Hunting is under attack in Washington — at least that’s the assessment of Kim Thorburn, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) commissioner from Spokane.
Stricter regulations passed in recent years, a new lawsuit and the appointment of two fish and wildlife commissioners has hunters and the lobbyists who advocate for looser hunting restrictions up in arms.
“I’m pretty upset about what’s going on,” she said. “We’re looking at hunters as an enemy.”
Thorburn points to a recently filed lawsuit looking to outlaw spring bear hunting and last year’s ban on coyote-killing contests. In 2019, the WDFW ended a popular antlerless deer hunt in Eastern Washington.
“They just come one item at a time,” she said.
Meanwhile, the appointment of two new wildlife commissioners by Gov. Jay Inslee has drawn criticism and concern from hunters and hunting groups. Some environmental organizations praised the appointments. The commissioners both have backgrounds in wildlife conservation and advocacy.
They reject the assertion that they plan to attack hunting as a sport.
“I’m very excited with the direction Gov. Inslee has taken with the most recent appointments to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission,” said Sophia Ressler, Washington wildlife advocate and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in a news release.
The two new commissioners are King County resident Fred Koontz and Jefferson County resident Lorna Smith. A third Eastern Washington commission seat formerly held by David Graybill, of Chelan County, will be filled in the near future.
The commission is a nine-person citizen panel appointed by the governor to set policy for the WDFW. Both new members’ terms run until Dec. 31, 2026.
Smith, one of the new commissioners, is aware of these concerns but assures hunters she’s not out to get them.
“I would like to calm those fears of the hunting community,” Smith said. “I’m not coming in to abolish this sport.”
Smith, a fifth-generation Washingtonian who comes from a family of lighthouse keepers on Discovery Bay, grew up hunting and fishing, although she doesn’t do either now.
Before joining the commission, she was the executive director for the nonprofit Western Wildlife Outreach and was Snohomish County’s lead environmental supervisor from 1986-2007.
While she supports hunting, she believes the commission needs to start making policy decisions “grounded in sound science,” even if that means getting rid of some hunting opportunities.
In particular, she points to cougar hunting in Washington.
In April, the commission approved more liberal cougar-hunting rules. Some research indicates cougar hunting leads to greater dispersal of young males and possibly more human-cougar conflict. Not all biologist agree with this assessment.
Smith believes the WDFW has been “too dismissive” of that research.
“I would personally like to see more emphasis on science being brought before the commission as they are making their decision, rather than it having it all digested down into a few sentences,” she said. “I’ll do my research. I’m not going to just rely on what’s brought to the table by the department.”
Mark Pidgeon, the president of the Hunters Heritage Council, said his group wasn’t contacted before the appointment of the two new commissioners and worries the commission, which traditionally has representatives from a variety of industries and cultures, is no longer balanced.
Marie Neumiller, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council’s executive director believes hunters — a diverse catchall spanning the gamut from family deer hunts, trappers, hound hunters and more — are poorly understood and drowned out by more powerful and vocal groups.
“I feel like hunters are portrayed in the media in a way that doesn’t actually represent who we are,” she said.
Meanwhile, hunting, in Washington and nationwide, is in decline.
Only 5% of Americans 16 years and older hunt, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study published in 2017. Fifty years ago, 10% of Americans 16 years and older hunted.
In Washington, there was an 11% drop in state hunting-license holders between 2008 and 2018. Youth-hunting participation was down 22% during the same period. Between 2019 and 2012, the number of hunters dropped by nearly 5%.