Washingtonians for Wildlife Conservation announced last week that it intends to sue Gov. Jay Inslee for an “out of balance” wildlife commission that fails to represent multiple viewpoints.
The charge is that in recent years, the governor has “stacked” the nine-member Washington Wildlife Commission with environmental/animal rights members. Lacking on the panel is representation of recreational anglers, commercial fishers, hunters and landowners.
An example of how these appointments have played out in policy is cancellation of the spring bear hunt last year despite a healthy bruin population and issuance of relatively few special tags for select areas.
“The commission is on solid footing with the environmental groups and the animal rights groups,” Mark Pidgeon, president of the organization, told reporters this week. “We on the hunting side here are sorely underrepresented.”
The basis of the suit, he said, is that state code requires the governor to "seek to maintain a balance” on the commission. Those appointees have made decisions that harmed hunters and some wildlife populations, said Pidgeon.
Jaime Smith, spokesperson for Inslee’s office, responded to news of the pending suit by saying, “We are confident our appointment process seeks to comply with all applicable statutes.”
WWC cites precedent for such a suit in a recent Thurston County Superior Court ruling critical of Inslee’s appointments to the state Building Code Council.
The Building Industry Association of Washington and Associated General Contractors of Washington successfully challenged a pair of appointments by Inslee’s office, as previously reported by The Center Square. The groups argued in court that the makeup of the council lacked balance because builder group recommendations were ignored.
The judge also levied a $70,00 fine because one of Inslee’s staffers falsely claimed in a sworn court declaration that one nominee had been brought forward by another building trade group, which had not happened.
In 2021, Inslee appointed Lorna Smith and Fred Koontz to the commission. Koontz resigned in December of the same year. Last year, the governor appointed Melanie Rowland, Tim Ragen of Anacortes, and John Lehmkuhl.
Pidgeon points out that the three new commissioners voted with Smith and Barbara Baker, who chairs the group, to end recreational black bear hunting during the spring.
WWC contends the commission majority has not focused on important issues, such as helping a struggling Blue Mountain elk herd by extending mountain lion hunting seasons to aid the survival of vulnerable calves.
The commission did increase the mountain lion bag limit from one to two per year, with Lehmkuhl, as a lifelong hunter, casting the swing vote.
Pidgeon said he is trying to recruit other hunting, sporting and recreational groups, as well as landowners, to participate in the lawsuit, which has not yet been filed.
WWC's platform is to get residents around the state "working together to advance the tenet of scientific wildlife management and protect the rights of all natural resource interests."
Inslee is slated to make new appointments to the Fish and Wildlife commission in the near future. Commissioner Don McIsaac need to be replaced after resigning his post, and Commissioners Barbara Baker of Olympia and Kim Thorburn of Spokane, have finished serving their first terms. Both are eligible for reappointment and Inslee is expected to give Baker another stint. However, Thorburn has clashed several times with the governor and has publicly said that she doesn’t expect to be re-appointed.
Meanwhile, Washington Wildlife First, an environmental group, has started a campaign urging people to let the governor know they want appointments of commission members who prioritize protection of wolves and other species.
Washington Wildlife First says the state Fish and Wildlife Department has a track record of prioritizing hunting over conservation. Officials too often fail to present a balanced view of what the science says, according to the group.
Claire Loebs Davis, president of WWF and an environmental attorney, has called the Department of Fish and Wildlife “dysfunctional” and says that reforms are needed to better protect endangered and threatened species.
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