slaughtering, even though I know I won’t eat them. So it’s very possible for me to be able to support something, to lift it and to make sure it is successful, even though I’m not the one out there doing that work,” Lovell stated about life on her family farm near Colton.

She termed the users-pay/everyone-benefits North American Model of Wildlife Management “good, but it’s also not enough.”

Lovell said it is focused on the use of wildlife for humans but doesn’t include intrinsic, spiritual and cultural values such as seen in Indigenous systems.

“I think this is a great time for us to marry those, to bring those together, to really expand how the North American Model of Conservation can help to elevate habitat and multiple uses of wildlife. I think when we do that and we look at the whole system and the whole landscape, the hunting experience improves because we’re improving the abundance of wildlife, the quality of our wildlife and the health of our whole systems, so that wildlife is not just available there for hunters, but available for wildlife watchers and other users of the entire ecosystem. It moves us away from a species-based approach to a systems-based approach. But I do think that the North American Model of Conservation is the basis for all of that and that continues to remain strong and we must support it.”

Lovell would not have been the first vegan to oversee a Northwest fish and wildlife agency – Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Kim Thorburn of Spokane might claim that title, and she did an unexpectedly strong job standing up for consumptive uses while at it – but her candidacy raised eyebrows among Oregon anglers because of her past role as co-president of the Native Fish Society, which might be the Beaver State’s answer to Washington’s Wild Fish Conservancy, given their frequent litigation against DFW, often over hatchery production.

Asked how she saw the role of hatcheries and factors to balance while maintaining sustainable fisheries, Lovell referenced a 2004 Trout Unlimited report she was involved with that “for the first time” questioned if the facilities were being built in the right places for the right purposes. She said that at the time a pitched battle was occurring about whether or not to count hatchery fish in Endangered Species Act listings.

She said it resulted in TU and herself becoming targets, but that “many” hatcheries subsequently made changes, with ODFW scaling back coastal coho production, “and that directly led to opening up a fishery on a listed stock. That’s an incredible accomplishment.”

Given climate change pressures but also improved science and hatchery practices, as well as money being spent on deferred maintenance, Lovell saw a chance “for hatcheries to work well for the system and see them as part of the system. They are a fundamental tool in our fisheries management strategies.”

“But the time is right to set a new foundation in how hatchery assessments are moving forward, and I’m really pleased the legislature has directed ODFW to do just that. I think the hatchery assessment will provide a solid foundation for confronting these challenges and ensuring the agency is prepared to meet these challenges,” Lovell said.


Colbert stated that hatcheries are a means to mitigate for lost fishing opportunities and habitat, supplement weak stocks and provide a chance to catch your own dinner. She said 75 percent of Oregon’s salmon and steelhead harvest and 90-plus percent of its trout take is thanks to hatchery production.

That also helps fuel the connection to the resource and ensures there are advocates “to show up for us in ways that help prevent bad things happening, like federal agencies that are not fulfilling their obligations in terms of their mitigation,” a reference to the Army Corps of Engineers‘ plans to quit funding summer steelhead production.

“I do not see a future in which hatcheries are not necessary to meet demand and the conservation need, especially in the face of the changing climate,” Colbert said.

She allowed that improperly managed hatchery stocks can impact wild stocks, but ODFW good-neighbor reforms instituted in the 1990s are “one of the reasons Oregon stands out among our neighboring states in terms of relatively healthy wild populations, primarily on the Oregon Coast … but also in places like Clackamas and Sandy” rivers.

For all the time that commissioners spent in executive session today, they moved surprisingly fast coming out of it this afternoon, all voting in favor of Colbert in a rapid-fire roll call. Perhaps that was in response to the call for unity that Chair Wahl asked for at the start of the meeting.

During this morning’s Q&A, Colbert, 54 and a resident of Corvallis, made a promise picked up on in an initial ODFW press release about the commission’s decision that was sent out late this afternoon.

“I will continue to bring a sense of urgency on delivering results in the face of growing complexity and challenges,” she said. “I am also very committed to positioning the agency so it engages all Oregonians. Our tent extends to everyone who wants to protect and enhance fish, wildlife and their habitats.”

The directorship will be a high point so far in a career that included sampling fish for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, researching nutrient cycling in Tillamook Bay and terms at the Oregon Water Resources Department and as an Oregon State University Board of Trustees Administrator. Colbert holds a bachelor of science in biology, masters of science in oceanography and Ph.D. in interdisciplinary oceanography.

Best of luck, Director Colbert!