Updated 8:38 a.m., Friday, March 31, 2023 with a new eighth paragraph on proposed funding for coastal steelhead monitoring.
A bipartisan bill to regionally manage wolves in Eastern Washington appears to have slipped out of an expensive fiscal note of death trap to live another day, if state lawmakers’ proposed two-year operating budget released earlier this week is any indication.
There doesn’t actually appear to currently be a budgetary outlay to implement the House wolf proviso, making it something of an unfunded mandate, but if passed and signed into law, it would require WDFW to complete a plan for establishing a procedure to manage wolves as if they were delisted from state endangered species protections when certain population benchmarks are reached in counties and across Washington, and put it into use by this December and then report back to the legislature on its implementation by late next year.
Whether it makes it out of legislative sausage-making in the lead up to late April’s expected close of the session is another question – Senate Democrats have other ideas on wolves in their budget – but it is one of several notable items included in the ruling party’s proposals for WDFW.
Agency honchoes Director Kelly Susewind and Commission Chair Barbara Baker’s appeals via The Seattle Times for biodiversity funding seem to have attracted some interest after late last year Governor Inslee eschewed WDFW’s request, with senators proposing $8 million per year with another $10 million in one-time funding for climate change-affected species (plus $500,000 for sturgeon and eulachon smelt monitoring), while representatives would fund $8 million the first year before nearly doubling to $15 million in ongoing funding.
“This version matches the ramp up towards the full $47M per biennium of funding requested,” Morgan Stinson, WDFW CFO, said in an all-staff message Monday.
The House version defines the outlay as “provided solely for the protection, recovery, and restoration of biodiversity and the recovery of threatened and endangered species. Examples include habitat protection and restoration, technical assistance for growth management act planning, fish passage improvements, conservation education, scientific research for species and ecosystem protection, and similar activities.”
But where WDFW had high hopes for $5.9 million for much needed coastal steelhead monitoring, lawmakers in both chambers are essentially offering $300,000 to “develop a plan to protect native and hatchery produced steelhead for each river system of Grays harbor, Willapa bay, and coastal Olympic peninsula.” OlyPen steelhead are being considered for ESA protections.
The House is also proposing just under $1.4 million to help with ESA-related permitting around Columbia River fisheries, the Senate nothing, while the latter chamber would provide $644,000 for wildlife disease surveillance and the former nothing.
Still, both chambers would provide $6.1 million for eradicating and controlling invasive European green crabs, $1.6 million to improve Puget Sound steelhead spawning estimates in support of recreational fishing ops, $1.5 million for “expanded management” of sea lions in the Lower Columbia and tributaries to increase Chinook abundance and $940,000 for continued important harbor seal and sea lion studies in the Salish Sea.
There’s also $1.4 million and $700,000 in the Senate and House budgets, respectively, for a demonstration project suppressing “predatory fish species” in the Lake Washington basin including nonnatives and native northern pikeminnow and assessing how that benefits juvenile salmon survival. Introduced yellow perch and rock bass are problematic, at least in the Lake Washington Ship Canal, through which all young sockeye and other stocks must pass, but this one will catch the eye of bass anglers, who already feel their favorite fish are being targeted by tribal test fisheries in the metro lake.
The Senate’s budget would eliminate funding for WDFW’s Wolf Advisory Group, which has brought together disparate stakeholders over the years and it would also move range riding funding to the Department of Agriculture. The House props up the WAG and provides $1 million for wolf recovery and all that goes with it, compared to $780,000 in the Senate package, which also includes a note that the agency is “discouraged from the use of firearms from helicopters for removing wolves.”
When HB 1698, the regional wolf management bill, failed to move forward in the House Appropriations Committee, prime sponsor Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Bodie Mountain) blamed WDFW for the relatively high projection of how much implementing it would entail, per a Capital Press article. WDFW had opposed the original bill in part it didn’t spell out what wolves would be classified as in affected counties, the subject of a subsequent tweak, but the Governor’s Office was more strongly opposed because an official said it would undermine the authority of WDFW and the Fish and Wildlife Commission to manage wolves as a state-listed species, as well as set a precedent. Far Eastern Washington is where the majority of Washington’s packs are, but delisting is being held up by the slow spread to two other 2011-designated wolf recover regions.
On the capital budget front, both chambers would fully fund $17.2 million in work at the Wallace River Hatchery, which rears Chinook, coho and steelhead, to replace intakes and ponds, $9 million for new intakes at Minter Creek Hatchery, which raises Chinook, and $5.2 million to renovate Soos Creek Hatchery on the Green, where kings and silvers are hatched.
There’s also $15.2 million for the proposed (and long-suffering) Deschutes Watershed Center in the Senate budget and a reappropriation of $3.9 million on the House side. Per WDFW’s Stinson, either way it’s enough to continue work but it won’t be completed in the coming two years.
There’s also $39 million in WDFW’s and the Recreation and Conservation Office’s budgets for Duckabush estuary restoration as Highway 101 and the river are redone at its mouth on Hood Canal.
Also in RCO’s proposed funding package is $48 million from both chambers for the Brian Abbott fish barrier removal board and $15.8 million and $20 million from the Senate and House for the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program.
Back on the operating budget side, where the Senate would require WDFW to make recommendations on transitioning Lower Columbia gillnetting to alternative gear such as pound nets like that operated by Wild Fish Conservancy, the upper chamber also goes around WDFW to provide $500,000 in pass-through grants via RCO to commercial fishers “for the purpose of installing pound nets or fish traps under an approved experimental fishery within Washington waters.”
In his all-staff message, WDFW’s Stinson reports that the proposed Senate and House budgets “expand” funding for the agency, “and it is encouraging to see the Legislature’s confidence in our ability to deliver new work.” He states that employees would be in line for 3 percent and 4 percent wage increases in July 2023 and July 2024, respectively.
As for next steps, Stinson says that WDFW is reviewing all the spending packages and is drafting “a list of concerns to send to the Legislature.”
“Ideally, our requested updates will be reflected in the upcoming conference version of the budget, which is usually published a day or two before session adjourns on April 23. Based upon recent history, the Governor will review the conference budget, veto any necessary sections, and sign the final enacted version of the budget bill in May 2023,” he told fellow staffers.