A wildlife commissioner in Washington State who has de-emphasized the role of hunters in wildlife management—instead recommending using large carnivores to control deer and elk populations—is the target of a lawsuit filed this month by the Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation, a national hunter-rights group. The suit asks a judge to bar Commissioner Lorna Smith from further service on the wildlife commission.
Filed Monday in Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia, the lawsuit claims that Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Smith is in violation of state law by concurrently holding another appointive office. Smith, who represents western Washington on the wildlife commission, is serving her second term on the Jefferson County Planning Commission, according to her profile on the Fish and Wildlife Commission page.
That’s illegal, says the Sportsmen’s Alliance, citing state statues that detail the qualifications of commissioners.
“Persons eligible for appointment as members of the commission shall have general knowledge of the habits and distribution of fish and wildlife and shall not hold another state, county, or municipal elective or appointive office,” according to the statute. Smith clearly is in violation, says Todd Adkins, vice president of government affairs for the Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation.
“The suit calls attention to a very basic violation of standing rules,” says Adkins. “In this case, the state statute is unequivocal. I suppose the legislature could have differentiated between volunteer versus paid positions, but they didn’t. The law is very clear here.”
The foundation’s lawsuit is without merit, counters Claire Loebs Davis, president of Washington Wildlife First, an organization that claims Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ignores science, promotes unethical hunting, and represents only a tiny fraction of Washington residents.
“It is a harassment suit designed to intimidate members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, such as Commissioner Smith, who refuse to serve as a rubber stamp for department management,” says Davis, a Seattle attorney who advocates for animal welfare and whose practice “has been focused on attempting to hold WDFW legally accountable.”
Davis claims Smith isn’t in violation of state law because county planning commissions act only in an advisory capacity and do not exercise any power. She says a companion statute to the one cited in the suit notes that the sort of public “officer” barred from holding concurrent service doesn’t apply to planning commissioners “because planning commissions act only in an advisory capacity and do not have any decision-making power or authority and are thus not county officers.”
Davis notes that the suit, which she calls “a cheap shot against a dedicated public servant,” doesn’t allege Smith’s service on the county planning commission created “any actual conflict of interest with her role as fish and wildlife commissioner, and it is hard to imagine what that conflict could be.”
Smith is one of the most polarizing members of the nine-person commission, all appointed by incumbent Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Collectively, the commission has turned traditional wildlife management on its head in the Evergreen State over the past couple years. In a news release announcing the lawsuit, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance noted that Smith “was the driving force behind the canceling of the spring  black bear hunt” among other controversial redirections of traditional wildlife management.
Smith’s role in pushing a version of wildlife management that’s contrary to the traditional arrangement, in which commissioners who come from hunting and angling groups recommend incremental adjustments of quotas and hunting-season structures, has made her a prime target for pro-hunting groups. Smith’s background—she resigned as executive director of Western Wildlife Outreach to accept the commission appointment—as an advocate for large carnivores has been visible in many commission discussions and decisions to redirect department management to emphasize predation as an ungulate-population management tool.
This week’s lawsuit may be an opening salvo in a much more contentious battle between “traditionalists,” considered to be those license-buying hunters, and “reformers,” those who are working to de-emphasize hunting and fishing as primary wildlife management functions.
Adkins suggested that this week’s lawsuit may not stop at having Smith barred from the commission, but might trigger a re-examination of the decisions she was involved with as a commissioner.
“The decisions that the commission has made are problematic because of a basic lack of following rules, procedures, and protocols,” says Adkins. “It is an interesting question: If she never had the qualifications to serve, then does all of her service become problematic?”
Smith isn’t the only WDFW commissioner whose service outside the commission is being examined. Molly Linville, who represents eastern Washington and whose views on the commission have been more aligned with those of the Sportsmen’s Alliance, served until recently on a county planning board and remains an elected member of a rural school board. Linville told the Spokesman Review newspaper this week that her legal counsel assured her the school board service was not a conflict of interest.
The same newspaper article quotes Commissioner Smith as saying the governor’s office was “comfortable” with her holding the volunteer planning commission role when she applied and was appointed to the wildlife commission.
Hanging over the incumbent Fish and Wildlife Commission members is the fact that they’ve not been confirmed by the state senate, says Brian Lynn, vice-president of communications for the United State Sportsmen’s Alliance, which is the outreach arm of the Sportsmen’s Foundation that filed the lawsuit.
“We think that’s problematic,” says Lynn. “A full confirmation process would vet the nominees and allow the public to participate in the process. That’s not been the case for any of the current commissioners.”
Washington’s Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee is scheduled to open confirmation hearings for six of Inslee’s nominees to the Fish and Game Commission today. The roster of nominees under consideration includes incumbent commissioner Linville but not Smith.
Adkins, of the Sportsmen’s Foundation, notes that the Washington lawsuit represents an escalation in efforts to ensure that wildlife-agency commissioners are serving traditional constituencies.
“Anti-hunting groups and individuals have identified these fish-and-game commissions as a weak link when it comes to preserving the North American model of wildlife conservation,” says Adkins. “We see Washington as a microcosm of the larger problem, that the animal-rights activists have shifted the battleground from legislatures to the courts and now they’re focused on the commission level, trying to dilute the presence of hunters on game commissions. We intend to stress the good-governance angle, by filing suit where we need to, to ensure that commissioners are representing the constituents that the law says they’re supposed to be representing.”
For her part, Davis welcomes a conversation about commission representation.“
Washington Wildlife First does not oppose having hunters on the commission,” she says. “What is important to us is that all the commissioners understand that their responsibility is to represent the values and interests of all Washingtonians, not just a narrow constituency.”
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