Kelly Susewind, the Director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, sat down with The Columbian on Wednesday to talk about issues the WDFW faces.
The Columbian: You have taken over the director’s office following the departure of a rather unpopular director and at a time when confidence in the department is extremely low. How will you work to regain the trust of your constituents?
Susewind: I think part of it is things like this (interview). We need to get out in the community more so they can really understand what we are doing, and how we make our policy decisions. I think we were really insular before.
We deal with tough policy decisions every single day, and if it is just coming out of a black box it doesn’t serve us or our constituents well. It’s a matter of getting out there, being more transparent, and encouraging that throughout the agency to develop that culture where we embrace public and media involvement. I think we are, and should be proud of what we do, and the more we get that word out the better off we’ll be.
I’ve checked into some of the things that were concerns before and I think we are on a good path and are working on our diversity and our inclusion efforts. Part of it will be developing that budget that allows us to perform at a better level. Things are tight, and we aren’t good at giving up on stuff so we try to do the work with less people. Our quality and our credibility suffer, so addressing all of those issues, and also getting (back) that credibility with the legislature, is one of my focus areas.
The Columbian: The Washington legislature recently refused the WDFW’s request to make the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement permanent, and to increase licenses and fees by 15 percent. Why do you think the legislature refused, and how do you think the department should manage the shortfall in funds?
Susewind: It was up and down, back and forth, and we had, I think, our broadest support from the constituents. We developed a budget policy advisory group that was a diverse group of folks who, by their own accord, did fight like cats and dogs, but what they all said was that we need a healthy department so we had good support going in.
We had some really tough decisions coming out right at the critical time in our budget development, and it all hit at that critical time. We got close on a couple things. We weren’t going to get the fee passed. (As for) the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement, there was some last-minute maneuvers to try to get that pulled off, but in the end, we didn’t really come down to it. The politics of all the things happening kind of took over and we lost out.
The Columbian: Do you know how the department will work around the lack of funds yet?
Susewind: Yes, we have a plan for the lack of funds. We will soon go in front of our commission to get final approval for our proposals for next year’s budget. The legislature gave us a one-time infusion of money to partially cover that lack of funds.
We got less then we asked for, which was to cover the hole going in to this year. Between not getting what we asked for and having more costs added on and some reduction in federal funding we are about 20 million dollars short for the two-year biennium.
There will be some cuts. We will cut some of our call centers and we will maintain a higher vacancy rate. We won’t fill positions as rapidly as they come open.
We are going to try to deliver the same services we had this next year, and then count on the fact that we are going to be successful (getting) the supplemental budget. It’s a risky approach but I think its best for the resource and best for our constituency and we’ll do our best to get that supplemental budget. But if we fail to get that we will be going through some pretty significant layoffs next year. The pressure is on for 2020.
The Columbian: Do you think the department is squeezing people too much by asking for increases while opportunities are diminishing?
Susewind: What the fees buy is management of fish and wildlife, not the opportunity, not the catch. As we have low runs sizes things get squeezed tighter and it costs more to provide that same service, even if it comes with less opportunity because of the bad return.
My hope is that (our constituents) realize my fee is not buying me a fish, it is buying me all the management it takes to take care of the fish.
I think we are still at a pretty fair market value for what we charge. Our last increase was back in 2011.
The Columbian: There have been some complaints from many Washington sportsman that the department is too beholden to wild fish advocates, and that the push to reduce hatchery plantings has gone too far. Would you agree with that?
Susewind: If you reached out to wild fish advocates, they would complain that we haven’t done enough. That’s the double edge sword we live with all the time.
I do think we have the capacity to increase hatchery fish. We were supportive of the increases of up to 50 million new chinook and we have some room with our current budget. I think you will see an increase of about 20 million in smolts based on the budget we do have, so what we have to do is make sure we have the infrastructure. But, there’s two levels of infrastructure. There is water, raceways, and facilities, and the other is permit capacity with NOAA (National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration).
We are pushing the limit up to what we can do. We won’t see the heydays of what we had in the past, where like Johnny Appleseed we just put fish anywhere we wanted to put fish. We won’t get back to that.
We are asking for a million dollars to do the assessment of where is the capacity, where’s the biggest bang for the buck? The 50 million might be a stretch, but it might happen.