To balance its budget, Washington Fish and Wildlife may cut back the division that responds to troublesome animals, such as cougars and black bears.
Other potential cuts could affect hatcheries, hunting programs and the department’s ability to maintain its land and conserve species. Fish and Wildlife policy director Nate Pamplin said Monday that officials will try to decide this month where to reduce spending.
“It’s a series of tough choices ahead,” he said. “There’s a fair amount for us to sort through in the next month to balance the budget in the face of a pretty significant shortfall.”
Fish and Wildlife reports that conflicts with animals such as elk, wolves, moose, cougars, coyotes, bobcats and black bears can be expected to increase as the state’s population grows.
In the new two-year budget, state lawmakers set aside money to manage conflicts with elk in Skagit County and with wolves, particularly in Ferry and Stevens counties in northeast Washington.
Legislators, however, did not appropriate another $4.36 million the department said it needed to maintain the statewide division created in 2013 to keep wildlife from hurting people and damaging property, including crops.
Months ago, the department warned that the division would be among the programs cut if lawmakers didn’t erase a $31 million deficit. The hole effectively deepened to $37 million when legislators approved $6 million in pay increases.
To partially fill the gap, lawmakers appropriated $24 million in general taxes, but declined to hike fees to hunt and fish to raise the rest. Sportsmen complained they would be paying more even as hunting and fishing opportunities decline.
Some lawmakers said sportsmen already were bearing the burden for wildlife preservation that benefits the public. Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Okanogan County, proposed taxing high-end recreational apparel and equipment to help fund the department, but the bill was not approved.
Kretz said Monday he has sympathy for Fish and Wildlife’s budget problem, but said the department should make responding to threats to property and public safety a priority.
“Tell me what they’re doing that is more important than that,” he said.
Between 2013 and 2017, complaints about wildlife rose by 31%, according to the department. Fish and Wildlife fielded 2,672 calls about problem or dangerous wild animals in 2017.
A fatal cougar attack near North Bend in eastern King County last year highlighted the importance of continuing to fund staff trained to handle emergencies, according to the department.
Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind said in April that he has instructed wildlife agents to call out hounds to purse and kill cougars whenever public safety is in doubt. The directive came after the Fish and Wildlife Commission heard complaints about cougars at a meeting in Eastern Washington.
Fish and Wildlife also handles wildlife complaints such as elk and deer destroying crops, black bears damaging tree farms and wolves attacking livestock.
Kretz said some residents in his district already feel the department’s response to wildlife complaints is inadequate.
“People are frustrated,” he said. “I’m not advocating for this, but my district is on the verge of taking over that whole program themselves.”