The director of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife announced his resignation Wednesday after three years at the agency, the last one marked by workplace-conduct scandals and controversy over the department’s handling of bear-and wolf-hunting practices.
Jim Unsworth, in a letter to the chairman of the nine-member commission that governs Fish and Wildlife, said his time at the agency “has been a challenging, educational, and often rewarding experience.”
“It is now time for me to pursue other professional and personal goals in wildlife and natural resources management,” Unsworth said.
A news release from the commission’s office said the agency would name an interim director “as soon as possible” and launch a national search for Unsworth’s replacement.
Unsworth was on the job in Olympia for three years after working more than 30 years at Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game.
In an interview with The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network, Commission Chairman Brad Smith said a performance review of Unsworth was recently completed with some mixed responses. But Smith said the commission did not ask for Unsworth’s resignation.
Smith also praised Unsworth as “a man of character” who handled a “difficult job” well.
“In any given day you have to make a lot of decisions, and any one of those decisions that you do make will make some people happy and some people unhappy,” Smith said.
Unsworth’s agency was at times marked by scandal.
In August 2017, The News Tribune, The Olympian and Northwest News Network reported on a 2015 internal investigation that found some workers in the agency’s upper echelon often held or tolerated sexually explicit conversations at work. The investigation also found the behavior, including at least one case of workplace sexual harassment, largely went unreported and unaddressed by the agency’s top leaders.
The report was sparked after a Fish and Wildlife employee accused another of raping her following an agency Christmas party in 2014. On Wednesday, a jury found Greg Schirato, a former division manager at the agency, guilty of second-degree rape and first-degree burglary in the case.
The 2015 internal investigation found Schirato had sexually harassed a coworker and routinely talked about sex at work prior to the rape accusation. Schirato denied sexually harassing anyone or misbehaving at work.
While the alleged rape happened just before Unsworth joined Fish and Wildlife, the investigation and its fallout raised questions about the workplace culture at Fish and Wildlife, which is heavily staffed by men.
Those questions increased later in August of 2017 when the agency fired the four highest-ranking staffers at a state-run fish hatchery complex near Pateros after an investigation found rampant sexual conversations and hazing that led at least one woman to leave the office.
After news of the firings, first reported by the three news outlets, the state lost a multimillion-dollar contract with the Douglas County Public Utility District to run a pair of fish hatcheries.
In the wake of that scandal, Unsworth ordered increased efforts to prevent sexual harassment and boost diversity within Fish and Wildlife ranks. His push to better the workplace culture won praise from some on the department’s commission.
Smith complimented Unsworth’s handling of the workplace-conduct problems, which he said “did not surface” as an issue in Unsworth’s performance review.
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Barbara Baker told a Senate panel on anti-sexual harassment legislation Wednesday that she is “very proud” of how the Fish and Wildlife dealt with “problems that have occurred in our workplace.”
Beyond the staff conduct issues, KING 5 news reported in 2017 some Fish and Wildlife employees were in discord over a loophole in state law that led to hunting of bears with dogs, which was generally outlawed in 1996 by a voter-approved initiative. Also in 2017, Fish and Wildlife was chided by some conservation groups as too secretive about its killing of wolves.
Fish and Wildlife’s news release Wednesday also applauded Unsworth’s tenure.
It says Unsworth spearheaded “several efforts” to improve the agency’s customer service through policies such as simplification of fishing rules and implementation of a more “user-friendly” website.
He also started a “multi-year initiative to strengthen the department’s relationships with communities, increase support for conservation and outdoor recreation, and help ensure WDFW programs and services meet the public's needs,” the release says.