COLVILLE, Wash. — The new director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says his agency needs to rebuild trust with the state’s ranchers.
Kelly Susewind, who took over leadership of the department four months ago, spoke to ranchers and hunters Dec. 8 during a public meeting in Colville, Wash. It was Susewind’s fourth visit to the area since taking over the position.
Susewind said the department is committed to working with local teams on wolves.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize we don’t have your trust,” he told the audience. “That’s one of my main objectives, to get that back. I can’t just promise it, I’ve got to earn it. It’s going to take time.”
About 60 people attended the meeting.
Susewind told ranchers the department is subject to legislative action driven by the largest source of votes.
“That’s the absolute worst way in the world to manage wildlife, is public sentiment, especially public that’s voting on stuff that’s happening not in their backyard,” he said. “Sometimes people would like me to get a little more aggressive; I’m trying to make sure I manage it so we keep control and then I own the decisions.”
The department ran out of money for range riders, has spent $150,000 more than budgeted, and is working with legislators to keep the program running.
If they don’t come through with more funding, he’ll finish the biennium in the hole, he said.
“That’s a bad first step out of the gate for a new director, but we’re serious about providing the protection,” he said.
When an audience member told him he needed to do something to improve hunting licenses to help the department budget, Susewind replied, “I’ll give you four months, ready, set, go fix things,” to laughter in the room.
He hears their concerns and is working on them, he said.
“I can’t offer more than that right now, today,” he said. “I’m hoping to be back here next year with some more concrete moves we’ve made and improvements.”
Susewind and wolf policy lead Donny Martorello fielded questions for two hours.
Martorello said ranchers have shared with him the seen and unseen impacts of livestock deaths, including reduced pregnancy rates, weight loss and lost calves.
The department is falling short, he said.
“When I took this job ... that’s not the goalpost I was aiming for,” he said. “We’re way off. We’ve got to do a better job. If I knew what that was, I would do it instantly, and I don’t. When it comes to removing wolves, it’s harder than I thought it was.”
The agency officials met earlier in the day with Cattle Producers of Washington and Stevens County Cattlemen.
Kettle Falls rancher Scott Nielsen, president of both organizations, said Susewind and Martorello need to hear ranchers’ perspectives first-hand.
“I think (Susewind) is someone we can work with,” he said. “We definitely have some issues with his department. I think we can work with Kelly to fix some of those issues.”
“I didn’t see anything that would help other than (Susewind) had a listening ear,” said Len McIrvin of the Diamond M Ranch, which has experienced the largest impact from wolves. “He did listen and he met with us, which is a starting place.”
Stevens County commissioner Don Dashiell said the meeting provided access to Susewind.
“He didn’t promise them any magic pills or anything, as far as the wolf, bear or cougar deal,” he said.