Weighty Issues Before WDFW’s Commission: Columbia Reforms, Coyote Contests

Big decisions are expected from the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission at its meeting tomorrow, Friday, September 11.

The nine-member citizen panel is expected to vote on banning certain hunting competitions, as well as changes to Columbia River salmon reforms that are being vigorously opposed by sport anglers, though not by all.


I’ve written voluminously about the latter issue, so we’re going to start with the former this go around.

I have to go way back in my memory banks for the last time I talked about coyote contests. That singular – also: lengthy – blog in March 2014, I believe, essentially prefaced where we are at today.

At that time very few were being held annually in Washington, mostly in winter and under the radar of the masses. The idea was generally to boost the survival of fawns and cattle calves, with some prizes for those who killed the most songdogs. But a growing national movement against them suggested their days might be numbered.

Enter 2020 and that time may have come.

Pushed by Vice Chair Barbara Baker of the Olympia area, the commission will decide on banning hunting contests that are based on shooting the most animals that do not have daily or annual limits.

Passing it would mean WDFW would no longer permit the competitions.

The pro-hunting organization Washingtonians for Wildlife Conservation and others are speaking out.

“This proposed rule change is not backed by biological or scientific reasoning,” WWC states on a Facebook this week that urges people to comment on the proposal.

Baker essentially said as much in a Spokane Spokesman-Review story from last February, as the proposal slowly worked its way to a decision.

“Sometimes we have to do something for social reasons and this is one of them, in my mind,” she told outdoor reporter Eli Francovich. “This is the kind of thing that gives hunters a bad name.”

Northeast Washington biologist and coyote hunter Bart George weighed in in July, writing that “organized hunting for predators and invasive species that have no bag limits, is already highly regulated compared to nearly every state in the country. Individuals can’t organize these, only registered nonprofit entities approved by the state can. Additionally, only approved species can be hunted and limits exist on compensation.”

The overall value of prizes is limited to $2,000, the application and permit cost a total of $94, one to six have been granted in recent years, with 149 to 535 coyotes taken over three years in the mid-2010s, per WDFW.

George said competitions could in fact have some value to the state in terms of not having to pay contractors or trappers in lieu of having hunters perform the service for free.

And what’s more they’re a potential tool for helping control “nutria, wild pigs and other species arriving on the landscape,” but would fall under the commission’s rule change.

Inland Northwest Wildlife Council member Matt Mimnaugh pointed to the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area, where “there is a population of state-endangered sage grouse,” he told Francovich. “That area is overrun with … coyotes and the state can’t even begin to get rid of them.”

That particular language may have caught the eye of Spokane birder and Fish and Wildlife Commission member Kim Thorburn, but at the time she wasn’t tipping her vote one way or the other for Francovich’s story.

During public comment, more than 2,000 came in, according to WDFW, with 69 percent in favor of banning contests, 31 percent opposed.

An agency summary of the comments as well as alternatives includes:

  • Coyotes play an important ecological role in healthy ecosystems.
  • Opposed to hunting contests (should be banned entirely).
  • Opposed to contests except to control invasive species.
  • Opposed to hunting in general.
  • Reduce or eliminate prizes.
  • Make it clear that this does not ban hunting dog field trials or
  • Numerically based contests are needed to control coyote numbers.
  • Contest can help reduce predator populations to help ungulates.
  • Contests can be an economic boost for small communities.
  • Too many regulations.

Additionally, the commission will vote on making it illegal to participate in unpermitted contests.

Seventy-five percent were also in favor of making it illegal to participate in freelance contests, 24 percent opposed.

WDFW actually supports the rule changes. A summary sheet out ahead of tomorrow’s meeting reads:

“The department still values hunting, and the intent of this rule change is to maintain hunting and some regulated contests. Thus, we did not act on comments related to doing away with contest or hunting altogether.

Some made the argument that these contests are necessary to control coyote numbers. Much of the literature on this subject does not support the premise that taking large numbers sporadically (as these contests do) will reduce coyote numbers in the longterm.

“This rule change does not pertain to dog field trial since permitting for those is done separately and through a different process altogether.

“The department did not want to eliminate prizes since these are what draw participants to these contests. Regulating what can be hunted is a better way to solve this problem of contests that incentivize the killing of large numbers of animals.”

The writing on the wall on this one is clear: If by some unlikely scenario tomorrow the commission doesn’t act to ban the competitions, out-of-state and instate camps pushing this will simply go to the panel’s manager, Gov. Jay Inslee.

The two-term governor up for reelection this fall has proven now several times he will override WDFW staffers and commissioners to intervene on matters involving predators, most recently again with wolves late last week.


There is a late wrinkle to report in that some sportfishing groups are lobbying a strongly pro-angling Eastern Washington commissioner on his proposal last week to redistribute some of the coveted sport spring Chinook allocation.


Calling Dave Graybill of Leavenworth “our champion” for his opposition to other commissioners who want to expand nontreaty commercial gillnetting on the Lower Columbia, the Association of Northwest Steelheaders is also urging him to stay the course and vote against changing that and reducing recreational spring, summer and fall Chinook allocations, which are also in play.

At issue in this particular instance is how sport-earmarked springers are divided. This year nontreaty impacts were shared 75-25 between recreational anglers and the commercial fleet, down from 80-20 in past years where they were to be set under the reforms.

What some commissioners are now proposing is to change allocations to an abundance-based metric, with 80 percent to sports during low returns to 65 percent during higher ones, 20 to 35 for netters.

(Percents are actually “impacts,” allowable mortalities on an Endangered Species Act-listed salmon run.)

On average most springer runs would fall in the 70 percent category, representing a decrease for sports from this year and the reforms.

Now, inside of that is Graybill’s proposal to tweak recreational subshares. It would drop the below-Bonneville share from 75 percent to 70 percent, with the above-the-dam share increasing from 25 percent to 30 percent.

All of that 5 percent would go to the Snake River, which would get 20 percent of the allocation, up from 15 percent.

Defending the Lower Columbia springer share, which is already looking to be cut an average of 12.5 percent due to reallocation, the Steelheaders say Graybill’s amendment would lead to a “more than 18% average annual decrease (and a more than 24% decrease at larger run sizes).”

“As an advocate for eastern Washington recreational fisheries, it may be tempting to vote for this amendment, but it’s a Faustian bargain,” write board president Tom VanderPlaat, executive director Chris Hager and Columbia River chapter president Donny Hyde.

“If the amendment is included in the proposed policy, it will virtually guarantee that the Washington Commission will adopt the pro-commercial policy – gillnets, cuts to sportfishing, and all,” they add.

In a week full of horrific fires in the Northwest, VanderPlaat, Hager and Hyde say tweaking the reforms “will ignite another political firestorm” between anglers and state lawmakers – 36 of whom also oppose the changes – on one side and the commission, and WDFW and its budget on the other, along with further straining concurrence on the shared river with Oregon.

The commission’s March 2019 decision to begin unraveling the hard-won reforms essentially led to the scuttling of a WDFW fishing and hunting fee increase that looked like it might pass that year, as well as the end of the Columbia salmon and steelhead endorsement, both of which hurt the agency and impacted upriver fisheries.

“Instead, keep fighting for the fish and for the entire recreational angling community,” the trio of Steelheaders urge Graybill.

Besides Graybill, Molly Linville of Moses Coulee and Kim Thorburn of Spokane occupy the designated Eastern Washington positions on the commission.

Their constituents have long chafed about the Lower Columbia getting the bulk of springers.

While Graybill, known as Central Washington’s “fishing magician,” did not appear to respond to my request yesterday for comment to the letter – my email has been sketchy, not showing me everything sent my way – he talked about where it came from during the commission’s Sept. 1 zoom session.

He said he and other commissioners on the Columbia River Workgroup had looked at a “tremendous number of options” before settling on this approach.

“What we did want to do was put something in place that would be enduring and assure the people in the Snake River basin that we had responded to this,” Graybill said. “This was something we could have in place that best fit most circumstances … In most cases this addresses their issue. It doesn’t satisfy them completely, I should assure you of that.”

Chris Hyland, a Walla Walla-based angler who is also a member of WDFW and ODFW’s Columbia River Recreational Advisory Group, says he’s been following changes to the reforms and shares some concerns with lower river anglers about where things may be headed.

He called the original plan’s called-for springer split of 80-20 “good,” said switching to run-size metrics is “a mistake,” and supports keeping noncomm gillnets off the mainstem and only in off-channel bays near the mouth.

However, early last month he was also buoyed by word of a “small, incremental step to address harvest inequities” on springers that would move impacts to the Snake, Graybill’s amendment.

“But it will not fundamentally change the situation,” Hyland also said in emailed comments. “As myself and others have long noted, 87 percent of recreational springer harvest takes place below Bonneville. Yes, a lot of anglers live in Portland and Vancouver, but certainly not 87 percent of all the salmon anglers in Oregon and Washington. This disproportionate harvest is what I would describe as the tyranny of the majority.”

Going to go out on a limb here and say that Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association in Portland would beg to differ.

She’s been hitting the commission with letters from herself and a coalition of angling and boating interests.

In her latest sent today, she pointed to ODFW-WDFW modeling from August 2019 about the impact of moving 500 spring Chinook from the Lower Columbia to the Snake, saying it would not only trade away fishing trips overall but result in a nearly $300,000 loss in trip expenditures as well as reduce harvest on other stocks mixed with upriver kings below Bonneville by 809 and result in a net loss of 524 fish up and down the system.

That example is not what is being proposed by Graybill, but it’s close and Hamilton said that when the idea came up last summer, Oregon commissioners had a negative reaction.

“Which is understandable because the amendment would cut a jointly-managed fishery in the Columbia in order to increase a fishery in the Snake River solely within Washington State,” she wrote.

Hamilton forecasted it would make concurrency in the shared Columbia “more difficult.”

As springers are to the lower river, Hamilton recognized their importance upstream too, said there are “important steps” that could yield better fisheries above Bonneville Dam and that working together could help get everyone to “yes” on Snake early-run kings.

“Unfortunately, this is not one of them,” she wrote of the amendment.

Others are also filing last-minute comments, but on the gillnetting issue.

The Wild Steelhead Coalition – which is not the Wild Fish Conservancy – submitted a letter yesterday that said putting the nontreaty commercial fleet back in the river for spring and summer kings and for a larger share of fall Chinook is tantamount to “greenlighting a non-selective fishery that generates high levels of lethal bycatch and will further endanger ESA-listed salmon and steelhead.”

The organization says alternatives that are less deadly than the “antiquated” gear and that Washington should invest in those for fishing over protected runs “would also help ensure amore enduring and prosperous fishery for both the commercial sector and recreational anglers.”

As for the writing on the wall on this one?

Not so clear as with coyotes. And the forecast calls for things to get a lot smokier.