Washingtonians need to rethink the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s goal. Threats to biodiversity and changing human values present a challenge to the underpinning of the department and its committee. These changes necessitate the department moving from its traditional emphasis on game and fishing to a more ecologically focused, democratically inclusive agency that protects all of Washington’s animal diversity. Unfortunately, the department, the committee and our political leaders are stuck in a political quagmire.
The committee struggles to address the growing discord around its decisions, most recently over spring bear hunting and wolf management. Conflicts during meetings usually arise when testimonials are divided into two camps: preservation versus harvesting. Discussions arise about the perceived benefits and risks of harvesting fish and game or controlling predators lethally for wildlife populations, ecosystem health and animal welfare. Each side sparring with “best available science”, often ongoing discussion in the press and online.
Commission decisions are based on science and values. And here’s the root cause of the swamp: whose values count most in determining Washington’s priorities, regulations, and policies for fish and wildlife? Stakeholders promote their values by pressuring the governor for committee appointments and lobbying for pending votes. For many, this is an existential struggle, drive and sometimes rude behavior. The committee is trying to find direction by relying on its legal mandate.
The mandate, RCW77.04.012, written in 1994, instructs the commission and department to: protect, perpetuate, and conserve the state’s fish, crustaceans, and wildlife; conserve and authorize take so as not to harm the resource; strive to maintain the economic well-being and stability of the fishing industry; and seek to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities for all citizens. From the mandate, the department interprets its mission: to conserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable recreational and commercial opportunities for fish and wildlife.
The result is a dual purpose that unfortunately is the same conservation versus harvest dichotomy that creates conflict. Clearly, with the dual mandate and increasingly divergent perspectives on priorities, consensus is unlikely. Many hunters and fishermen fear that any change in priority will reduce harvesting opportunities. Others argue that the department’s actions have always focused on hunting and fishing, to the detriment of non-wildlife and ecosystems.
In response to the battle, the governor and legislature have the option of revising the 28-year mandate. During the last parliamentary term, several legislative proposals related to the reform of the agencies were proposed, including: HB 2027 that called for a review of the mandate and governance by a task force; none of the bills went forward. They also got stuck in the swamp. However, the debate about whose values matter most needs to be reconsidered in the light of current science.
Science tells us that biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented pace. Rising species extinctions coupled with climate change threaten the well-being of Washington residents and endanger the future of our children. The current bad prognosis for wildlife was not present 100 years ago when wildlife agencies were established to support fish and game harvests. Their goal of “use wisely, without waste” made sense in that earlier era. Times are different and the needs of the public have changed.
States are obligated to protect wildlife for current and future generations. The sad truth is that we fail. The department’s historical focus remains on preserving only a modest number of food fish and game, despite the fact that there are more than 200 other Washington animals in the area. conservation need and that common species also require stewardship. The inconvenient truth is that the current mandate focuses heavily on recreationally and commercially valuable animals. As a result, the long-term health of biodiversity is endangered.
Clarifying the department’s mandate around a top priority of preserving all wildlife for all people will provide unifying direction to the floundering commission and strengthen the department’s biodiversity mission. An enhanced mandate will lead the department and committee to recognize that ensuring the long-term diversity, health, resilience and sustainability of wildlife as a public wildlife trust fund is the existential goal. Source extraction of a subset of diversity should be secondary.
Changing the purpose of the department recognizes that government agencies need to adapt as society’s needs and public values change. The department’s shift to a more ecologically oriented agency that protects Washington’s animal diversity doesn’t mean eliminating hunting or fishing — just that our relationship with animals and nature is evolving.