SPOKANE — A new nonprofit has entered the conservation fray, and is focusing on reforming how Washington state manages its wildlife and ecosystems.

"Washington Wildlife First" will set its sights on reforming state agencies, primarily the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"State wildlife management must shift from a model of consumption to a model of conservation, and recognize the realities of the dual crises that we face today — rapid climate change and unprecedented biodiversity loss," Chris Bachman, the advocacy director for Washington Wildlife First, said in a statement. "We need agencies that value science, respect nature, and prioritize the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems."

Bachman, the organization's only full-time employee, previously worked at the Spokane-based Lands Council and the Mountain Lion Foundation. Bachman said the focus on policy and agency reform sets Washington Wildlife First apart from other conservation groups.

The nonprofit's board includes Claire Davis, a Seattle lawyer and partner in the law firm Animal & Earth Advocates, and Ron Reed, a retired Spokane-area businessman, among others.

"The Department of Fish and Wildlife has a solemn duty to protect and preserve the state's fish and wildlife, which it manages in trust on behalf of all of us," said Davis, board president of Washington Wildlife First, said in a statement. "But Department management is dominated by an outdated mindset that does not reflect the values of the people of Washington ... Its leadership has sacrificed the interests of current and future Washingtonians to cater to the demands of commercial interests, powerful politicians and tiny factions of the hunting and fishing community."

WDFW estimates 5% of Washingtonians hunt.

In an interview, Bachman said it's a good time for this sort of policy-focused advocacy because of the current makeup of the WDFW Commission, a nine-member governor-appointed body overseeing the state agency.

"There are commissioners favorable to reform," Bachman said.

One of the groups first objectives will be filling two seats on the commission with appointees sympathetic to their cause, although Bachman said they wouldn't be backing individual candidates. The appointment of two commissioners earlier this year deemed "anti-hunting" by some has drawn criticism, including from at least one sitting commissioner.

Bachman said Wildlife First is not against hunting or hunters, but believes that wildlife science has too often been ignored in favor of harvesting animals. According to a statement from the group WDFW "ignores the recommendations of its own scientists, allows the hunting and fishing of some species at unsustainable levels, promotes unethical hunting practices, and kills wildlife too quickly in response to purported conflicts."

In particular, the group points to WDFW's lethal removal policy when it comes to wolves that have attacked cattle, as well as an increase in the number of cougars killed because they've been deemed a public safety issue as well as the liberalization of cougar hunting in Northeast Washington. In these cases, Bachman believes, WDFW has ignored the best available science, some of which comes from its own biologists.

Some studies have shown that killing wolves disrupts pack dynamics and can lead to increased conflict between wolves and cattle, although there are contradictory studies on the subject. Similarly, there is disagreement among wildlife biologists about how many cougars live in Northeast Washington.

"We're going to be adversaries," Bachman said. "But hopefully, not enemies. I'd still like to have decent conversations."

The nonprofit launched its website, wawildlifefirst.org, last week, is registered as a Washington nonprofit and has applied for federal tax-exempt status.

Washington's wildlife management is based on the North American Model of Wildlife Management, as are most U.S. wildlife agencies, a system that harnessed the desires and dollars of hunters and anglers to help pull once-endangered species like deer and elk from the brink of extinction to abundance.

Some have questioned, however, whether that model is relevant with a nationwide decrease in hunting participation.

Bachman said he and the nonprofit are not against the North American model, but believe it needs to be recalibrated considering the severe climate crisis and biodiversity loss .

"The first tenant in the model is that wildlife is a public trust to be preserved," he said. "It's not simply a 'resource' to be 'harvested.' "

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