‘Rethink’ WDFW Mandates: Former Commissioner Op-ed

With his former colleagues in action this morning, a former Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner is calling on state residents to “rethink” WDFW’s purpose and encouraging lawmakers to change the agency’s mandate – another reason for hunters and anglers to be paying extra-close attention these and the coming days, weeks, months and years.


Fred Koontz, who resigned less than a year into his six-year term shortly after he stuck his hand into a veritable wasp nest, wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed late this week, “Washingtonians should rethink the purpose of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Threats to biodiversity and shifting human values challenge the underpinnings of the department and its commission. These changes necessitate that the department evolve from its traditional game and fish emphasis to a more ecologically focused, democratically inclusive agency protecting all Washington’s animal diversity.”

Pointing to an alleged “politicized quagmire” – the same language he used in his December resignation letter following his controversial comments about how to manage the at-risk Blue Mountains elk herd – Koontz states, “In response to the strife, the governor and Legislature have an opportunity to revise the 28-year-old mandate.”

That’s a reference to two things. First, WDFW and the commission’s legislative directives, RCW 77.04.012:

Wildlife, fish, and shellfish are the property of the state. The commission, director, and the department shall preserve, protect, perpetuate, and manage the wildlife and food fish, game fish, and shellfish in state waters and offshore waters.

The department shall conserve the wildlife and food fish, game fish, and shellfish resources in a manner that does not impair the resource. In a manner consistent with this goal, the department shall seek to maintain the economic well-being and stability of the fishing industry in the state. The department shall promote orderly fisheries and shall enhance and improve recreational and commercial fishing in this state.

The commission may authorize the taking of wildlife, food fish, game fish, and shellfish only at times or places, or in manners or quantities, as in the judgment of the commission does not impair the supply of these resources.

The commission shall attempt to maximize the public recreational game fishing and hunting opportunities of all citizens, including juvenile, disabled, and senior citizens.

Recognizing that the management of our state wildlife, food fish, game fish, and shellfish resources depends heavily on the assistance of volunteers, the department shall work cooperatively with volunteer groups and individuals to achieve the goals of this title to the greatest extent possible.

Nothing in this title shall be construed to infringe on the right of a private property owner to control the owner’s private property.

WDFW boils down its mission as “dedicated to preserving, protecting, and perpetuating the state’s fish, wildlife, and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.”

Second, the bevy of bills introduced by state lawmakers last January that would have: created new ways to remove and appoint members; stuffed WDFW and its commission under DNR’s chief and strip the commission of its powers and make it an advisory board; and set up a task force to study WDFW’s governances and the agency and the commission’s statutory mandate.

None had more than a public hearing during this year’s short session and were probably used by state senators in the natural resources committee to force Governor Jay Inslee’s hand in naming three new Fish and Wildlife Commissioners – who so far seem to hew closely to Koontz’s vision and have markedly tipped the balance of the citizen panel overseeing WDFW policy.

But if Koontz’s op-ed is any indication, it’s likely legislators will be drafting more bills for 2023’s long session in Olympia.

And if that fails, trying to tweak the mandate through a statewide initiative, suggests one astute observer.

Koontz lays out the case further in his piece.

As he argued in support last September of a new draft WDFW and commission conservation policy, he says biodiversity is declining “at an unprecedented rate” and given that “Today’s poor wildlife prognosis was not present 100 years ago when wildlife agencies were established to sustain fish and game harvest. Their ‘wise use, without waste’ purpose made sense in that earlier era. Times are different and public needs have changed.”

He states, “Clarifying the department’s mandate around a top priority of conserving all wildlife for all people will provide a unifying direction for the floundering commission and strengthen the department’s biodiversity mission.”

Koontz adds, “An improved mandate will direct the department and commission to recognize that ensuring wildlife’s long-term diversity, health, resiliency and sustainability as a public wildlife trust is its existential purpose. Resource extraction of a subset of diversity must be secondary.”

Let me pull that last sentence out for you to chew on a little bit more: “Resource extraction of a subset of diversity must be secondary.”

What does that mean?

The retired zoo official who lives in Duvall isn’t the only one calling for changes to WDFW’s mandate. During a recent meeting new member Melanie Rowland spoke openly about reinterpreting it.

Rowland, Timothy Ragen, Lorna Smith and Barbara Baker all point to the specter of climate change as an immediate imperative for action, and Rowland brought up Koontz’s piece during today’s meeting: “If anybody wants to see it in a nutshell, there it is in The Seattle Times.”

What’s frustrating is that for decades upon decades there has been no stronger supporters of fish and wildlife than anglers and hunters and yet here we go again trying to move us away from the stakeholders’ table. Let it once again be said loud and clear: We have happily and willingly poured billions upon billions of dollars into recovering and sustaining species – and not just ones we pursue.

The problem is not us sportsmen. We have actively pulled the load and will continue to pull – and with far more pulling power than anybody else can ever dream of mustering: licenses, tags, special permits, excise taxes on fishing and hunting gear, volunteer work, hook-and-bullet media infrastructure, ALL on top of the utility bills and taxes that we and the rest of society passively pay in support of WDFW’s myriad missions.

We do it with the understanding that we reap what we sow, that putting back into the ecosystem ensures it will always be there. We do our part.

NONE of our opportunities are possible without conservation – fish and wildlife populations and our seasons are first and foremost managed “in a manner that does not impair the resource.” Everything flows from that – from conservation. As pointed out to me, the many inseason rule changes from WDFW are evidence of that. This week’s sudden shutdown of the set March 1-April 30 Sekiu Chinook season is rule change No. 2,825 the agency has issued since November 2002. You bet we grumble loudly about each and every closure, but it’s also the price we realize we pay living in this modern world.

It is society at large that doesn’t give a rat’s ass – overdeveloping the landscape, slicing and dicing it into ever smaller clumps, dumping poison into the waterways, throwing guilt money – and too little of it and too widely scattered – at degraded habitat and wildlife instead of changing our behavior, overheating the ocean, land and air. Taking, taking, taking and not giving back, as if nature’s productivity is somehow boundless instead of needing to be carefully husbanded.

Now we expect society at large to be the savior? Good luck with that. How’d that work out for Washington’s caribou?

And why oh why do we want to relegate those of us who have been at the forefront of preserving, protecting and perpetuating fish and wildlife for decades – sustainable conservation with the benefit of a harvestable surplus – to the “secondary”? Talk about institutional knowledge that would be better kept harnessed instead of taken out of the starting 11.

All right, I’ve got to do some other work to do now, so I have to cut this short. But my point is that Koontz’s op-ed and the commission’s interest in WDFW’s mandate means that hunters and anglers will want to stay engaged. Spring bear was just a scrimmage.