County commissioner rips state for closing wolf meeting

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife A Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife file photo shows a member of the Teanaway wolf pack. A private consultant wants a closed-door meeting of the state's wolf advisory group.

A recommendation by a conflict-resolution consultant to close this week’s meeting of Washington’s wolf advisory group is causing conflict.

One panel member, Stevens County Commissioner Don Dashiell, said Monday that he plans to be “pretty shrill” if the state Department of Fish and Wildlife follows through on plans to close the meeting Thursday in Spokane. WDFW also plans to bar the public from a field trip the group will take the following day to Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, where the state’s wolf population is concentrated.

Dashiell dismissed WDFW’s contention the agency wasn’t violating the state’s open meetings law.

“Their opinion ain’t worth squat,” he said. “You can’t be doing that.”

The 18-member group, recently expanded from nine members, advises the agency on wolf issues. Most members represent producer groups or conservation organizations with developed positions on wolf management.

Formed in 2013, the group’s guidelines call for its meetings to be public, and the previous nine have been open. WDFW says it’s closing this one at the recommendation of Washington, D.C., consultant Francine Madden, who will lead the meeting.

Madden said Monday she wants to give members a chance to go through “exercises to get some sense of the skills and capacity of the group.”

“I don’t think people would be interested in that,” she said.

Dashiell said members of the public can decide what they’re interested in. He said WDFW’s closed-door policy has stirred interest in the meeting, especially among ranchers.

“Now that it’s private, everybody wants to go,” he said.

WDFW on Monday opened up Thursday’s meeting at the Spokane airport’s Ramada hotel a crack. The agency said it will allow the media to cover a morning report on the department’s preparations for the grazing season. The afternoon session will be closed entirely for what WDFW wolf policy coordinator Dave Ware called team-building exercises.

Dashiell said the agency will have a hard time keeping people away.

“I don’t know how they’re going to enforce it,” he said. “I know some guys who will be there who are not media.”

WDFW maintains the opening meetings law doesn’t apply because the wolf advisory group doesn’t set policy, though it does advise the department and could influence policies.

WDFW may be on solid legal ground, though the courts continue to interpret the law, said Toby Nixon, president of the nonprofit Washington Coalition for Open Government. “The coalition would love to see all meetings that lead to recommendations be open to the public,” he said.

Whatever the legality, closing the meeting “violates the trust of the folks,” Stevens County rancher Scott Nielsen said.

“From my perspective, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to use something paid for by state funds and not being open,” he said.

“I do intend to go that meeting, if I can get away,” Nielsen said. “It’ll be real interesting to see if they can keep me out.”

Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart, who’s not on the panel, said he also planned to come uninvited.

“They have no right to meet in private,” said McCart, who regularly testifies on wolf-related legislation in Olympia. “I plan on being there in the afternoon on Thursday.”

Madden said people “tend to grandstand” with the public watching and that closing the first meeting of the expanded wolf advisory group eventually will lead to “more genuine engagement.”

State Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, has been at the forefront of pushing for changes to the wolf recovery plan to bring relief to ranchers in his northeast Washington district. He said the wolf advisory group has a “lot of trust building to do.”

“If they can do it in a closed meeting, I’m all for it,” he said.

The district’s state senator, Brian Dansel, questioned the reasoning behind closing the meeting.

“If you’re trying to get cattle ranchers and heads of environmental groups to come together, I think that’s going to be a reach,” he said. “It’s really not right to try to circumvent public participation.”

The wolf advisory group’s guidelines, besides calling for open meetings, say guideline changes “must be approved by a majority of appointed advisory group members present.”

Madden said that she’s contacted most group members and believes that the majority supports closing the meeting.

Dashiell said he made his objection known to WDFW and Madden. Members can get to know each other in private and should have the poise to meet with people watching, he said.

“They don’t need protection from the big, bad public,” he said.

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