Gov. Inslee told he expects Wildlife Commission lawsuit to be ‘off balance’

By Raylene Rikaart / The Center Square

Washingtonians for Wildlife Conservation announced last week that it intends to sue Gov. Jay Inslee for an “unbalanced” wildlife commission that fails to represent multiple viewpoints.

The charge is that in recent years, the governor has “stacked” the nine-member Washington Wildlife Commission with environmental/animal rights members. Recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, fishermen, and landowners are underrepresented on the panel.

An example of how these designations played into politics was the cancellation of last year’s spring bear hunt despite a healthy population and the issuance of relatively few special labels for specific regions.

“The committee is on solid grounds with environmental groups and animal rights groups,” Mark Pidgeon, the organization’s president, told reporters this week. “We on the fishing side here are grossly underrepresented.”

The basis of the lawsuit, Pidgeon said, is that state law requires the governor to “seek to maintain a balance” on the commission, and those appointees made decisions that harmed hunters and some wildlife groups.

Jaime Smith, a spokesperson for Inslee’s office, responded to news of the pending lawsuit by saying, “We are confident that our hiring process seeks to comply with all applicable laws.”

WWC cites precedent for such a lawsuit in a recent Thurston County Superior Court ruling criticizing Inslee’s appointments to the state building code board.

The Building Industry Association of Washington and United General Contractors of Washington successfully challenged a pair of designations by Inslee’s office, as previously reported by The Center Square. The groups argued in court that the council’s makeup lacked balance because the building group’s recommendations were ignored.

The judge also imposed a $70,00 fine because an Inslee employee falsely claimed in a sworn declaration to the court that one of the candidates had been offered by another construction trade group, which did not happen.

In 2021, Inslee named Lorna Smith and Fred Koontz to the panel. Koontz resigned in December of the same year. Last year, the governor named Melanie Rowland, Tim Ragen of Anacortes, and John Lemkull.

Pidgeon notes that the three new commissioners voted with Smith and Barbara Baker, who chair the group, to end recreational hunting of black bear during the spring.

The WWC contends that the majority of the committee did not focus on important issues, such as helping a struggling Blue Mountain elk herd by extending mountain lion hunting seasons to help keep vulnerable calves alive.

The committee raised the maximum allowed for mountain lion sacks from one to two per year, with Lehmkuhl, as hunter for life, casting swing votes.

Pidgeon said he is trying to recruit hunting, sporting and other recreational groups, as well as landowners, to participate in the lawsuit, which has not yet been filed.

The WWC platform aims to get residents across the state to “work together to promote the principle of scientific management of wildlife and protect the rights of all natural resource interests.”

Inslee is set to make new appointments to the Fish and Wildlife Committee in the near future. Commissioner Don McKissack needs to be replaced after he stepped down, and commissioners Barbara Baker of Olympia and Kim Thorburn of Spokane have finished serving their first terms. Both are eligible for reassignment and Inslee is expected to give Baker another assignment. However, Thorburn clashed several times with the governor and said publicly that she did not expect to be reappointed.

Meanwhile, Washington Wildlife First, an environmental group, has begun a campaign urging people to tell the governor they want appointments for commission members who prioritize protecting wolves and other species.

Washington Wildlife First says the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has a proven track record of prioritizing hunting over conservation. Officials often fail to provide a balanced view of what the science says, according to the group.

Claire Lopes Davis, WWF president and environmental attorney, calls the Fish and Wildlife Division “dysfunctional” and says reforms are needed to better protect endangered and threatened species.

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