A podcast series featuring two well-spoken and nationally known hunters and conservationists is continuing to shine a light on goings-on with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission as it yaws away from its traditional supporters and mission, and how to push back locally and nationally.
Randy Newberg of Hunt Talk Radio and Outdoor Life‘s Andrew McKean interviewed former Commissioner Kim Thorburn about what she saw during her eight years on the citizen panel that oversees WDFW policies, how she didn’t turn out to be what the governor thought she’d be when he appointed the vegan birdwatcher in 2015, her opposition to the controversial draft conservation policy, a commissioner’s preposterous suggestion that hunters just go hire their own bear biologist, and how to speak before the nine members.
“When you go talk to the commission, you’re probably not being heard by the commissioners particularly. They’ve already got their ideas. Think of it as you’re talking to the public … Tell hunter stories, talk about your culture, talk about the importance of food – tell your sausage recipe, for heaven’s sake. Get out there and talk about how meaningful your culture is, in a heritage sense, to your family, first hunt – tell all those stories,” the Spokane resident and retired health professional urged.
That tack was on fine display in late October in Olympia when hunter after hunter after hunter took time out from Washington’s deer and elk seasons to speak about the meaning the pursuit has for them and their families and its enduring importance to conservation.
“Hunters have, and their organizations, their conservation organizations, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, the Mule Deer Foundation, just on and on – the contributions to both conservation science and on-the-ground conservation are phenomenal and continue to be,” Thorburn noted, adding that that message needs to be pushed out more. “I mean, Ducks Unlimited, 16 million of wetland restored, and the only native bird populations that are not declining in North America are wetland birds – and that’s not just ducks, folks.”
In October 2022, Audubon reported that thanks to “40 years of concerted wetland conservation(,) Waterfowl and waterbirds have surged 34 percent and 18 percent, respectively,” while many other species have lost more than half of their populations.
The story of hunting and conservation has been told – notably well by E. Donnall Thomas in How Sportsmen Saved the World: The Unsung Conservation Efforts of Hunters and Anglers back in 2009 (and which I excerpted in our print magazine) – but there needs to be more messaging like that to share our highly successful and highly unique story amongst ourselves and, more importantly, with a wider audience.
But that alone won’t turn the tide, Thorburn warned.
“The other approach we’re trying to take is we’ve got to call them out on process because they’re breaking all the rules,” she added.
In August, when a few members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission mulled reducing bear and cougar hunting, the immediate response that same day from hunters was to demand that any proposed tweaks first be stated in clear language and then run through WDFW’s official rule-making process known as a CR-102 rather than done through season-setting as with spring black bear permits.
Newberg and McKean’s podcast series (this is part two of a planned four) is meant in part to alert hunters and anglers across the country that what’s being seen in Washington – and which I’ve been reporting on in numerous blogs the past few years – could be coming their way too.
“I just saw three commissioners get appointed in Colorado,” said Newberg. “That is following the same lack of – I don’t know what you’d call it – respect for the institutions of wildlife management, a lack of respect for the varying values in Colorado. And it’s almost like the playbook, ‘Hey, this worked in Washington, let’s hurry up and implement this in Colorado, and let’s go here and let’s go there.’ I hope that people who are listening to this podcast are thinking about this, thinking about, yes, this is something we have to address.”
One thing that I initially struggled with as I was reporting on Washington commission doings and reformists’ activities was not getting as much traction as I felt the story warranted. It often made me wonder if I was crazy and seeing things that weren’t actually there, and between the two it left me somewhat depressed. But I’m glad the situation is now getting out to a wider audience and seeing some sunlight, and that we’re getting better organized.
“It’s easy to be demoralized by this, and I think that was probably what got Randy and my attention about this. ‘Wow, this is a problematic time,'” McKean said. “But I’m actually pretty encouraged and inspired because I think our community has taken so much for granted and has lived on sort of the fat of the land and gotten lazy and distracted. I think is a great mobilizing moment. And so in a lot of ways I think what you’re talking about – you’re a messenger from the future, Kim – I think we need to pay attention to it. But I think it’s not enough to just pay attention. I think as you’re saying, we need to now get off our butts, get together, collective action is necessary. But so is what we were just talking about – telling our own story, why this is so important to us.”
“We probably will never change the minds of people whose values are set, but I think we can do so much within the great expanse of unaligned people who will finally decide this, so I’m excited by your message. A little depressed, but pretty excited,” he told Thorburn.
Despite a recent dip, public support for hunting remains strong among Americans and the 77 percent in 2023 is higher than it was in the mid-1990s and even early 2010s. Only a small percentage of people actively oppose hunting, but it can also be said that that “great expanse of unaligned people” don’t really care one way or the other, so it’s really a battle for those hearts and minds. And part of that is communicating the value of hunting personally, as a cultural practice and for conservation.
One thing I came to understand better during Thorburn’s time on the commission was to never, ever discount a birdwatcher as an ally. There are some among us who will make fun of them still, and true, there are birdwatchers who just do not want to share the marsh with us. But a few years ago I did a blog about who the absolute strongest advocates of wildlife were, and right up there with hunters – and maybe even a little stronger – were birders. Yes, 100 percent, it would be nice if there was a binocular tax that helped fund bird habitat, but I’m betting that more than one or two watchers buy duck stamps just for that purpose.
I think wildlife and fish benefit from a big-tent approach. But what I disagree with is a faction trying to wrestle the tent away from the folks who brought it and helped set it up, as we’re currently seeing with the Fish and Wildlife Commission – and potentially with a WDFW-altering budget proviso slipped in at the last minute this past sesson by lawmakers in Olympia. So I’m grateful that icons like Newberg – he of public land and hunting advocacy – and Mckean – absolutely my idol in the hook-and-bullet reporting world – are taking a close look at this.
“I’m very optimistic that the folks in Washington are going to get this back on the rails,” Newberg wrapped up. “And it’s because of people like you, people I’ve had on this podcast from Washington. It’s because people care … And as Andrew (McKean) said, it’s going to serve as a catalyst for the rest of us to quit arguing about little things like season dates and lighted nocks and slot limits. We’re going to lift our head up and look at the bigger picture.”