OLYMPIA — The first meeting of the state’s expanded wolf advisory group will be closed to the public at the request of a private consultant, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife official said Wednesday.
WDFW has hired Francine Madden, executive director of Ohio-based Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration, to facilitate the two-day meeting, May 21-22, in Spokane.
The group, which has been doubled in size to 18 members since its formation in 2013, has met nine previous times in public to talk about WDFW’s execution of Washington’s wolf recovery plan, a subject of intense public interest.
WDFW’s wolf policy coordinator, Dave Ware, said Madden wanted the first meeting of the enlarged board to be closed to encourage members to speak freely and get to know each other.
“I think people are more willing to share and be open without that scrutiny,” he said.
Ware said WDFW maintains that the meeting does not have to be open under state law because the advisory group does not set department policy. With new members joining the board, the meeting will be “more about getting up to speed on wolf-management issues,” Ware said.
Madden recently interviewed ranchers, environmentalists, hunters, WDFW employees and other public officials for an assessment of the public conflict over wolf management. Ware said the report cost the state $82,000. Her fee for facilitating the wolf advisory group meeting was not immediately available.
Washington Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Jack Field, who has been on the board since it was formed, said the board has always allowed the public to observe meetings and offer their comments at the end.
Field said the board members should be held more accountable by taking votes on recommendations — something they’ve never done before.
“I don’t see any reason it needs to be closed,” he said.
Madden said in an interview that the first day will spend “humanizing each other” and the second will be spent on a field trip to northeast Washington, where wolves and livestock are in conflict.
She likened opening the meeting to the public to inviting the community along on a first date.
“We’re not going to be talking about wolves,” she said. “We’re not going to be talking about substance.”
Field said he’s pushing for the board to jump in at this month’s meeting and begin talking about policy decisions related to lethal control and recovery goals for wolves.
“I’m not interested in going to a marshmallow roast, making s’mores and doing some team-building,” he said. “I just want to get something done.”
Madden said she understands the urge to tackle issues, but said a “go slow” approach will result in policies with broader support.
Another advisory group member, Sierra Club representative Bob Aegerter, said he agreed with Madden’s recommendation to close the meeting.
“I think she’s an excellent choice to be a moderator because she has experience and will be impartial,” he said.
Madden reported interviewing more than 90 people in compiling a report on their views of wolf management. The report does not address how to manage wolves, though it does recommend that parties should build trust and have positive dialogue.
Ware said the report showed that WDFW could improve its handling of humans. “We need to figure out how to do a better job of dealing with the social side of wolf management,” he said.
Aegerter called the report “thorough,” while Field said the money could have been better spent.
Field said he wasn’t surprised to read that ranchers are concerned about livestock predation, while environmentalists are worried that wildlife managers are too quick to resort to lethal control.
“I don’t know why they thought it was necessary to have it,” Field said. “I personally would rather have seen them spend the $82,000 collaring more wolves.”
Madden said her study wasn’t meant to present policy options. “I don’t come up with solutions. That is so not my role,” she said.