Washington senators confirmed the appointments of all nine members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission during floor votes earlier today, four by wide margins but five by sharper, largely partisan splits.
The narrowest vote was for Lorna Smith of Port Townsend, a controversial commissioner who came to the panel from Western Wildlife Outreach, which preaches predator coexistence, and now chairs the Wildlife Committee. She’s being sued by a national sportsmen’s organization due to an alleged “ongoing violation of state law” related to her concurrent position on the Jefferson County Planning Commission, but will be defended in court by the state of Washington.
“She is someone who has taken a lot of input and a lot of stress for her volunteer job, but she continues to be passionate about serving on the commission, as she’s been passionate about the environment for her whole life,” said Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim), who moved to confirm her appointment. “Lorna, I think, is a voice on the commission that represents fish and wildlife and mother nature in a way that will be there for future generations to be able to enjoy, just as we have, and I think that’s an important voice to have.”
Sen. Shelly Short (R-Addy) rose in opposition to Smith. Pointing to her own constituents’ deep commitment to critter populations too, she said there was a missing element of late in the commission thinking process – “how people fit into the equation.”
“Management of fish and wildlife should not exclude people, and I really feel like some of the recent decisions that have been made over time don’t take that into account and they don’t see it in the perpetuation of fish and wildlife and they need to, in a big way,” said Short.
Smith was confirmed on a near-party-line 29-20 tally, with one Republican and one Democrat crossing the aisle.
Similar statements and concerns were made about also controversial Melanie Rowland of Twisp, who was confirmed 30-19.
Pro-fishing and -hunting Jim Anderson garnered 31 confirmation votes, including several Republicans, while Van De Wege and Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-Shoreline) crossed over to the no side.
Chair Barbara Baker had previously been confirmed by the full Senate, but with all other members being brought up for confirmation, she voluntarily underwent the process again.
“If I had to put it simply, Barbara Baker is an outstanding public servant,” said Sen. Marko Liias (D-Everett), about Baker who, before she came to the commission, was the clerk of the state House of Representatives. “Serving on the commission is a tough job. Balancing the interests of Washingtonians who want nothing touched and those who want to use our natural resources is a tough job. Barbara has brought deliberation, she’s brought listening, she’s brought her passion for the outdoors and her passion for the state to this work. She’s done a fantastic job.”
Responded Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville), “I think Barbara Baker was an excellent chief clerk of the House. Won’t argue it for a second. That does not mean you’re prepared to manage fish and wildlife issues in our state.”
The commission sets WDFW’s policies, but also hires and fires its director.
Earlier in the session, Schoesler had claimed that commissioners “in many cases are absolutely anti-hunting. They don’t particularly understand fishing or fish issues” and ignore rural residents as well as Pittman-Robertson and fishing and hunting license contributions.
The confirmation vote on Tim Ragen of Anacortes was a chance for senators to talk about sea lions – Ragen is the retired executive director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.
“This particular commissioner is a national expert in pinniped management,” lauded Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Kitsap County), “and so he coordinated monk seal recovery programs, focused on the interactions between Alaskan groundfish fisheries and the endangered Steller sea lion. There is probably no volunteer in the state that is more perfectly suited to helping resolve the very issue in a nonpolitical, science-based way that takes social sciences into account as well.”
Rolfes was responding to comments against Ragen by Sen. Jeff Wilson (R-Longview), whose district has been all but overrun by sea lions in recent weeks, with fish-following pinnipeds reported 70 miles up the Cowlitz at Barrier Dam, 8 miles up the Kalama and lounging in the hundreds at the Cowlitz’s mouth.
“Just this past week, I’ll offer up that the mouth of the Cowlitz has a blockade, a blockade of sea lions. It’s a smelt run, but there are other fish there and I’ll offer that we need to have conservation that includes all sides, and that includes predator management, and for those reasons and much more I can’t support this appointment,” Wilson said.
The commission has been the subject of an increasingly fraught tug-of-war between its traditional constituents – hunters and anglers – and others bent on reforming it, and that can be seen in part with today’s sharply split votes on five members. All nine have been appointed by Governor Jay Inslee (D).
Earlier this year, each appeared before the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee for public hearings on their appointments, after which they all received do-confirm recommendations.
A late March article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review stated the last time all members were fully confirmed was back in 2018 prior to the hiring of WDFW Director Kelly Susewind, according to Sen. Van De Wege, who also told outdoor reporter Eli Francovich he’d “made a commitment with the governor that I would try and get as many of his appointments confirmed.”
Even if unconfirmed by the full Senate, commissioners can still serve, but a majority vote against an appointment would doom it.
Still, the votes had one hunter acknowledging “that sends a pretty clear message,” while Washington Wildlife First – which sued the commissioners earlier in the week – tweeted out a congratulations to the nine members and said it “(looks) forward to working with them.”