Wildlife groups call for changes at Fish and Wildlife Commission

  • Mon Oct 4th, 2021 1:08pm
  • News

Representatives from a dozen environmental and wildlife protection organizations sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee last month urging him to immediately appoint two new members to the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission.

One seat on the nine-member commission is currently vacant, while Chairman Larry Carpenter has continued to serve on the commission even though his term ended nearly a year ago, according to a statement from Washington Wildlife First. The commission sets fish and wildlife policy and has supervisory authority over the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We are at a turning point for the direction of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and for the survival of many fish and wildlife species within the state,” said David P. Linn, interim executive director for Washington Wildlife First, a new state nonprofit dedicated to reforming the state’s wildlife management.

“In order to effectively cope with the dual threats of climate change and the accelerating loss of biodiversity, we need to have a full commission in place that values and understands science, has a commitment to ethical wildlife management, and is dedicated to conserving our fish and wildlife species,” said Linn.

The request came a week after the State Auditor’s Office released a performance audit on the workplace culture at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“The auditor’s report confirmed what people within the Department have long been telling us. There are many excellent scientists, enforcement officers, conflict specialists and other employees within the department who have dedicated their careers to protecting and conserving Washington’s fish and wildlife,” said Claire Loebs Davis, president of Washington Wildlife First.

“But they cannot do their jobs when they are working in a hostile environment, where unprofessional, unethical, and illegal behavior is rampant, supervisors are not held accountable, employees are bullied, and people fear retaliation for speaking out.”

According to the group, the audit found that 1 in 10 Fish and Wildlife employees has directly witnessed someone within the department committing a legal or ethical violation in the past year, while a slightly larger number have directly suffered from retaliation after reporting illegal and unethical behavior, disagreeing with a supervisor, and even, in some cases, for talking to the auditors.

More than 25% of employees interviewed reported incidents of sexual discrimination, while more than 20% of those surveyed had been bullied at work, often due to gender, according to the group’s statement. Although women comprise more than half the workforce in other state agencies, less than one-third of Fish and Wildlife employees are women.

“The good ole’ boys club is alive and well” at Fish and Wildlife, said Davis. “Employees have been asking Department managers and Fish and Wildlife Commissioners for help for a long time, but nobody has been listening. We are hoping Gov. Inslee will show he is listening now.”

The audit

The state’s performance audit was published in mid-September in response to publicized reports of sexual harassment and “ongoing concerns from stakeholders abut the overall culture” at Fish and Wildlife, according to an auditor’s statement. “We did not find evidence of a highly sexualized culture. Instead, the information we compiled showed staff who were committed to and enjoyed many aspects of their work, but who also had real concerns about different forms of unprofessional behavior, communication breakdowns across the agency, and a general lack of confidence in management’s ability to address those issues.”

The audit summary also stated that, “although sexual harassment was (the agency’s) highest profile problem, survey responses indicate it is not a pervasive issue.”

There were other issues of concern. According to the audit summary, “Employees described a pattern of unprofessional behavior that management had not consistently or effectively addressed: among their greatest concerns was a perceived lack of accountability for those behaving unprofessionally at work. The agency’s HR department has history of low morale and high turnover, which also contributed to negative staff perceptions around accountability. (The agency) has taken steps to address the issues within the HR department, including hiring a new director in 2019. The internal culture within HR has shown significant improvement in the last year, but wider agency perceptions take time to change. Clearer policies and procedures for handling complaints could improve staff perceptions of accountability and the reporting process.”

The auditor’s summary said Fish and Wildlife “has not been consistent in evaluation employee conduct in the past. It is now showing improvement. Increasing opportunities for staff to provide input on supervisor performance could help ensure agency values and expectations are followed.”

Linn said many employees within the Department are desperate for new leadership at the Commission.

“We need Fish and Wildlife commissioners who will not only follow science, but who will have the dedication and moral compass to guide the agency in a new direction,” Linn said. “We are calling on Gov. Inslee to take a stand, not only for the state’s fish and wildlife, but for the brave employees who risked their jobs by speaking to the state auditor. They need to know that their voices have been heard.”

Joining Washington Wildlife First in the letter to Gov. Inslee are Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Society of the United States, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Mountain Lion Foundation, Northwest Animal Rights Network, Predator Defense, Western Watersheds Project, Western Wildlife Outreach, and WildEarth Guardians.