Hunting for a clear conservation policy from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Hunting for a clear conservation policy from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Conservation Northwest / Oct 13, 2021 / Hunting, Restoring Wildlife, WDFW

Leadership at WDFW and its Commission must ensure that differences go to respectful dialogue so that decisions have resiliency over decades. Change must move us forward without leaving anyone behind.


I just returned from a soul-filling upland bird hunt on a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) area managed for wildlife in Okanogan County. The vast landscapes invite me to breathe deeply; the flushing birds excite me; and the companionship of fellow lovers of wild places sustains me through side-hilling, ankle-rolling adventures.

I love this place and so do many others. We have shared values and a sense of responsibility to take care of it, and all our relations that call it home. Like the wild animals themselves, my hunting companions and I all come from different backgrounds; our personalities and worldviews reflect our diverse lived experiences.

Because we have taken the time to build a loving relationship with this land and with each other, our lives are harder, and richer, for the time we spend together arguing about how wildlife and habitat should or should not be stewarded (i.e. ethically managed).

As the agency whose primary purpose is to steward the state’s wildlife and their habitat, the WDFW argues, too—with itself, with stakeholders, with decision makers, and many others—and each individual that is somehow involved in managing our shared natural heritage brings with them knowledge and perspectives that are shaped by their lived experiences.

The most recent example of this can be seen with the release of a draft policy titled Conservation: A Commission and Department Policy Guide, penned by a few WDFW Commissioners and staff and presented to the rest of the Commission for consideration and feedback last month.

You can read more about this work-in-progress document, and the motivations that inspired it, in this article in The Spokesman Review.

The mission of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, as directed by the State Legislature and overseen by a nine-member Fish and Wildlife Commission appointed by the Governor, is:

“To preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.”

Those who hunt and those who don’t hunt share much in common. Hunters and non-hunters alike enjoy the outdoors, care about local and sustainable food, relish hiking in fields and forests, and want to pass their knowledge on to younger generations. Photo: Jen Syrowitz

Moving forward together

Though somewhat unclear, it seems the intent of the new conservation policy from the Fish and Wildlife Commission is to provide context for how WDFW will enact its recently-released 25-Year Strategic Plan.

Sound policy is crafted to solve specific problems, or to get ahead of them by guiding the decision-making process involved in resolving identified issues. In that sense, I believe there is room for the Commission’s draft conservation policy to better clarify the context within which it was written, its purpose and need, and further detail the objectives, outcomes, and approach it will take to address the identified issue(s).

In the meantime, the draft policy has been met with some consternation among stakeholders and constituents on all sides of these issues. This should come as no surprise, as diverse stakeholders from across our state have often each felt under-represented when it comes to the Commission and WDFW’s direction in recent years.

Hunters and anglers are concerned that few if any Commissioners actively hunt or fish. These concerns are exacerbated by continued declines in the Evergreen State’s hunting and fishing opportunity, as salmon and other fishing openings are increasingly closed or curtailed, and other Western states like Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Oregon offer longer hunting seasons and significantly larger deer and elk herds.

At the same time, other wildlife stakeholders have wanted to see more representation and greater emphasis put on non-game species conservation, leading to the appointment of two new Commissioners in early 2021. Serious internal problems have also plagued WDFW in recent years, to the detriment of staff morale and effectiveness.

Jen Syrowitz manages our conservation work on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and the Wenatchee Ranger District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. She also served for several years on WDFW’s Budget and Policy Advisory Group. Learn more here.

There is increasing discord between WDFW’s “traditional customers” (largely hunters and anglers) and the Department’s need to broaden their conservation portfolio to include “all customers” (the people of the state), for whom they manage our shared resources under the Public Trust Doctrine. How to do this without alienating any “customers” is a challenge, to say the least.

Right now, everyone feels under-represented: hunters, anglers, outdoor recreationists, biodiversity advocates, and certainly those who have never before had a seat at this collective, very public table.

Across the country, fish and wildlife agencies are wrestling with relevancy, and there is some creative and excellent work happening as a result. Washington state is lagging behind, partly due to the complexity of managing diverse species from sage grouse to sablefish; partly due to the fact that we can’t seem to get out of our own way. Participants in this effort are too often bogged down in polarizing discourse that results in defensiveness and fuels siloed cynicism, rather than rising to meet the challenges we face with humility and an appreciation that our state must do better.

At a time when we must confront the compounding crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental justice, our natural resource agencies, including the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and its Commission, need radically honest and transparent leadership that listens to their staff and full constituency, and demonstrates that they are listening with deeply empathic, transformative change. Change that moves us all forward without leaving anyone behind.

The lived experiences of the people whose lives are touched by the system—agency staff and volunteers, wildlife watchers, hunters, anglers and recreationists, co-manager Indigenous Tribes, conservation organizations, elected leaders and other decision makers—allows us to co-design solutions and change the dynamics that hold problems in place. Internally and externally, a paradigm shift in natural resource stewardship is underway; one that elevates the voices of agency personnel, maintains and broadens their constituencies, breaks down user silos by fueling curiosity and education, braids wildlife management with Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Indigenous sovereignty, and invests in creative ideas in an effort to garner durable outcomes.

I spent nearly two years serving on WDFW’s Budget and Policy Advisory Group, starting in 2017. Mitch Friedman, CNW’s founder and Executive Director also serves on this committee. At that time, WDFW was distracted with budget woes that had been devolving for a decade. With its existence on the line, a group of relatively diverse stakeholders put the Department, and by extension Washington’s fish and wildlife, first—successfully funding the agency in early 2020. We focused on shared values and engaged in respectful dialogue that resulted in a sustainable outcome.

Washington’s increasingly diverse fish and wildlife constituency demands similarly diverse collaboration. Leadership at the Department and Commission must ensure that differences go to respectful dialogue so that decisions have resiliency over decades.

We can each support this effort by showing up curious about other’s lived experience, acting respectfully of different worldviews, practicing humility, listening more and talking less, and extending grace when things get really tough. If we are to successfully steward wildlife and habitat in Washington, we must create space where staff input is valued and diverse stakeholder perspectives are demonstrably heard.

We and our wildlife relations depend on it, and will be richer for it.


Conservation Northwest staff are preparing a letter to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission expressing our feedback on the draft “Conservation: A Commission and Department Policy Guide” document. We expect to share these organizational comments in late October.


Hunting for upland birds in the ecologically rich landscapes of Okanogan County, north-central Washington. Photo: Jen Syrowitz.