Facing looming budget crisis, WDFW asks for $26 million from state

By Eli Francovich

The Spokesman-Review

The state’s wildlife and habitat management agency is taking another crack at procuring full funding.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has requested $26 million from the Legislature in the supplemental budget cycle. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to announce his budget around Dec. 13. From there, the Legislature will review and vote on how to allocate funds by early March.

The request, if granted, would fully fund the agency and backfill a structural deficit that’s been plaguing WDFW since the 2008 recession. If WDFW does not receive funding, it will have to reduce staffing and services starting as early as February.

“It would be pretty catastrophic not to get it,” WDFW Director Kelley Susewind said.

Susewind remains “cautiously optimistic” that the Legislature will allocate at least some money.

How much, and for how long, remains to be seen. Earlier this year, a bill that would have increased hunting and angling fees for the first time since 2011 failed.

At the same time, a request for more general fund money to backfill the structural deficit was not fully funded. Compounding the budget crunch, the permanent reauthorization of the Columbia River salmon and steelhead endorsement, which brought in $3.3 million every two years, failed as well.

WDFW received some additional funding from the 2019 session, but much of it came in one-time dollops.

The deficit is due to three things: Funding via general-fund taxes and recreational license sales has not kept pace with costs; a one-time funding fix approved by the Legislature in 2017 expired in June; and the department is still recovering from budget cuts from the Great Recession.

The supplemental budget request of $26 million would permanently fix those shortfalls, Susewind said, using general fund money, not an angler or hunter fee increase.

“We are not asking for a fee increase. We’re asking for a full general fund (fix),” he said. “We’re starting to understand that’s no answer.”

WDFW has asked hunters and anglers to pay more in the past, with no success. As fewer people hunt and fish in Washington and nationally, WDFW will have to find other sources of user-generated income.

Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Kim Thorburn said $26 million is a big ask for a supplemental budget cycle, but the commission supported the request.

“Since the recession, we’ve asked twice to have increases with fees and license and that has been denied,” Thorburn said. “And after a lot of discussion, we’re going forward with this request for general fund.”

If the Legislature didn’t fund any part of WDFW’s request — a highly unlikely scenario — about 100 jobs would be on the chopping block, Susewind said. Habitat improvement, conflict mitigation and other programs would also see significant cuts.

In the Spokane area, that would be most visible with the complete elimination of the Master Hunter program. Thirteen percent of the state’s Master Hunters live in Spokane County. Regionally, it would also mean a reduction in conflict management employees. Those employees, which include biologists and enforcement officers, respond and deal with problem wildlife.

The request for more money might rub some sportsmen and women the wrong way after seeing hunting and fishing opportunities reduced.

To those groups and individuals, Susewind asked them to look beyond one or two species.

“I’m asking folks to take a look at the overall mission of the agency,” he said.

WDFW is actively trying to change how people think of the agency, putting more emphasis on the conservation and habitat work they do. That’s a big shift as state wildlife agencies have traditionally been focused on game species.

Ongoing budget woes make it hard, if not impossible, to address some of the underlying reasons for the reduced hunting and fishing opportunity, Susewind said. As more people move to Washington and as the climate changes, the necessity of habitat preservation and enhancement work will only grow.

“It’s only going to get more complicated,” Susewind said.