Washington’s Wildlife Future Depends on a Big Tent Coalition
Conservation Northwest / Jul 12, 2022 / Restoring Wildlife, WDFW
“… I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
By Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest Executive Director
Culture war hurts wildlife. That’s why I shudder to see the escalating enmity and dysfunction within Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission and some advocates seeking to influence it.
On controversies like the spring bear hunt, the wolf rule, and elk management in the Blue Mountains, I may share perspectives of some of the energized advocates and commissioners, but their approach is sure to fail us and the wildlife we love.
Aldo Leopold advised conservationists to “think like a mountain,” leading us to respect and celebrate the complex interactions in nature. But nature suffers when our advocacy strategies fail to consider similar complexity in politics.
For instance, if we don’t like the killing of wolves, shouldn’t we just demand its end? Ask the mountain.
Human systems can be almost as complex as natural ones. Before our words and tactics can protect wildlife or habitat, they first reverberate through media and public opinion systems, not to mention communities of stakeholders, regulators, legislators, and judges. The direct aggressive approach often undervalues these reverberations.
WDFW has long been undermined by competition among its constituencies. This may have begun with the fish wars after the Boldt Decision, the 1974 case that interpreted treaties concerning salmon and fish management.
But fights continue over issues like quota allocations, livestock on public lands, and especially predator management. Legislators came to view the intensity of stakeholder lobbying as evidence that WDFW was failing and, therefore, less deserving of funding. The resulting shortfalls meant the agency had less wherewithal to confront growing challenges to our wildlife and ecosystems, from climate change to habitat fragmentation. It’s only recently that the department’s stakeholders acted on the realization that no one wins when WDFW fails. As Ben Franklin said, if we don’t hang together, we will hang separately.
Unfortunately, this year’s combative stance from some advocates and commission members undermines prospects for hanging together.
It’s easy for naturalists to see the flaw in young Leopold’s notion that “No wolves would be hunters’ paradise” because we embrace keystone species theory and its corollary that, in the absence of a keystone species, impacts cascades through many trophic levels of an ecosystem. But what of the flipside – are there negative systems effects of barring human killing of carnivores? Many ranchers and hunters think so. To ignore their thoughts and experience is to think like a rock instead of a mountain.
Ranchers and hunters (and their elected representatives) will find ways to be heard. Conversations are far more productive than shouting matches when wildlife has to live with the outcome. With mutual respect, we can explore why Blue Mountain elk numbers are falling and measures that may help.
The alternative only fosters political polarization and counter-productive fights in the media and the legislature, not to mention how the resulting resentment makes the electorate receptive to authoritarian agitators.
The interests of wildlife and ecosystems are most compatible with communities that feel respected, empowered, and ideally prosperous. The assumption that conservation and prosperity are at odds in a zero-sum game is usually false, but it takes systems thought to see that balance.
How to strategize like a mountain? First and foremost, avoid poking the bear. If you don’t know how your language or tactics might inflame others, you might not be ready to serve nature effectively. More important, try to listen to those with opposing views and explore how their interests might be compatible with yours. Finally, find some common ground.
In my experience, all of the agency’s stakeholders support actions to protect habitat and recover biodiversity. We all love nature when we’re not fighting over it.
At Conservation Northwest, we don’t necessarily like the killing of bears, cougars, or wolves. But if a policy is informed by science and is compatible with sustainable ecosystems, we can accept it. Through mutual accommodation, we sustain a big tent coalition mobilized to support a modern WDFW capable of addressing the significant threats to our wild Washington.