A Gathering Storm in Washington Over Conservation

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    In the heart of Olympia, Washington, a packed conference room on a rainy October morning played host to a heated debate. Dressed in camouflage and hunting orange, a multitude of experienced hunters filled the space. The tension was palpable as the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission faced nearly four hours of public comments, primarily revolving around a draft conservation policy released in April.

    A concise three-page document emerged, distilled from a 2020 strategic plan, outlining seven guiding principles for Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Among these principles, a firm commitment to “conservation first” stood out, positioning conservation as the department’s paramount purpose. The focus extended to the conservation of all species, irrespective of their rarity, with a pronounced emphasis on cultivating partnerships with local and tribal governments.

    Unveiling the Shift: From Strategic Plan to Draft Policy

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    While the 2020 strategic plan, with similar goals, went unnoticed, the draft policy triggered significant public engagement, amassing over 2,200 comments, predominantly critical. At the October meeting, the concerns voiced by seasoned hunters centered around potential restrictions on their activities, despite reassurances to the contrary. Simultaneously, tribal representatives expressed worries about the potential compromise of treaty rights.

    Commissioner Steven Parker, a retired biologist with a background at Yakama Nation Fisheries, expressed astonishment at the intensity of the opposition. Some commissioners perceived the policy as a reflection of a gradual evolution within the department over the past decade. However, the release of the policy, coupled with communication missteps, ignited underlying tensions regarding the interpretation of conservation and its objectives.

    The 2020 strategic plan collaborated with tribes and interest groups to outline the wildlife department’s priorities in a comprehensive 26-page document. Previous plans predominantly focused on maintaining fish and game populations, enhancing fish hatcheries, and expanding hunting access. However, the 2020 plan introduced a shift in emphasis and tone, prioritizing goals such as biodiversity conservation and salmon and orca recovery.

    Nate Pamplin, the department’s executive director of external affairs, highlighted funding boosts in 2018 and 2023 from the state Legislature, enabling a focus on critical goals. The 2020 plan, in contrast to its predecessors, places emphasis on proactively addressing conservation challenges, developing a climate resilience plan, and involving a broader spectrum of Washingtonians in decision-making.

    Hunter’s Backlash: Departure from Tradition

    The draft conservation policy faced backlash from hunters who perceived it as a departure from the traditional wildlife department playbook shaped by the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. This model, established in the 1900s, centers around species that can be hunted or fished and asserts that wildlife belongs to the public, managed by public agencies.

    Supporters argue that the policy aligns with the North American model, aiming to protect, perpetuate, and preserve wildlife. They contend that prioritizing wildlife preservation is essential for ensuring future opportunities for hunting and fishing. Despite assurances that hunting and angling are safeguarded, some seasoned sportsmen find the policy unsettling, fearing its potential effects.

    Beyond concerns about priorities, there are complaints about the policy’s secretive development process. Tribal representatives assert that they should have been involved from the beginning, considering their treaty rights to steward natural resources.

    Commissioners have engaged with concerned parties since the October meeting and have initiated collaborative discussions with tribes to revise the policy. A vote on the revised policy is anticipated in January 2024. The story unfolds as seasoned hunters grapple with a shifting conservation landscape, navigating uncertainties and seeking a balance between tradition and evolving priorities.