Washingtonians should rethink the purpose of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Threats to biodiversity and shifting human values challenge the underpinnings of the department and its commission. These changes necessitate that the department evolve from its traditional game and fish emphasis to a more ecologically focused, democratically inclusive agency protecting all Washington’s animal diversity. Unfortunately, the department, commission and our political leaders are stuck in a political quagmire.
The commission struggles to address growing disharmony surrounding its decisions, most recently over spring bear hunting and wolf management. Conflicts at meetings typically emerge when testimony divides into two camps: preservation versus harvest. Arguments erupt over the perceived benefits and risks that harvesting fish and game or lethally managing predators pose to wildlife populations, ecosystem health and animal well-being. Each side spars with “best available science,” often continuing debate in the press and online.
Commission decisions rely on science and values. And here lies the quagmire’s cause: Whose values count most in determining Washington’s fish and wildlife priorities, regulations and policies? Stakeholders promote their values by pressuring the governor over commission appointments and lobbying on pending votes. For many this is an existential battle, driving passion and at times uncivil behavior. The commission attempts to find direction by invoking its legislated mandate.
The mandate, RCW77.04.012, written in 1994, instructs the commission and department to: Protect, perpetuate and preserve the state’s fish, shellfish and wildlife; conserve and authorize take so as not to impair the resource; seek to maintain the economic well-being and stability of the fishing industry; and attempt to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities for all citizens. From the mandate, the department interprets its mission: To preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.
The result is a dual purpose that regrettably is the same preservation-versus-harvest dichotomy producing conflict. It is apparent that with the dual mandate and increasingly divergent perspectives on priorities consensus is unlikely. Many hunters and anglers fear any change in priority will diminish harvest opportunities. Others counter that the department’s actions always have aimed at hunting and fishing, at the expense of nongame and ecosystems.
In response to the strife, the governor and Legislature have an opportunity to revise the 28-year-old mandate. Last legislative session several bills concerning agency reform were proposed, including HB 2027 that called for a task force review of the mandate and governance; none of the bills went forward. They, too, stalled in the quagmire. However, the debate over whose values matter most should be rethought in light of current science.
Science tells us that biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate. Soaring species extinctions coupled with climate change threaten Washingtonians’ well-being and risk our children’s future. Today’s poor wildlife prognosis was not present 100 years ago when wildlife agencies were established to sustain fish and game harvest. Their “wise use, without waste” purpose made sense in that earlier era. Times are different and public needs have changed.
States are obligated to protect wildlife for current and future generations. The sad truth is that we are failing. The department’s historic focus remains on sustaining only a modest number of food fish and game animals, despite knowing more than 200 other Washington animals are in conservation need and that common species also require stewardship. The inconvenient truth is that the current mandate is weighted heavily toward recreationally and commercially valuable animals. Consequently, long-term biodiversity health is jeopardized.
Clarifying the department’s mandate around a top priority of conserving all wildlife for all people will provide a unifying direction for the floundering commission and strengthen the department’s biodiversity mission. An improved mandate will direct the department and commission to recognize that ensuring wildlife’s long-term diversity, health, resiliency and sustainability as a public wildlife trust is its existential purpose. Resource extraction of a subset of diversity must be secondary.
Changing the department’s purpose recognizes that government agencies require modifications as society’s needs and public values change. The shift of the department toward a more ecologically focused agency protecting Washington’s animal diversity does not mean eliminating hunting or fishing — simply that our relationship with animals and nature is evolving.