By Melanie Rowland
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has recently released a draft of a new Conservation Policy to be considered for adoption by the Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) at its meeting at the end of January. The department is requesting public comment by Jan. 12. As a member of the FWC, I strongly support the draft, with one critical change, and I urge you to do so as well.
The fundamental reason to strengthen and adopt this policy is found in the introduction. Conserving fish and wildlife “is becoming increasingly difficult with amplified effects of climate change, growing human population and development resulting in fragmented or lost habitat, invasive species, and increasing disease. We recognize that humankind is in the midst of a biodiversity extinction crisis and we must continue to act while we still have the building blocks for success.”
Those of us in the Methow Valley are eyewitnesses to this crisis. Several fish and wildlife species in North Central Washington are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) or protected by state law because of their declining numbers. In November 2023, wolverines were listed as “threatened” under the ESA, and the Western gray squirrel was uplisted from “threatened” to “endangered” under state law. The recovery plan for a third species — the Canada lynx, a snow-dependent species threatened by megafires and declining snow levels — was released last month. Species of salmon, steelhead and bull trout that spawn in our rivers are threatened or endangered.
Sounding the alarm
On this 50th anniversary of the ESA, the clock is ticking: 2,321 species of plants and animals are now listed under that law, 32 in our state alone. And many other local species are facing challenges. One example is our much-loved mule deer, whose decline is the reason WDFW closed parts of five units of the Methow Wildlife Area to the public this winter so the deer could access their critical winter feeding grounds without human disturbance.
The Conservation Policy is meant to sound the alarm and declare WDFW’s emphasis on conserving species to be of primary importance. It includes seven principles that set forth how we will strengthen our efforts to do this.
One key principle, however (No. 5), does not do its job. A widely accepted conservation principle is to be cautious when managing fish and wildlife — such as in setting limits on hunting — when we aren’t sure how healthy their numbers are. The science underlying wildlife management is far from perfect. Population, age and gender classes, geographic distribution, and other factors important to determining the health of a species are not easy to come by.
The uncertainty in demographic research means that scientists end up with a range of estimates, not precise numbers. A cautious approach would assume that the actual numbers are at the low end of the range and would base regulations on those numbers because it’s risky to assume that the higher numbers are correct.
A previous draft of the Policy stated that this “precautionary principle” would be a basis for WDFW’s fish and wildlife management. The current draft does not. It states only that we will “identify and account for risks to conservation,” and those risks will “form the foundation for monitoring and adaptive management” in the future. In other words, when there’s a range in estimates of population or other important measures, the draft Policy would allow us to assume the higher numbers are right in order to permit more hunting, but we may change the rules in the future if it turns out we were wrong. This is not precaution.
Using precaution does not mean the end of hunting, as some have asserted. Rather, it means that we proceed carefully so we don’t unknowingly hasten species decline when so many elements that we can’t control are putting increased pressure on them.
In his editorial in a recent issue of the Methow Valley News, Don Nelson wrote about our relationship to the animals who preceded humans in the valley and its surroundings. He said, “We should care about these animals because they are part of the natural world we are fortunate to call home. They are, as much as the folks next door, our neighbors, coexisting as best they can in the face of everything people have visited upon their natural habitats.” If you care about these animals and want them to be here for future generations, please voice your support for a strong Conservation Policy.
The full draft of the Conservation Policy is found on https://wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2023-12/fwc-conservationpolicy-draft-forpubliccommentdec18-jan12-2024.pdf. Send comments to email@example.com
Melanie Rowland lives near Twisp. The views expressed in this column are the author’s only. They do not represent the views of the FWC.