“This should be called a draft preservation policy not a conservation policy. It is so filled with preservationist language, it seems as though the commission is trying to pull the wool over the average citizen’s eyes.”
“Thanks to the commission for moving in the direction of conservation of wildlife and the environment rather than giving in to those whose main interest in wildlife is consumption.”
Those are just two of at least roughly 700 comments so far on the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission’s unsettling new draft Conservation Policy, a document that is open for public input through the end of next month, including at a public hearing at the citizen panel’s June 22-24 meetings in Seattle.
“If adopted, this policy will serve as overarching guidance to inform a variety of Department decisions relative to budget development, setting priorities, and the management of fish and wildlife,” explained one of its chief authors and Commission Chair Barbara Baker in a press release last month. “With a rapidly developing world and a changing climate, we need to be more responsive to these emerging issues and take a holistic approach to wildlife conservation. We need your feedback to inform the policy’s direction and help us improve this initial lens that we will look through when approaching solutions to a myriad of conservation challenges and providing opportunity.”
Baker got that feedback – and then some – in late May as a former member of the commission made her thoughts known about the draft, terming it “not good governance,” as well as an “advancement of an animal rights preservationist ideological agenda, not conservation.”
Those are the words of Kim Thorburn of Spokane in a May 20 letter to her old colleagues in fish and wildlife policy and management oversight.
“The Washington Fish and Wildlife commission fails when its actions and decisions are analyzed against the wildlife governance principles. The draft conservation policy provides a striking example,” Thorburn also stated.
For those unfamiliar with her, Thorburn served nearly nine years on the commission after being appointed to the nine-member board by Governor Inslee back in May 2015. An avid birder, she turned out to be an unexpectedly strong advocate of hunting and fishing, pointedly offering Inslee her thoughts on fish and wildlife management at times as well.
Indeed, Thorburn’s no stranger to speaking out. She raised issues with the initial draft conservation policy back in September 2021, when it first emerged from Baker, former Commissioner Fred Koontz and former WDFW Director of Conservation Policy Jeff Davis.
At the time, Baker explained that the term “conservation” is used in WDFW’s 25-year strategic plan dozens of times but never defined, and she worried about “an important and looming crisis ahead” in the form of climate change and other environmental concerns.
Tasked by Baker with helping redraft it, Thorburn made a number of tweaks, but after her dismissal from the commission by the Governor’s Office this past March, the draft policy resurfaced and it looks not unlike the original one “precipitously dropped” two falls ago.
In mid-April, the Fish and Wildlife Commission opened comment on the document, which Baker acknowledged had “hot buttons in every paragraph,” a reference to how it attempted to define elements like “conservation” and “ecosystem-based management,” and be centered around principles such as “Conservation of all species, habitat, and ecosystems,” “precaution,” “Innovative leadership and solutions,” and “aligning mandate, strategy, staff, and budget.”
And those are all getting their share of input from the public, to be clear.
“Promote legislation that redefines the mandate to eliminate maximizing archaic consumptive use ! 2% of the public are are direct consumptive user!” reads one comment.
“(Please) stop providing a platform for the people pushing the lie that 98% of the population doesn’t support a consumptive model. I am the only person in my family that hunts; but my entire family, and nearly all of my friends, support my right to do so, and appreciate the benefits my money brings for wildlife and non-hunters,” states another.
Indeed, a recent survey found that 75 percent of Washington residents strongly (44 percent) or moderately approve of legal, regulated hunting, while just 10 percent moderately or strongly (5 percent) disapprove.
Thorburn looked at the conservation policy through the lens of 10 wildlife governance principles, which came out of the journal Conservation Letters in 2016, and “draw on the public trust doctrine and good governance practice,” she wrote.
Perhaps with her public health background in mind, Thorburn offered the commission an “examination” of their latest draft (the 10 principles in bold, her comments in italic):
1. Wildlife governance will be adaptable and responsive to citizens’ current needs and interests, while also being forward‐looking to conserve options of future generations.
Defining conservation solely as “preservation of natural environments” is neither adaptable nor responsive to citizens’ current needs and interests, nor is it forward-looking. There is little natural environment to preserve, and the very term “preserve” implies it will not be available for citizens’ current or future needs and interests. Furthermore, currently existing preserved environments are difficult to access for many. Finally, preservation seems contrary to adaptation.
2. Wildlife governance will seek and incorporate multiple and diverse perspectives.
Any time multiple and diverse perspectives have been incorporated during the secretive drafting of the conservation policy, they’ve been arbitrarily excised from subsequent drafts.
3. Wildlife governance will apply social and ecological science, citizens’ knowledge, and trust administrators’ judgment.
There are no references to demonstrate the application of ecological science to the bizarre definition of conservation in the draft policy. Social science is clearly lacking because there is no human dimension component in the draft policy. Citizen knowledge has been disregarded, and the policy drafting process has led to lack of trust in commissioners’ (trust administrators) judgment.
4. Wildlife governance will produce multiple, sustainable benefits for all beneficiaries.
Failing to manage wildlife as a resource means there are no benefits for anybody.
5. Wildlife governance will ensure that trust administrators are responsible for maintaining trust resources and allocating benefits from the trust.
Since the draft policy fails to recognize any resources, there are none to maintain and allocate.
6. Wildlife governance will be publicly accessible and transparent.
The process of arriving at this draft has been anything but transparent.
7. Wildlife governance will ensure that trust administrators are publicly accountable.
There has been no accountability during the development of the draft policy. Commissioners have provided no explanation about why the policy is necessary since the department already has a conservation policy with principles that reflect the statutory mandate.
8. Wildlife governance will include means for citizens to become informed and engaged in decision making.
Becoming informed requires transparency. The dearth of voices during the process of arriving at the draft conservation policy demonstrates citizens have not been engaged in decision making.
9. Wildlife governance will include opportunities for trust administrators to meet their obligations in partnerships with non‐governmental entities.
The draft claims responsibilities and authorities (e.g., protecting and restoring air, soil, water …) for the department that are vested with non-governmental (and other governmental) entities. Usurping authorities does not meet obligations.
10. Wildlife governance will facilitate collaboration and coordination across ecological, jurisdictional and ownership boundaries.
Where is the co-manager input in the draft? The definition of conservation in the draft does not seem coordinated with landowners, including public landowners, or neighboring states and provinces.
Pointed as they may be, Thorburn’s comments also come at a time of sharply increasing headwinds for fish and wildlife management in Washington, when not just fringier environmental organizations are trying to “reform” WDFW and its commission, but The Powers That Be in the state legislature.
“Most state wildlife agencies have followed the North American model for wildlife for a century or more,” state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien) told Stateline’s Alex Brown for a piece on April’s trust-eroding last-minute budget proviso for a university think tank to review WDFW’s governance structure, funding model and mandate, among other facets, and report back to Olympia by the end of next June. “It’s worth looking – is there a better model?”
That subproviso was part of a new $23 million in General Fund money allocated to WDFW for biodiversity work in the coming years.
“We need to move beyond fish and wildlife for the purpose of human harvesting,” Fitzgibbon’s fellow state budget writer Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Kitsap County) told Brown. “That work can continue, but we need to be dealing with the extinction crisis.”
Koontz is quoted in the Stateline piece as well: “What is the paramount purpose of the government’s role in wildlife conservation? We’re still stuck on the idea that it’s about sustaining [human] use of the animals, and the priority has always been a very small subset of species that are recreationally and commercially important.”
Brown’s story could have been better balanced – only Marie Neumiller of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council from the consumptive user world was quoted – but it is also instructive and another reminder to those who value opportunities to harvest Washington’s sustainable natural resources to be paying attention.