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Pygmy rabbit program recovers after wildfire

QUINCY — A flash of gray in the sagebrush.

That’s how state Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Jon Gallie described the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, while showing the rabbit’s breeding and acclimation enclosures in the Beezley Hills area. On Friday, Gallie trudged between snowy sagebrush hedges looking for the telltale footprints, droppings and burrows of pygmy rabbits.

“All the evidence we ever get to see, is a couple of holes the size of a cantaloupe,” Gallie said, referring to the rabbit’s burrows.

The pygmy rabbit is a softball-sized lump of gray fur with large roundish ears that uses sagebrush for food, water and to make its homes. It is a nearly extinct species native to the Pacific Northwest. The species has been making a comeback after it was bred with its genetic cousins, the Greater Basin pygmy, in zoos and then released back into the wild in 2011.

But it has not been an easy journey for the little rabbits. The species has been plagued by disease, droughts and now two wildfires. One fire in 2017, the Sutherland Canyon Fire, killed about 85 bunnies and in 2020, the Pearl Hill Fire wiped out 70 bunnies at Jameson Lake, half the remaining population.

The program has some good news, though, this winter, Gallie said. The last three winters, about 10 wild rabbits in the Beezley area have survived to make it to the next winter, but this winter 40 wild rabbits survived.

“So, we’re pretty excited,” he said. “Kind of like salmon runs, there are some years where you don’t see any movement and then you see wild increases.”

How the agency is managing pygmy rabbits on the landscape has also changed over the last six years, Gallie said. When he first started, biologists tried to give rabbits every advantage they could. They provide them supplemental food and irrigation water, but the baby rabbits were not adapting well to the wild.

In response, biologists have taken away the extra food and water, as well as made the breeding and acclimation enclosures less secure, he said. Only a three-foot-high chicken wire-like fence separates the rabbits from the rest of the world and nothing is stopping a hawk from swooping down and taking one.

In fact, Gallie followed coyote footprints all the way to the acclimation pen. Biologists use the acclimation pens to get rabbits ready, before they are released into the wild.

“They are predated on by pretty much by everything, anything with canines or talons,” he said. “That’s their role and in good times they can easily produce enough young to withstand the predation.”

It is difficult to figure out how many rabbits are actually on the landscape, Gallie said. If they find a burrow it does not mean that just one rabbit lives there.

“We find individual rabbits that occupy up to four or five burrows,” he said. “And we have found two to three rabbits in a single burrow. It’s kind of like a college dorm room. You just don’t know who is where. It’s a mess.”

To track the rabbits, the agency collects fecal matter and sends it to a lab for testing, Gallie said. They have the genetic records and family trees of thousands of rabbits they’ve identified over the years.

Right now, the state biologists are now conducting their annual winter survey of the species to get an estimate of how many rabbits remain in the wild in two locations: Beezley Hills and Sagebrush Flats. The biologists conduct their surveys when there is snow on the ground so they can find their tracks. They should have final numbers by late March.

It will be an important tally this year for the biologists whose program was devastated by the Pearl Hill Fire, Gallie said.

Unlike the Sutherland Canyon Fire, where some rabbits survived by hiding down their burrows, the Pearl Hill Fire wiped out all the rabbits at the James Lake Preserve, he said. Afterward the biologists found the rabbit’s burrows plugged by ash, which likely asphyxiated any potential survivors.

The James Lake Preserve, “was kind of the heart of our golden eagle territory, jackrabbit, sage grouse,” Gallie said. “It was one of our best areas there was a reason why everything was up there.”

After the fire, biologists had to symbolically rip up the last 10 years of recovery plans for the rabbit, he said. Now they are considering their next steps and are trying to figure out whether to find another location like the Jameson Lake Preserve or keep the few remaining rabbits together so they can breed and spread across the existing landscapes.

“We need to start looking at kind of the middle ground and where we can put some (rabbits),” Gallie said. “But seven years from now, where’s our next big area that we’re gonna take on?”

Proposed 'billionaire tax' comes to Olympia, as Dems seek to revamp tax system

OLYMPIA — A new idea to flip Washington’s regressive tax system goes straight to the top: it seeks to tax the state’s billionaires.

Sponsored by Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, House Bill 1406 would apply a 1% tax on a state resident’s taxable intangible wealth above $1 billion.

If passed, the tax, which would impact fewer than 100 people — but would raise a torrent of money. A fiscal analysis of the bill estimates it would bring in $4.95 billion in the 2023-35 budget cycle.

That’s equal to nearly 10% of the existing two-year state operating budget when it was signed into law at $52.4 billion.

HB 1406 — which got a legislative committee hearing Tuesday — is the latest twist in a yearslong effort by Democrats to raise taxes on the wealthiest in an effort to make the system more progressive.

As one of a handful of states that has no income tax, Washington’s coffers depend heavily on a state sales tax, as well as taxes on property and businesses.

Frame’s proposal comes as state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee work to draft a new, two-year state operating budget that funds schools, prisons, parks and social services.

Although parts of Washington’s economy and tax collections have rebounded amid the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats have said they believe new taxes will be needed to adequately fund programs.

With so much money to spread around, Frame’s proposed new tax would fund public health, education, housing, child care and public safety, according to the bill.

It would also pay for Washington’s long-stalled tax-rebate program for low-income working people, Frame said, and it could help Washington recover from the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic downturn.

At the same time, low- and middle-income people pay a greater share of their income in taxes compared with the more wealthy Washingtonians.

“And I just think that is not acceptable and completely out of line with our values,” said Frame, who has co-chaired a work group tasked with spurring conversation about Washington’s tax system.

Republicans like Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, quickly raised questions about whether the tax is constitutional, and what would happen if billionaires simply decided to move out of the state to avoid it. Even the bill’s own fiscal analysis raised those questions.

But, “I can’t say it’s terribly surprising, this is something folks on the left have been talking about for a while,” said Stokesbary, who works on budget issues for House Republicans.

Under Frame’s proposal, the first $1 billion of intangible assets are exempt from the tax, which covers “the fair market value” of such assets.

According to a legislative analysis of the proposal, worldwide intangible assets above that threshold would be taxed at 1% and would include: cash, financial instruments like stocks, bonds, contracts, commodities and pension funds; units of ownership in what’s known as a “subchapter K entity.” That includes some types of partnerships, joint ventures and limited liability companies.

Property that residents pay real estate taxes on are exempt. And HB 1406 also exempts several other types of intangible assets from being taxed, like companies’ worldwide wealth and debts owed to the local, state and federal governments.

Nonfinancial assets such as customer lists, trademarks, brand names, patents, copyrights and licenses also would not be subject to the tax.

One concern raised by Stokesbary is that the proposal might run afoul of a provision in the state constitution under a provision that calls for taxes to be uniformly applied.

Another question: would Washington’s billionaires just pick up and leave?

“Nobody in their right mind is going to pay a billion dollars a year or more for the privilege of living in Washington state,” said Jim King, a lobbyist with the Independent Business Association.

King was one of a handful of opponents among the 1,326 people who signed to register an opinion on the bill in Tuesday’s public hearing in the House Finance Committee.

Of those, 1,317 people signed in to support the bill. They included working people, union representatives, public-education advocates and Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments.

Price is known as the young executive who undertook a plan in 2015 to hike the pay for all his employees to $70,000 a year.

”Billionaires pay a lower tax than workers in Washington state, how could we not close this gap?” Price said during the hearing. “In fact, even after we put this wealth tax into place, billionaires will still pay a lower percentage than working people here. That’s shameful.”

State Auditor’s Office hacked
Personal data of 1.4 million Washington unemployment claimants exposed in hack of state auditor (copy)

OLYMPIA — The personal unemployment claims data of at least 1.4 million Washingtonians may have been stolen in a hack of software used by the state auditor’s office, raising fears of identity theft and fraud amid an already bleak pandemic downturn.

State Auditor Pat McCarthy said Monday the records — including Social Security numbers and banking information — were exposed during a December breach of Accellion, a software provider the auditor’s office uses to transfer large computer files.

In a head-slapping irony, the compromised data had been collected as part of the auditor’s investigations into how the state Employment Security Department (ESD) lost $600 million to fraudulent unemployment claims.

The state auditor has set up a web page — wwrld.us/3ajXhvm — for people who think their personal information could have been exposed in the data breach.

“I know this is one more worry for Washingtonians who have already faced unemployment in a year scarred by both job loss and a pandemic. I am sorry to share this news and add to their burdens,” McCarthy said in a statement.

Those burdens could be substantial, experts say. With personal information from the breach, “the fraudsters have everything they need in order to take whatever money is in that account and electronically transfer it to an account that they control,” warned Trace Fooshee, a senior analyst and expert in fraud, data security, and money laundering at Aite Group, a financial services consultancy.

ESD claimants can protect themselves, Fooshee added, but “unfortunately, that means changing account numbers.”

The auditor’s office said the breach affects personal information of people who filed for unemployment claims with ESD between Jan. 1, 2020 and Dec. 10, 2020, and included a total of 1.6 million claims. Those claims represent at least 1.47 million individuals, according to data from the ESD website. (Because there are multiple unemployment programs, a single claimant can file multiple times.)

The auditor’s office emphasized that the new breach did not originate with ESD, which has been under scrutiny over questions about its own security measures following last spring’s fraud.

ESD officials, meanwhile, asked people who are concerned about their data not to call the agency but to contact the auditor’s office with questions.

At an afternoon news conference, McCarthy said her office is working with state cybersecurity officials and that a federal law enforcement investigation is underway.

Steve Berndt, a spokesperson for the FBI, said the bureau is aware of the incident but could not confirm the existence of an investigation.

The data breach involved claimants’ names, Social Security numbers and/or driver’s license or state identification number, bank information, and place of employment, the auditor’s office said.

Joel York, Accellion’s chief marketing officer, said in an interview the data breach involved the company’s 20-year-old “legacy product,” known as FTA, which the company has been encouraging customers to stop using.

“It just wasn’t designed for these types of threats,” York said.

He said the company has been encouraging users for years to upgrade to Accellion’s newer product, known as kiteworks. The auditor’s office was in the process of moving to that product at the time of the data breach, he said.

Asked why her office had relied on software Accellion has described as aging and less secure than its newer product, McCarthy said the state paid an annual subscription fee for the service for the past 13 years and relied on it to be safe.

”We believed that we were getting a secure system and we expected that — and the citizens of Washington state should expect that as well,” said McCarthy, a Democrat elected to her second term as auditor in November.

The FTA vulnerability was fixed through software patches after the December breach became known to Accellion, a Palo Alto, California-based company.

York said that patch was implemented quickly, but 50 of its customers, including the auditor, were compromised, and attacks on the system continued.

”That’s the way things are today. It’s cyber warfare,” he said.

McCarthy pushed back on the suggestion that Accellion had issued any security warnings about its systems. “Absolutely not. We had no indication, no indication that this product was not secure,” she said.

Experts said the breach highlights the risks of using third-party vendors, which in the past have been targets for hackers, said Marcus Fowler, director of strategic threat at Darktrace, a cybersecurity firm. When agencies hire outside vendors for important data functions, they’re also reliant on the vendor’s security, Fowler said, and “you don’t always know the level of scrutiny that they put into it.”

But the breach also raised questions about why the state auditor had requested so much personal information. “Was it truly necessary for the audit of ESD to include all this personal financial data from ESD claimants?” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who chairs the committee with oversight of ESD. “If so, why did the auditor’s office not make sure its vendor could be trusted to provide adequate data security?”

Kathleen Cooper, state auditor spokesperson, said the personal data was necessary for the auditor to fully assess how ESD scrutinized unemployment claims for potential fraud before paying them.

McCarthy’s office first disclosed what she termed “a security incident” in a statement to The Seattle Times on Friday evening that provided few details on the scope of the breach.

In addition to the massive exposure of unemployment claims data, other information from 100 local governments and 25 state agencies may have been compromised in the breach, McCarthy said Monday. Citing the ongoing investigation, the auditor did not disclose the names of those entities, with the exception of the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The state auditor’s office regularly audits some 2,300 local governments and state agencies, according to McCarthy. Those probes necessarily involve sweeping up massive troves of information, she added.

The auditor’s office is the only state agency that reported using Accellion services, according to a list maintained by the state’s chief information officer, said Andrew Garber, a spokesperson for WaTech, the state’s central tech services agency.

A spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee said the governor had spoken with McCarthy “and expressed his deep concern about the data that was exposed by their third-party vendor. As a separately elected statewide official, we understand that they are taking responsibility for this and doing everything they can do address it.”

News of the data breach comes nearly nine months after the ESD disclosed that criminals had filed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bogus unemployment claims using personal information likely stolen during earlier data breaches.

And it comes barely three months after McCarthy rebuked former ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine for hindering her office’s investigation into the fraud and other problems at ESD.

Chelan, Douglas job losses exceed state average

WENATCHEE — Job losses from April through December hit Chelan and Douglas counties harder than the statewide average as the region continued to reel from COVID-19-related shutdowns.

The two-county area had 3,500 fewer nonfarm jobs in December 2020 than it had in December 2019, according to state Employment Security Department data. The 7.5% downturn for the two-county area is “a bit higher than job-loss rates statewide,” notes regional economist Don Meseck in his December Labor Area Summary for the Wenatchee Metropolitan Statistical Area released Monday. The state lost 5.4% of its nonfarm jobs from August through December.

But while new jobs were not added, job losses leveled out — in the Wenatchee area and statewide.

“Year over year, nonfarm job loss-rates across the Wenatchee MSA have stagnated in the minus-6% to minus-7% range in each of the past five months,” Meseck said, while statewide, the job losses reported from August through December were in the minus-5% to minus-5.5% range.

The plateau beats the dramatic losses recorded last spring when the unemployment rate climbed to a high of 15.8%. The Wenatchee area in December recorded an unemployment rate of 6.9%, up from 5.4% in December 2019. The state’s unemployment rate for December 2020 was 8.3%, up from 4.3% in December 2019.

Not all employment sectors have been hit equally hard.

December followed November’s lead with no employment sectors in Chelan and Douglas counties seeing an increase in jobs. Some new retail jobs had been reported over the summer, but the trend reversed in the fall.

Leisure and hospitality showed the biggest decrease in December, with a 2,100 job loss (a 30.9% drop) over December 2019. That’s a bigger decline than in November, which showed a 1,300-job loss — 20% dip from the previous year.

The hit to the leisure and hospitality industry, which primarily includes hotels, eating and drinking establishments and amusement and recreation businesses, follows a similar trend statewide, Meseck said.

It also coincides with the extension of the state’s “Stay Safe, Stay Healthy” restrictions on restaurants, bars and other gathering places imposed Nov. 17, then extended through Jan. 4.

State and local government also reported fewer jobs in December, following statewide trends of the previous nine months. The two-county region showed a 10.7% (800) job loss for local government and 16.7% (200 jobs) for state government.

Meseck said, in general, more than 70% of the downturn in local government employment is attributable to layoffs at public schools.

Biden takes cautious steps on immigration as he faces pressure to reverse Trump policies

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Less than two weeks into his tenure, President Joe Biden is facing increasing pressure from immigration advocates to reverse policies put in place by his predecessor, which White House officials say will take time to undo.

Immigration advocates see the steps announced by Biden on Tuesday as part of a positive initial step but warn that the new administration must take further action soon after what they saw as the steep setbacks of Donald Trump’s four years in office.

It’s a demand that White House officials acknowledge, even as they argue that the complicated process of undoing the previous administration’s actions will take time.

“The real big decision point coming up is how do you keep pushing for the north star, which is legalizing 11 million undocumented immigrants and getting them a road map to citizenship,” said Douglas Rivlin, communications director for America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group. “And then creating an immigration system that is sustainable moving forward.”

The White House on Tuesday released a series of executive orders related to immigration, coming just 13 days after Biden restored the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) plan and issued orders to halt construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Those orders were primarily about reviewing immigration policies implemented by the Trump administration, including the creation of a task force designed to reunite separated immigrant families and a “top-to-bottom” review across the administration of regulations that could restrict legal immigration.

“I’m not making new law,” Biden said before signing the executive orders in the Oval Office. “I’m eliminating bad policy.”

Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki cautioned that reversing many of Trump policies was “not going to happen overnight.” She told reporters that some of the changes will occur under the purview of Alejandro Mayorkas, who was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

“We want to act swiftly. We want to act promptly,” Psaki said. “But we also need to make sure we’re doing that through a strategic policy process.”

The administration will continue to roll out additional immigration policies “in the days and weeks ahead,” she said, but declined to provide details.

The White House plea for patience is reasonable, some advocates say, acknowledging that reversing many of the Trump-era policies — including ones related to applications for asylum in the United States — is not a simple process.

“It’s going to take a while to reset the system,” said Kerri Talbot, director of federal advocacy for the Immigration Hub. “They really tore it apart. Putting it back together will take some time.”

Still, Talbot said the Biden administration has “a lot of work to do” to build on the actions it has taken since entering office. The advocate mentioned the importance of trying to pass the DREAM Act in Congress by March, which would reinstitute DACA while also using the reconciliation process to pass legislation that offers legal protections for undocumented immigrants deemed essential workers.

On his first day in office, Biden proposed an immigration bill that would establish a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, attempting to restart negotiations on legislation Congress last took up in 2013.

The effort, along with the president’s executive actions, was part of a concerted effort from the new administration to demonstrate it considered the issue a priority and planned a stark departure from the policies of the Trump administration, which sought to restrict immigration while increasing deportations of men and women living in the country illegally.

The issue was also a politically sensitive one for Biden, who as vice president served in an administration that immigration advocates said deported far too many people. But even critics say the new president has attempted to chart a much different course for his White House.

“I think Biden was not going to be the deja-vu president when it came to immigration,” said Luis Gutiérrez, a former Democratic congressman from Illinois and leading immigration reform advocate.

Biden’s immigration agenda had a setback last month when a federal judge temporarily blocked the president’s plan to halt many deportations for 100 days through an executive order he had issued hours after his inauguration.

Advocates said they were undaunted by the decision, however, and urged the Biden administration to take executive action to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Even, they say, if it takes time.

“People really are relieved that Trump is out of the White House and the first week of the Biden administration has gone off pretty flawlessly,” Rivlin said.

“I’m willing to cautiously give them the benefit of the doubt, at least in the second week in office,” he said.