Northwest Sportsman Magazine Op-Ed: The Changing Landscape of Language in Washington Game Management

Op-Ed: The Changing Landscape of Language in Washington Game Management

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was written and submitted by Jillian Garrett.

By Jillian Garrett

Washington state has recently become ground zero in the fight to save hunting, with their bear and cougar seasons currently under attack. The Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission – a separate entity from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife – acts essentially like the Supreme Court of wildlife policy, having sole say in how wildlife and hunting opportunities are managed across the state.

These commission seats are appointed by the Governor, and in recent years have included members with questionable politics and dubious ties to some of the more worrisome anti-hunting organizations. The attempts of some of these commission members to redefine language surrounding wildlife policy as a means to circumvent the Commission’s legal mandate is something hunters everywhere should take note of. What happens in Washington could set a dangerous precedent that imperils the future of hunting nationwide. To quote Commissioner Melanie Rowland at an August 2023 meeting of the WDFW Commission, “…{hunters} should be getting nervous.”1

The first true signs of danger came in November 2021, when the Commission ended the spring black bear season in what was originally supposed to merely be a vote on tag allotments. From there, the Commission has been steadily eroding hunting opportunities, including threatening to cancel all cougar and bear seasons as early as April 2024.

These decisions flew in the face of recommendations and data provided by the WDFW biologists. For a commission claiming to want to manage wildlife based on “whole ecosystem science,” this is an alarming proposition, especially in a state with some of the densest cougar populations in the nation. The Commission has also made no mention of how they plan to replace the vital conservation funding provided by hunter dollars.

Though the WDFW Commission has a legal mandate to “preserve, protect, perpetuate, and manage fish and wildlife and to provide fishing and hunting opportunities,” there have been recent attempts by commission members to redefine the language and definitions involved in the state’s wildlife policy as a means to exclude those very things. A recent example of this occurred during a WDFW Commission meeting in January 2023, when Commissioner Lorna Smith suddenly proposed an “alternative pathway” to the current game management plan, including defining and applying “best available science” in wildlife management.

BEST AVAILABLE SCIENCE (or BAS as it is alternatively known) is a catchphrase frequently used in today’s environmental politics, its definition changing drastically depending on the intentions of the person using it. This means that it can be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. In Washington, BAS has become a key component in the battle over hunting, appropriated as a buzzword by some of the commissioners to support a policy with an unfriendly view towards hunters and hunting. This ongoing debate over what constitutes BAS has sometimes been called the “scientific charade,” because it clouds actual science in favor of political goals, which is not conducive to good wildlife management.2 

So where did this term come from? One of the first statutes to include a mandate for using BAS was the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, which required that agencies use the best scientific data available when creating policies regarding the management of threatened species. However, because the ESA did not actually define what constituted BAS, the precedent has always been to leave it up to each individual agency to decide (or via subsequent litigation).3 In today’s highly polarized world, this can have far-reaching consequences, depending on the agenda of the agency in charge. For an example of how one interpretation can negatively impact wildlife management and hunting rights, merely look at the WDFW Commission.

During another Commission meeting in February of 2023, a document was presented by the Commission that contained an action item to “… define standards for ‘best available science.’”4 This was an interesting statement to make, given the fact that in 2000, Washington had already proposed a ruling that helped to define and create guidelines for BAS, at least in how it pertained to anadromous fisheries (though it could easily be translated to game management).5


Washington’s proposed BAS guidelines stated that “scientific information can be produced only through a valid scientific process,” including such internationally accepted practices as peer review, standardized methods of data collection, repetition of results and logical conclusions. What did not count as BAS included anecdotal information, nonexpert opinion and hearsay. These last three nonscientific sources “should not be used as a substitute” for best available science.

Yet examples of these nonscientific sources leading to policy decisions have already come from the Commission itself, with one notorious example being Commissioner Smith erroneously stating during a December 2021 meeting that, in the spring, bears are “thin, starving, lethargic, and less able to avoid threats,” which is why the spring hunt is too successful and “violates the hunting ethics of fair chase.” 10 These statements are demonstrably false, as bears are not lethargic, nor are they easy targets, and the spring hunt season began well after their emergence period from hibernation. However, her statement was still used to justify the decision to change policy regarding the spring bear season and to disparage the best available science provided by the state biologists.

Commissioner Smith also stated that the available science for studying bear populations was “old-fashioned” and needed to be replaced with newer science – a statement completely at odds with Washington’s current definition of BAS, which requires a method of science that has had the time to be replicated, peer reviewed and thoroughly understood before being implemented into policy.

In addition, locating the best available science under Washington’s guidelines meant consulting with state natural resource agencies who can provide numerous guidance models and documents. Since state biologists already use nationally accepted scientific practices for data collection, it is logical to assume that the information they provide the Commission would already include the best available science. Yet, instead of listening to their state biologists, the Commission repeatedly belittled and marginalized their data in order to pursue an “alternative pathway.” Hunters might be starting to smell a whiff of that “scientific charade.”

IN JUNE 2023, THE COMMISSION NEXT RELEASED a draft of their newly proposed “Conservation Policy,” with the intent of “directing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to preserve and protect Washington’s fish and wildlife and their habitats by proactively addressing current and emerging conservation challenges.” The draft was opened up to a period of public comment, with current Commission Chair Barbara Baker saying, “We want to hear your input on this draft Conservation Policy. Your feedback will help inform the policy’s direction and help us improve how we approach conservation challenges and provide opportunities.”6 Once finalized, this Conservation Policy will set the tone for management of Washington’s fish and game species for the next 25 years.

A major component of that draft was an attempt to redefine words such as “conservation.” The Oxford dictionary definition of conservation is “the prevention of a wasteful use of a resource,” which, when translated into the legal mandate of the WDFW Commission, essentially means the intelligent management of wildlife populations for the future while also providing hunting and fishing opportunities. Though seemingly innocuous, the desire of the Commission to change the definition of such key words should be concerning to hunters everywhere, as the newly proposed description took on a decidedly more preservationist slant: “To preserve functioning, resilient, healthy ecosystems, the WDFW shall strive to conserve all fish, shellfish, and wildlife, whether rare or common, and their habitat.” 7

Preservation and conservation are two words frequently used interchangeably, yet they have two vastly different meanings. To quote Safari Club International, “Conservation is a method of species and ecosystem protection made possible by sustainable use, active management, and revenue generation. On the other hand, preservation means total protection and minimized use of nature and resources…”8 In short, conservation translates to the management of wildlife resources to include hunting and angling opportunities, while preservation means a total protection of wildlife resources from any form of consumptive use.

In that same policy draft, the WDFW Commission also touched on the importance of adaptive management, calling it a “a critical and required step” and a tool to identify “risks to the conservation of fish, wildlife, and habitat,” when making policy decisions. This was an interesting point to make, as in a prior meeting, the Commission had made a sharp distinction between adaptive management and best available science, coming as no surprise to those familiar with the spring bear debate. Adaptive management has long been used as a vital tool to monitor wildlife populations, especially black bear populations in Washington, which can fluctuate based on survival and reproduction rates, food sources, and migration. Online harvest reports, tooth submissions and mandatory carcass checks (instituted in 2021) are some of the ways that WDFW biologists can keep track of hunter harvests and (together with population counts) adjust the annual harvest quota as needed. 9

This adaptive management model has worked for decades to help mitigate Washington’s bear-caused timber damage and human conflicts, as well as maintain population goals,6 and one might argue that it would already count as the best available science under the circumstances. Yet suddenly, according to the Commission, this management model was not good enough to justify the continuation of the black bear hunting season, and a different definition of BAS was needed. Once again, the landscape of language was changing, rewriting wildlife management policy in an alarming way.

HOWEVER YOU CHOOSE TO LOOK AT IT, hunting is at a crossroads. Washington’s battle over hunting rights and an “alternative pathway” for game management is a magnification of a much larger issue that has far-reaching consequences for hunters everywhere. Anti-hunting interest groups have learned that even the smallest legislative loophole can be exploited, and that by chipping away at these smaller issues over time they can achieve the equivalent of “death by degrees,” meaning that hunters won’t recognize the extent of the damage until it’s too late. We can see this occurring now with the cancellation of Washington’s spring bear season and the further imperilment of its cougar and bear seasons.

Being proactive is the best way to combat this. What happens in Washington will set a precedent that could potentially put the future of hunting at risk everywhere. When wildlife policymakers ignore the actual best available science, disparage and ignore the work of their own state biologists, remove conservation funding without any thought to replacing it, and attempt to redefine policy language as a way to circumvent their legal mandate, they are merely engaging in yet another example of the “scientific charade.” It is deeply unfortunate that our wildlife will be the ones to ultimately pay the price for this hubris.

Sources referenced:

1TVW, Washington Fish and Wildlife Big Tent Committee,, August 2023.

Please Note: The full quote was, “I understand that hunters could be getting nervous, and I think they should be getting nervous.”

2 Addler, Jonathan, The Science Charade in Species Conservation,, February 2023.

3 Lowell, Natalie, Evaluating agency use of “best available science” under the United States Endangered Species Act,, February 2023.

4 WDFW Special Commission, Performance Evaluation Elements for Kelly Susewind,, February 2023.

5 Washington Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development, Best Available Science Rule,, February 2023.

6Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Reminder: Fish and Wildlife Commission seeks public input on draft Conservation Policy,, August 2023.

7Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, Commission Conservation Policy,, August 2023.

8Safari Club International, Conservation vs. Preservation: Which is Better for Wildlife?,, August 2023.

9Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, Common Question Answers,, February 2023.

10 TVW, Washington State Fish and Wildlife Committee,, August 2023.


Editor’s note: Author Jillian Garrett is a hunter, farmer and conservationist living in Northeast Washington. She and her husband operate a regenerative farm with a focus on wildlife conservation through responsible land stewardship. Jillian’s writing and photography have also appeared in Sports Afield, Bear Hunting Magazine and Blue Ridge Farmer Magazine. A member of First Hunt Foundation, she remains passionate about the importance of mentorship within the hunting community.