State eyes reduction of Fish and Wildlife staff in Mid-Columbia

YAKIMA -- The state Department of Fish and Wildlife could lay off as much as one fifth of its work force in the four-county Yakima region -- roughly 20 to 22 employees -- to meet Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed 2009-11 budget.

Statewide, about 170 of the Wildlife Department's roughly 1,550 full-time positions are expected to be eliminated, according to a Tuesday e-mail to all personnel from interim director Phil Anderson and deputy director Joe Stohr.

And that's only what it looks like so far.

"The March revenue forecast may make things worse," Stohr said Wednesday. "It's going to be very disruptive."

The individuals whose positions are facing the financial ax won't find out until the last week of February.

"None of us know who that will be," said Eric Anderson, a Yakima-based fisheries biologist. "That's why there's a lot of anxiety."

The governor's proposed budget calls for a $30 million reduction from the department's 2007-09 biennial operating budget of $348 million.

The department had already been feeling a crunch for the last six to eight years, during which nearly $10 million in its budgeted activities have been removed from the general fund umbrella.

That meant the activities had to be covered by revenue from fishing and hunting fees, which have not seen a general increase since 1994.

The department raises 175 million fish per year in its 88 trout, salmon and steelhead hatcheries, some of which will almost certainly see budget cuts or even be eliminated.

That puts the department in a quandary -- needing desperately to raise fees at the same time it is considering closing hatcheries.

Region 3, the department's South Central Washington region encompassing Yakima, Kittitas, Benton and Franklin counties, operates a trout hatchery in Naches and salmon facilities at Ringold and Priest Rapids area on the Columbia River.

The salmon facilities, paid for by federal mitigation funds because of the dams, are safe from the cuts.

"But all the trout hatcheries are in the mix," Tayer said.

The region has already seen its enforcement staff dwindle from 22 in the early 1990s to 15 now.

And although Region 3 is the state's largest, managing 400,000 acres, it has just three land managers -- Cindy Confer overseeing the L.T. Murray, Wenas and Whisky Dick wildlife areas, John McGowan at Oak Creek and Rocky Ross at Sunnyside.