Former WDFW employees now work for utility
By Marcy Stamper
Despite concerns that 90 days was too rushed for a smooth transition of operations at the Methow and Wells fish hatcheries, the switch is nearly complete, with 10 people hired by the Douglas County Public Utility District (PUD) to run the two facilities.
The PUD initiated the 90-day transition period at the end of August, informing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) that the utility would be taking over management and operation of the two hatcheries and hiring its own staff. Both hatcheries are owned by the PUD, but they have always been operated by WDFW under a contract that was worth more than $2 million this year.
Nine of the PUD’s new hires previously worked for WDFW, at the Methow or Wells hatcheries or others in the state, according to Meaghan Vibbert, a spokesperson for the PUD. As of last week, all six people at Wells and the four in Winthrop are PUD, not state, employees, although some have just started, said Vibbert.
The former manager of the Methow Hatchery was hired by the PUD to continue in his job, and the new Wells manager, who was most recently the manager at the Chief Joseph Hatchery, had previously worked at Wells, which Vibbert said made the transition relatively seamless. The Chief Joseph Hatchery is owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
WDFW still has some staff assisting with the change-over in management, which will be phased out when the transition period ends on Nov. 28.
None of WDFW’s workers are out of a job. Four — one from the Methow Hatchery, one from the Carlton acclimation pond, and two from Wells — accepted other positions with WDFW, according to Eric Kinne, manager of WDFW’s hatchery division. Three chose career-seasonal jobs at Carlton, Omak and Similkameen hatchery facilities, and the fourth took a position in another part of the state.
Because WDFW imposed a hiring freeze when it learned about the PUD’s plans to run the hatcheries on its own, laid-off workers had seven full-time jobs and four career-seasonal posts to choose from, said Kinne. Since all were vacant positions, no one in the agency lost a job or got “bumped.”
WDFW is now in the process of filling the remaining jobs. Those vacancies include positions created after WDFW dismissed four employees at the Wells Hatchery in August after an investigation found an “extremely sexualized” culture at the facility. Vibbert has said those problems contributed to the PUD’s decision to end the contract with the state.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the transfer of three houses and 2 acres of land at the Wells Hatchery to the PUD last week. The property had been deeded to WDFW years ago with the provision that it would be returned to the PUD if the management contract ended, said Kinne. The transfer was effected through a quit-claim deed and no money changed hands.
The two residences at the hatchery on Wolf Creek Road in Winthrop were already owned by the PUD so no transfer was necessary, said Vibbert.
Housing is not a perk, but a requirement to have staff onsite 24/7 to respond to any incidents that arise and ensure the health and security of the fish, said Kinne.
One employee in Winthrop and one at Wells had to find other housing once they no longer worked for those hatcheries, said Kinne. The other two houses at Wells were already vacant because of the August dismissals.
Another detail still being negotiated is the fate of surplus fish. Hatcheries often collect more fish for spawning than are needed to produce the broodstock for the next season, said Kinne. Since most of the fish are food-grade quality, they are distributed to tribes or food banks. Those not suitable for consumption are left in the river as nutrients, he said.
The two agencies are still working out details of compliance with the Endangered Species Act. The Methow Hatchery produces spring Chinook and the Wells Hatchery produces steelhead and summer Chinook. Spring Chinook are on the federal list as endangered and steelhead are threatened.
The PUD built the Methow Hatchery in 1992 and the Wells Hatchery in 1967, but the facilities have always been operated by WDFW.