Fish Agency Stuck in a Quagmire
by Tomoko Hosaka, Oregonian staff
The Department of Fish and Wildlife is criticized
by both environmentalists and wildlife users
SALEM -- Jim Greer, forced out as Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife director, says the agency is caught between conflicting demands of preserving wildlife and serving wildlife consumers to the "point where we can't deliver."
But critics say the department has reacted to its changing mission like a deer caught in the headlights. They want an agency that communicates better, manages better and leads better.
When Greer was pressured into resigning last week, the Republican-controlled Legislature grumbled the agency must do a better job of balancing wild salmon protection and hatchery operations.
Gov. John Kitzhaber said the agency must better embrace the Oregon Plan, the state's program for restoring coastal salmon runs and habitat.
And lobbyists, from environmentalists to sport anglers to tribes, said they want a voice in fish policy discussions and changes they haven't been given.
Most agree the job will get tougher as the agency is continually tugged between saving fish and helping people catch them. The same department that is legally charged with habitat and species conservation makes money from hunting and fishing licenses. Whoever succeeds Greer, 49, will be charged with setting a clear agenda for saving salmon, as well as managing budget shortfalls, raising staff morale and fixing communication gaps.
"The Department of Fish and Wildlife in Oregon and in most Western states has become a most untenable sort of job," said Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, chairman of the House Stream Restoration and Species Recovery Committee. "We may be looking at a period of time when no one really survives that top job for more than four, five years. The dynamics today are getting to be very, very difficult."
The Legislature wants more permanent change. It is considering a bill that would give the governor authority to choose the new director, with the Senate's confirmation, instead of the volunteer Fish and Wildlife Commission. It has widespread support among lawmakers.
Senate Bill 49 was approved Friday by the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture, Salmon and Water Committee and heads to the Senate floor, where it is expected to pass. The bill would be effective two weeks after Kitzhaber's signature, making it likely that he will appoint the next director if SB49 makes it to his desk.
Supporters, such as the committee chairman, Sen. Ken Messerle, R-Coos Bay, say the governor should have more control over the department.
Detractors say the bill would only politicize the position even more.
"What tends to happen is when a different political party takes over . . . sometimes very competent, thoughtful people are swept out," said Sen. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, who voted against the bill in committee.
Lawmakers want the department to talk. Sen. Joan Dukes, D-Astoria, said hunters and anglers in her district complain regularly that the agency changes regulations without warning or their input. Communication within the department and with other agencies also has been spotty, Dukes said.
"Things happen within the agency that the Legislature would find out about afterward," Dukes said. "We have said over and over and over again, please keep us in the loop."
Fish and Wildlife is among the state's largest agencies, with more than 1,000 full- and part-time employees. Its duties range from operating 34 fish hatcheries and protecting habitat to selling angling licenses and providing hunter safety information.
The agency's responsibilities have grown in recent years as its revenue has declined. Federal restrictions, such as the Endangered Species Act, have placed greater demands on the agency to concentrate on species recovery.
Critics say the agency has not led the discussion about fish policy -- the top natural resource issue this session. Lawmakers must determine how to integrate new federal guidelines about protecting species into the Oregon Plan and seek ways to manage both hatchery fish and wild fish populations.
But Fish and Wildlife has not released a legislative strategy.
"I don't know why," said Roy Hemmingway, Kitzhaber's natural resources adviser. "All I know is that an issue like that cannot be allowed to fester."
Roy Elicker, Fish and Wildlife's legislative director, says the agency's new wild fish policy, which will help guide the state's salmon recovery efforts, will be released next month. It will be up to the interim director to decide how active the agency will be during the session, he said.
But Messerle, who supports integrating wild and hatchery fish populations to increase salmon runs, says the agency must take a firm stand on the issue. "We need to decide, instead of going down the street that we have been on for some time, trying to saddle both," he said.
Not only lawmakers are pulling at the agency.
Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, says the agency must reach out to the tribes. He supports supplementing wild fish populations with hatchery fish and denounced the state's practice of clubbing excess fish to keep them from spawning in the wild.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, say the agency hasn't been concerned enough about fish conservation.
"They're statutorily charged with protecting native species," said Jim Myron of Oregon Trout. "But given the fact that a lot of their funding comes from licenses, that puts them into a real box and puts them into a real dilemma that they've never been able to really overcome."
Related Links: Oregon a Leader in NW Salmon Recovery, Damon Franz, Greenwire
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