He grew up hunting and fishing in Grays Harbor County. Now, Kelly Susewind has taken the reigns of the State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Susewind was born outside the state, but figures his gills grew in young; his family moved to Aberdeen when he was just six months old.
“I was not fortunate enough to be born here, but my mom’s side of the family has been living here a long time,” he said.
The family settled in the west end of Aberdeen, where Susewind started exploring the nearby hunting and fishing opportunities.
“I grew up hunting and fishing here locally,” he said. He didn’t let distance keep him from exploring new opportunities, though a lot of his hunting particularly centered along Highway 101 south of town “just because it was handy.”
He particularly enjoyed hunting blacktail deer up the Humptulips, “even though my dad was not a huge fan because he didn’t want to drive that far. Now I think he would kill to have hunting five miles away, but back then it was, ‘Why drive that far when there’s good hunting even closer?’”
Susewind attended Hopkins Jr. High, graduated Aberdeen High School and continued his education at Grays Harbor College from 1979-82. He then headed east of the mountains to Pullman, where he graduated with an engineering degree from Washington State University in 1984.
“Immediately after college I worked at the Grays Harbor PUD, where my dad retired from,” said Susewind.
He worked for an engineering consulting firm in Seattle before landing a gig in Alaska, where he wanted to work, in 1988. This was the end of the oil boom and environmental engineers were needed to assess and clean up materials that were left behind that could be hazardous to the environment. That’s where Susewind found his calling. He saw the geotechnical engineers heading into the field with boots and backpacks and sledgehammers, much more his speed than staring at circuit boards indoors.
That led to his 28-year stint with the Department of Natural Resources, and now, to the head of the agency responsible for everything from hunting and fishing licenses and seasons to public land access, the management of non-game and threatened or endangered species and more.
Why make the change?
It begs the question: After 28 years with Natural Resources, why take on the leadership role in one of the biggest and most criticized agencies in the state?
“I debated it, jumping into the fire,” he said. “I had 28 years in at the Department of Ecology, and a passion for natural resources in general. I grew that passion hunting and fishing, and I see the work of this agency as the most important work in the state. I saw it was at a critical point and I like to be where the action is.”
Susewind replaces previous director Jim Unsworth, who resigned in January after three years at the helm. At the time, the department said it was so Unsworth could pursue other opportunities, but sportsmen’s groups claimed he had succumbed to pressure applied by them and others in response to what they saw as his ineffective, almost absent, leadership style.
The agency has dealt with serious sexual harassment issues in the past few years, well ahead of Susewind’s arrival. A 2015 internal investigation by Fish and Wildlife found several high ranking workers participated in or tolerated sexually explicit conversations at work. Before Unsworth took the job as director, Greg Schirato, described as a former division manager, was accused of raping a fellow agency employee after a Christmas party in 2014. He was convicted of the crime in January and sentenced to more than 10 years in jail. Then, in August of 2017, four high-ranking staffers at a state fish hatchery near Pateros were fired after an investigation uncovered evidence of ongoing sexual harassment that prompted at least one female employee to leave the office.
In the aftermath, some members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission praised Unsworth for his handling of the misconduct issues. Susewind said he is committed to making sure all 1,800 employees in the agency are protected from this type of conduct.
“All organizations have an obligation to provide their employees with a safe, respectful work environment,” said Susewind. “Our employees and managers share that commitment, so my job is to provide the leadership needed to eliminate unprofessional conduct and to guarantee accountability throughout the department. I’m confident we will be successful.”
Susewind has been on the job less than a month and has spent the lion’s share of his time familiarizing himself with the wide array of issues facing the agency.
“Part of the challenge is the broad spectrum of issues,” he said. “I think we need to focus on raising awareness of the issues pertaining to the health of fish and wildlife in the state. The public needs to be part of (the process),” and his priorities include “building the relevance of the agency as well as making a connection with the people.”
“In general as a state we need to up hatchery production where it makes sense,” said Susewind. “There’s clear evidence if we don’t do it right there are impacts to wild stock and the wild stock’s ability to survive.”
Susewind wants to maximize hatchery production to provide more opportunity for sport and commercial fishermen and to provide a greater food source for the struggling orca populations in the state. He said only by providing a sustainable fishery and access to it will more people involved in the management of the state’s signature salmon and steelhead populations.
“We need to get everyone connected with our resources, and that means access and opportunity, not to catch a fish now, but to catch a fisherman,” he said, adding that he believes when people are connected to the resource in a real hands-on way, they are more likely to become an advocate for the management of that resource.
A lot of the deer and elk country Susewind where grew up hunting is private timber land. In those days, the majority of those areas were left open for access to hunting and fishing. Today, most timber company land is gated and to access it a permit is required. Susewind said increasing access to the state’s natural resources is key for him, but he understands the timber companies’ desire to protect their own resources.
“I don’t know the answer,” said Susewind. “I want to focus on increasing participation and we can’t do that if we don’t have access.”
Susewind sees the challenges for hunters in particular. When he was growing up in Aberdeen, “the county was a playground. There was no such thing as closed areas. I like to bounce around and right now the area I would want to go is split up between two or three companies and would require two or three different permits.”
It is highly unlikely hunters will ever see the wide-open access they used to have to timber company land, but it’s part of Susewind’s plan to explore avenues to increase hunting access where it’s possible. “I have to believe there is a way to deal with that,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission recently put together its budget for the upcoming biennium, which includes a 5 percent increase in fishing and hunting licenses. Susewind points out the fees have not been raised since 2011 and inflation makes the smaller-than-originally-proposed increase necessary. He also notes that hunters bear the lion’s share of the costs associated with fish and wildlife management.
“I think we have leaned heavily on sportsmen in the past” to fund the agency, he said. He’s hoping to build relationships and communicate the importance of the state’s natural resources to its economy and overall identity to get the state to do more to fund the agency “so we’re not going to have to get there on the backs of hunters and fishers alone.”
The big picture
As he settles into his new position, Susewind is taking in all the information he can about the current state of the department to pinpoint priorities.
“My general approach is to gather a lot of information before taking action,” he said. “I want to have all the information possible first.”
He’s continuing to learn and says building relationships and partnerships is an important first step in getting Fish and Wildlife back on track.
“It’s easy to be isolated as just the agency. We need partnerships,” said Susewind. For success, the agency “needs to be communicating with and engaging the public” to get people involved and invested in the state’s natural resources and become part of the team protecting them. “We need to have them know about and appreciate them,” he said.