Fish and Wildlife budget cut

Bob Mottram; The News Tribune

Olympia, WA - 12/25/02 - Gov. Gary Locke has proposed that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife spend about $10 million less for operations in the next biennium than the $292.2 million it was authorized to spend in the current one.

The figure, about a 3 percent reduction, was contained in the proposed budget that Locke released on Tuesday. The proposal will go to the Washington Legislature in January, where each house is expected to respond with a budget proposal of its own.

Spokesmen for the department said Thursday the agency could absorb the potential hit, but not without pain.

The governor's document calls specifically for closing three of the agency's hatcheries; Coulter Creek at the head of Case Inlet, Hurd Creek near Sequim and Naselle near Willapa Harbor. The closures would cut six jobs and save an estimated $1.3 million.

John Kerwin, manager of the department's fish production division, said the Coulter Creek Hatchery rears the 2.8 million fall chinook salmon fingerlings that are planted in the Deschutes River near Olympia, about 12.5 percent of Puget Sound's hatchery chinook production.

The survivors of that plant contribute as adults to Puget Sound's sport and commercial fisheries.

The Hurd Creek Hatchery supports the Elwha and Dungeness fall chinook programs. It also provides support for a wild-stock chum salmon recovery program in Jimmycomelately Creek and for a wild-stock coho recovery program in Snow Creek, both on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Naselle Hatchery plants about 5.5 million fall chinook and about 1.2 million coho annually in the Naselle River above Willapa Bay, and about 25,000 steelhead.

If the budget the Legislature adopts next year calls for the same closures, Kerwin said, he will try to find a way to shift the Elwha chinook program elsewhere. The department lacks space and facilities for the rest.

"We've used up the options that we've had with the previous cuts," he said.

Russ Cahill, chairman of the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the governor's budget calls for elimination of 83 1/2 employee positions.

"That's people, and that's going to hurt," Cahill said.

Some of the proposed personnel cutbacks are specified, some are not. The document calls for eliminating the department's regional director and office manager in Ephrata.

Personnel in that office would report to the manager in Yakima, headquarters of one of the department's five other regions.

It also calls for eliminating the customer service staff members in each of the regional offices. These employees primarily sell hunting and fishing licenses, for a savings of $1.4 million.

Such sales would shift totally to private licensing agents at retail outlets.

The proposed budget also instructs the department to maintain five vacancies in its enforcement branch, and calls for other miscellaneous cuts.

However, the budget would add money in certain areas, Cahill said.

"They put the money back in to get rid of the spartina grass in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor," he said. Spartina grass is a non-native plant that "takes over the habitat and destroys the oyster grounds and crab habitat and a number of other things.

"They added half a million dollars for replacement of vehicles," he said. "We have some vehicles with more than 200,000 miles. And they added $400,000 to upgrade the department's computer system and backup system."

The proposal also would add $1 million to the hatchery reform program for recovery of wild salmon.

In the proposed $41.7 million capital budget, "we've done better than we've ever done in the past," Cahill said. "It includes money for a lot of stuff we've been asking for for a long time, to modernize hatcheries and take better care of our lands."

That money would be more than the department ever has gotten, and also - at 2.5 percent - the biggest share it ever has received out of the state's overall expenditures for capital improvements.

Bob Mottram: 253-597-8640


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