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News / Sports / Outdoors

Q&A with Rian Sallee, new WDFW Region 5 director

Volunteering, elk hoof disease, hunting access, hatchery salmon among topics discussed

By TERRY OTTO, for The Columbian
Published: June 10, 2023, 5:50am

Rian Sallee, the newly appointed director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Region 5, recently sat down with The Columbian to discuss her priorities and goals for Southwest Washington.

Sallee most recently led the Washington Department of Ecology out of the Vancouver Field Office. She comes from the Midwest, where she worked for the Ohio Lake Erie Commission on Lake Erie Resource Management, and worked in conservation in the private sector.

Question: Can you talk a little bit about what your priorities will be in this position?

Sallee: WDFW is charged with providing sustainable fish and wildlife outdoor opportunities for all, and I want those opportunities to be inclusive and accessible. I think a great deal about connections, connections to one another, and to recreation.

I really believe that a focus on conservation unites us, so what I hope to do as the Southwest Region director is reinforce my own personal values and those of the agency, including respect, integrity, accountability, and empathy as I am learning from, and engaging our stakeholders for fish, wildlife and the habitats that support them.

Question: Outdoors clubs of all kinds in Region 5 have struggled to get active members back after the COVID lockdowns, making it difficult to provide volunteers for events such as the Klineline Kids fishing clinic. Are there any ways the WDFW in Region 5 can help outdoor clubs with this issue?

Sallee: Volunteers are an important part of the work that we do at WDFW, and they are vitally important to our department’s success. We rely on the Vancouver Wildlife League and other local partners to make many outdoor events accessible to all.

I recently met with the Vancouver Wildlife League and it was clear that they seek enhanced visibility and support. We are thinking about how to engage people in the work that they do, and to meet people where they are.

As an example, the department recently established a public engagement division that hosts public fishing and hunting events statewide. We want to support that next generation of outdoor enthusiasts and that connection to recreational opportunities is paramount.

Question: WDFW’s Region 5 is ground zero for Treponema Associated Hoof Disease in elk. Washington State University has taken the lead in the effort to combat this disease, but is there some way the region can be more active in that effort?

Sallee: First of all I want to recognize how incredibly difficult it can be to watch an elk with hoof disease. WDFW is working closely with Washington State University’s College of Veterinarian Medicine, which was designated in 2017 by the state legislature as the lead in researching the causes and potential solutions for the disease.

They got their first (live elk for research) in 2019, and we worked with them to get more elk to their facility and through that partnership we can gain more knowledge to help us manage this disease. We want to continue to partner with experts to better understand this disease.

I would like to add that in 2021 we started a program to evaluate how hunters can help reduce the prevalence of the disease, and to do that we started an incentive program for elk hunters. Hunters submit the hooves of their harvest at drop-off stations in the region, and if the hooves display signs of hoof disease, then they will have a chance to draw a premium elk tag the following license year.

Question: Access is an important issue for R5 outdoorsmen and women. How will R5 work to increase access to lands for hunting and fishing while you are director? And, how would you go about this?

Sallee: The number one complaint of hunters in Washington is where to go. Of the four million acres of private industrial timberland in western Washington, only a little over a million acres is open for access. As the gates go up in some areas and people have to abandon previous hunting spots for new ones, that just puts more pressure on other open areas.

In June of 2022 the agency adopted a plan to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters and anglers in Washington. We call this the “R3” plan, and one of the main components of that is access. We are looking for ways to expand our private access program in the region.

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Essentially these folks will meet with landowners to explore ways to keep land open year-round, or to provide access during those key outdoor recreational seasons. In addition to that, where easements and other tools can unlock access to public land and private land, we will work with our partners to expand those opportunities.

Question: The majority of Region 5 anglers want stockings of hatchery fish to either remain at current levels, or even increase. However, the WDFW must continually fight off lawsuits from wild fish advocates intent on further rolling back hatchery plants, even if they will be used to increase prey for southern resident orcas. What will be your stand on this issue?

Sallee: Our agency works to offer the most benefit for salmon conservation and recovery while still supporting fisheries whenever possible. What that looks like can change based on best available science. Some see hatchery fish as the silver bullet for salmon recovery others see them as hugely detrimental to the overall health and fitness of salmon population, and the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Hatchery production is objectively a part of our commissions policy guidance, and part of mitigation obligations for public utilities and federal agencies, and really a key consideration with the national marine fisheries service in rendering endangered species act determinations. We must take those into consideration.

The way it stands now if we increase production for hatcheries as we have in recent years to improve prey availability for southern resident killer whales, we have to account for and balance the numbers of hatchery fish returning to their rivers of origin with the number of wild fish working their way to the spawning grounds.

We often have to walk a line between the two and sometimes that means no one is satisfied by the outcome. We want to listen to the values and needs of our partners while maintaining sustainable fish populations for generations to come and that is a delicate balance.