Sportsmen Ask Senator To Hold Hearing On Commission Bill

Local and national hunting and fishing organizations are asking a powerful Washington state Senate committee chair to hold a public hearing on a bill that would “enhance” the process for nominating people to serve on the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Senate Bill 5675 would create a governor-appointed committee of stakeholders to vet commission candidates and ensure that they support science-based management of the state’s fish and wildlife – game and nongame alike – as well as hunting and angling as management tools, and uphold WDFW’s legislative mandates to conserve all species and provide consumptive opportunities.

“Like in other states, this would add more transparency in the process and help ensure the Governor’s office has the best qualified candidates to consider for appointment,” reads a letter out this morning to Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim) and fellow members of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee.

The bill was introduced last week by Sen. Linda Wilson (R-Vancouver) and subsequently cosponsored by seven fellow Republicans. It has been referred to SAWNRP but not given a public hearing date. Bills like this one need to be heard and passed out of committee by February 17 to survive the cutoff deadline.

SB 5675 comes after a testy two years of somewhat ideological commission appointments out of the Governor’s Office that have markedly misbalanced the nine-member citizen panel that oversees Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife policies and hires and fires its director. Traditional conservation organizations, particularly on the hunting side, say they haven’t been consulted at all, sparking a lawsuit threat.

The letter to Van De Wege et al, signed by Larry Phillips of the American Sportfishing Association (and a former WDFW biologist and regional director), Keely Hopkins of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation and Matt Little of Ducks Unlimited, among others, looks to address that.

“The overall goal of SB 5675 is to create a fair and open process for Commission appointments and ensure that qualified candidates are appointed to this regulatory body,” the letter states. “The law already requires the Governor to ‘maintain a balance reflecting all aspects of fish and wildlife, including representation recommended by organized groups representing sportfishers, commercial fishers, hunters, private landowners, and environmentalists.’ SB 5675 helps the Governor with this mandate so that our diverse communities are fully represented by the Commission and science is the primary driver of fish and wildlife management.”

The nominating committee would be comprised of a member each from groups representing big game, small game, recreational angling, fishing guides, commercial fishermen, land and water management or fish and wildlife conservation; agricultural, outdoor recreation industry, local government, and a tribal representative with treaty-reserved rights in the state.

At its first meeting, members would elect cochairs by majority votes.

The Governor’s Office would still be in charge of final appointments and they would continue to be subject to Senate confirmation. Currently, commissioners can serve without being confirmed by the upper chamber.

The bill would also allow the nominating committee to fill commission seats if the governor left them vacant for 90 days. Recently, one seat went unfilled for over a year, leaving the board with a tie-vote-inducing eight members.

Currently, one seat is empty after the resignation late last year of Don McIsaac, whose term was wrapping up New Year’s Eve. Two other members’ terms also officially ended that day, but they can and are continuing to serve. The Governor’s Office has some 50 applications on hand to replace them and is said to be going over them.

Right now, politically the state is dominated by Democrats, who have majorities in the Senate and House, and of course the Governor’s Mansion. Given that the governor appoints Fish and Wildlife Commission members, the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee can hold confirmation hearings on appointees and the full Senate can keep them or boot them, all power over the commission lies to the left.

It might seem a lifetime ago that Republicans held a majority in Olympia, but from 2013 through 2017 they in fact narrowly controlled the state Senate, including the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee, which was headed up by Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-Monroe). In this reporter’s recollection, it was a less contentious era on the commission, though not without brouhahas but none to the level of one seen during a wolf vote last spring.

Sen. Wilson’s bill could help keep the state’s fish and wildlife management better moored and less subject to too-strong winds howling through the halls of power of the moment and should get a public hearing to at least hear out its sponsor’s arguments.

Other signers of the letter to Van De Wege and the Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee include representatives from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Washington Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, National Wild Turkey Federation, Safari Club International, Sportsmen’s Alliance, Northeast Washington Wildlife Group and more.

In related news, two bills would boost pay for serving on the commission. HB 1699 would establish a salary for the positions, while SB 5699 would double pay for official business from $100 to $200 a day. The former is subject to a public hearing later this week.