State DFW needs visionary leadership

One of the most difficult challenges of the 21st Century is how to sustain life on our ever more crowded planet for many generations into the future. It’s a daunting task because it requires us to confront issues ranging from population growth to climate change to the importance of biodiversity in our ecosystem.

On the biodiversity front, the state of Washington has an immediate opportunity to create a paradigm shift within the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) by hiring a visionary director who will lead the state toward a sustainable future for all species.

The department’s current director, Phil Anderson, is retiring at the end of this year after slightly more than five years in the position. The state’s independent nine-member Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will select Anderson’s successor.

It’s a critical appointment that should not be rushed.

Since its creation in 1890 as a Fish Commission, the department has been focused on animals people hunt, fish and eat. Much later, species protected by the Endangered Species Act were added to the mix.

It wasn’t until 1921 that the Legislature abolished the Fish Commission and created a separate Department of Fisheries that focused on salmon caught commercially, and a Department of Game and Game-Fish. In 1987, the Department of Game was changed to the Department of Wildlife. And in 1994, state lawmakers merged the two departments into one Department of Fish and Wildlife, overseen by a commission that sets policy and goals.

It’s questionable whether these two cultures – fish and wildlife – have ever been effectively merged. And there is lingering tension between the biologists who see the value of all species and the hunters, fishers and ranchers who want wildlife managed to serve their own interests. Some current and former employees say that tension is the reason a recent survey of state agencies ranked morale in the DFW near the bottom, just above the Department of Corrections.

If the Fish and Wildlife Commission selects a change-agent who understands the important role of biodiversity in sustaining human life, it would bring the department back together and re-energize its legion of passionate young biologists.

Other states, such as Missouri and Florida, have moved away from the antiquated fish and game model to focus on protecting all species. Young biologists today recognize that less charismatic animals play a key role in our planet’s ecosystem and that we can no longer futilely attempt to pack all the nature we need into parks. We must preserve diverse wildlife in diverse ecosystems.

But the DFW seems to be moving in the opposite direction. That is evident in the department’s mismanagement of wolf hunts in northeastern Washington, where it catered to the small percentage of ranchers who refuse to abide by the state’s wolf conservation plan.

It’s important for the public and elected leaders to voice their concern to the commission – it meets Dec. 12 -13 in Olympia – that the DFW should join the broader effort toward sustainable living for all creatures, great and small.