Support from a diverse group of stakeholders could be vital as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife seeks to acquire the state funds it says are needed to operate at full capacity.
A letter signed by 45 groups calls on the Legislature to provide another $26 million in supplemental funds to avoid more cuts to the agency’s services. Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, chairwoman of the Senate’s Ways and Means committee, said resolving the Wildlife Department’s ongoing budget issues will be a top priority for the session ending March 12.
“The request is legitimate and it reflects what the Legislature did last year for that agency,” Rolfes said. “To me, that letter was a breath of fresh air for everybody working together to advocate for the agency’s funding and say this is important for everybody and important for the whole state.”
Many of the same groups, which represent conservationists, birdwatchers, hunters, anglers and more, came together last year to ask for $45 million in operating funds and a license increase for the biennial budget. Instead, legislators agreed to a one-time payment of $24 million to fill the agency’s deficit for a year and denied what would have been the first major license increase since 2011.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget calls for $15.6 million in general operating funds for the Wildlife Department, along with an estimated $8.2 million from a proposed license fee increase. But the letter notes and Rolfes agreed that increase is unlikely to pass, although she cautioned it’s too early to tell.
Washington state Mule Deer Foundation chairwoman Rachel Voss of Tieton and Seattle-based Conservation Northwest Executive Director Mitch Friedman are among those hopeful that more unity will be enough to sway legislators to approve the full $26 million. If not, the Wildlife Department would need to cut back on some of its services, potentially including closure of the Naches trout hatchery.
“There used to be a time when the department would threaten to shut down hatcheries as a political tactic to defend its budget,” Friedman said. “But we’re way past that. Now it’s real.”
A citizen advisory group formed at the Legislature’s request in 2017 found minimal waste in the Wildlife Department, confirming cuts would seriously damage the agency’s ability to fulfill its mission. Friedman said those findings didn’t clear up public misconceptions as much as he’d hoped, but they demonstrated to legislators what’s at stake.
Ilwaco Charter Association President Butch Smith noted the Office of Management and Budget found the department brings in $374 million each biennium, at a cost of just $100 million. He acknowledged some poor scientific theories and misguided federal mandates hurt past fish management, but he’s optimistic the agency is back on the right track.
“Opportunity costs money, and I would rather take the chance on fully funding the department and see what they can do with that money than not fund them,” Smith said. “It ain’t going to make our lives any better as hunters and fishers if we don’t fund the department.”
Voss voiced similar sentiments in regard to big game hunting, one of the biggest concerns among Yakima Valley hunters frustrated with declining elk and deer populations. She works through several different groups on outreach and said it’s critical to support the department to maintain all the state’s outdoor activities.
“Hunting is what I live for,” Voss said in a release. “Our game populations and experiences face countless challenges these days, and only a strong agency offers the chance of answering those challenges and passing on our hunting heritage.”
Rolfes credited WDFW Director Kelly Susewind for his transparency along with continued efforts to engage citizens since his hiring in August 2018. Friedman agreed the new leadership has been more responsive and remains hopeful the Legislature will find a long-term solution, even if it means settling for another one-time payment during this short session.