Choice of wildlife leader is critical


Last updated 3/12/2024 at 9:52am

On May 10, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to decide who to hire to lead the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department as its new director pushed back an initially aggressive hiring timeline.

“Hearing people is more important than speed,” Chair Mary Wahl said at the February 16 meeting in support of the decision. This process comes as Curt Melcher, who has been director for the last 10 years, prepares to retire.

As the commission navigates the hiring process, I want to express my thoughts and give the commission some important things to consider.

The person hired to replace Melcher should reflect the values of the majority of Oregonians. Namely, the commission must accept and embrace how Oregonians’ values have shifted in recent decades. Our citizens still value wildlife; but it’s not usually through the scope of a rifle or at the end of a hook. The North American Model of Conservation, which has guided fish and game agencies since the turn of the 20th century, is outdated and no longer an appropriate and workable framework for wildlife management in this age of extinction. We should now look to and embrace the public trust doctrine, a legal principle that holds that wildlife are held in trust by the government for the public benefit, not just for hunters and anglers. To make this vision a reality, the commission – along with the new director – will need to secure new sources of funding that are not tied to consumptive uses of wildlife.

The new director should be someone with a conservation background, not an old-school “wildlife management” degree who looks to the best science to guide policy. For instance, we now know and appreciate the presence of wolves, mountain lions, and other predators in our ecosystems. They help control disease among ungulates, plant-eating hoofed animals like elk and mule deer, and provide for safer meat consumption for humans. We know now that hatchery programs are harmful to wild fish populations in all cases where wild fish are present in a system.

Hunters and anglers no longer represent the majority. And that’s OK. The new director must speak up on behalf of all wildlife, including predators, and advocate for ethical hunting practices, all of which the public reasonably demands. In my estimation, the greatest threat to hunting and angling privileges, aside from dwindling habitat and species loss, is public support and tolerance.

Too often, the “hook and bullet” crowd feels the need to dig in their heels fearing a slippery slope when new restrictions are proposed. For instance, beaver hunting and trapping restrictions are fiercely opposed by entrenched trapping interests. The 200 or so beaver trappers in the state must not be allowed to deprive our 4.4 million residents of the ecosystem services having healthy beaver populations provides. We must protect beavers for the expansive wetland habitats they create that foster natural fire breaks, water storage, water filtration, carbon capture, and more. We need a new director who will be unafraid to advocate for hunting and trapping closures of beavers on public lands to gain these ecological services and benefits.

Over the last few weeks, the commission heard from the public on various concerns related to the hiring process. Some of that feedback has been taken to heart, such as the suggestion that the application process be opened up to external candidates. The commission should also be commended for conducting the hiring process in a public and transparent way with many points of public engagement. I trust that the commission will seize this pivotal opportunity to appoint a new director whose values mirror those of the majority of Oregonians.

The commission must select a new director who can navigate the inevitable resistance from the status quo as they embark on implementing necessary changes. I hope that the commission will take a serious look at qualified external applicants. Sometimes, the change that is needed has to come from the outside. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife should consider hiring a new director who is democratic and represents the broad interests of the public and not a select few.

Republished courtesy Oregon Capital Chronicle


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