In November 1995 Washington State voters overwhelmingly
endorsed a ballot initiative by which their Fish and Wildlife
Department director would be named by an independent,
policy-setting commission rather than the governor. The state's
once-rich salmon and steelhead stocks were extinct or headed for
endangered-species status. The public wanted a professional
resource manager--not another political appointee. The idea,
revolutionary for Washington, was to put resources first.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission's search ended in July
1996 with the appointment of Dr. Bernard Shanks, an experienced
biologist and manager with a well-earned national reputation for
toughness, intelligence and integrity. The new director had
worked as a Forest Service smokejumper, national park ranger,
environmental journalist, outdoor survival instructor,
environmental advisor to Bruce Babbitt when he was governor of
Arizona, director of environmental health and safety at the
University of California at Davis, and professor of natural
resource management at two western universities.
Shanks quickly proved himself a superb choice. He
stood by his biologists, consistently supporting their
recommendations regardless of political fallout. He reached out
to sportsmen and nonsportsmen. He spent a year and a half
designing a wild-salmon policy based on his conviction--and,
indeed, the fact--that too many wild fish were being taken by
commercial fishermen and that hatcheries (which spread defective
genes) are part of the problem rather than the solution. In
Washington--which has 96 hatcheries, more than any other state or
even the federal government--adult salmonids originating from
artificially reared smolts can cost $300 each. Shanks suggested
that if saturating the Pacific Ocean with domestic salmon and
steelhead worked, there wouldn't be a salmonid crisis in the
Northwest, especially in Washington State which pumps out 300
million fish a year.
The hatchery bureaucracy--which included a quarter of
his employees--was scandalized. So were politicians, commercial
fishermen and some anglers. In the summer of 1997 false rumors
circulated that he was about to close 15 hatcheries. Commercial
fishermen, politicians, hatchery workers and even local chapters
of Trout Unlimited shrieked like gulls at a shut-down cannery.
"Generally hatcheries are measured by production out the front
door, not what comes back," remarks Shanks. "They are very much
entrenched in our culture. And the situation is complicated by
Indian tribes and commercial fishermen that are dependent on
hatchery fish. The science on the genetics is so new it's not
understood or accepted even among fisheries biologists. If you
cross a sacred cow with a military base in Washington State, you
get a fish hatchery."
Last summer, when he briefly closed sockeye salmon
fishing around the San Juan Islands, he was unsuccessfully sued
by 100 commercial fishermen for violation of their civil rights.
Sockeyes tend to swim on the surface, while chinooks run deep.
But when Shanks reopened the sockeye season the "accidental"
catch of critically depressed chinooks was 35,000--more than the
total return on allget Sound rivers projected for the summer
of 1998. When he publicly referred to the slaughter as "obscene"
commercial fishermen railed against him in the media, called him
a "zealot," a "loose canon," a "Greenpeace environmentalist."
Their lobbyist, Ed Owens demanded in writing that the commission
But Shanks wouldn't shut up. "Our one client is fish,"
he declared. "My job is to take care of the fish, not the
commercial or sports fisher.... You simply cannot look at the
salmon crisis here in the Northwest and not be concerned about
overharvest. We have met escapement goals for chinook for only
two of the last twelve years. Commercial fishermen do not want
to talk about overharvest; they want to talk about habitat. And
they're right; we do have a habitat problem. We need to take
down some of the dams. But we have an overharvest problem, too."
Soon four of the six commissioners were clamoring for
Shanks' ouster, although they refused to say why. Chair Lisa
Pelly declined to answer any of my questions other than to assert
that she and other commission members had "lost confidence in the
director." Repeatedly Shanks was hauled before the commission
and raked over the coals. Never did he cower or equivocate.
Always, he stood his ground, defending his decisions and those of
the trained biologists who worked for him, acting like what he
was--a professional resource manager. "I've experienced crude
supervision," he told me. "I've been in the Marine Corps. I've
worked as a farm laborer, as a janitor; I've fought forest fires.
And these were the most abusive personnel sessions I've ever
When the department found itself with a $12 million
shortfall in its $250 million budget, commission members and
politicians representing commercial salmon fishermen accused
Shanks of mismanagement. But the budget had been prepared by the
previous administration, approved by the commission; and it had
been submitted to governor three weeks after Shanks had taken
office. The reason for the shortfall (which turned out to be
only $1.5 million after Shanks took emergency actions) was a
sharp decline in license revenue caused by such necessary
management as shortening the season on endangered salmonids.
Shanks survived as long as he did because each time the
commission met to fire him his supporters would walk out or not
show up, nixing the quorum. But last summer, when the governor
appointed three new members, the commission had the votes to get
rid of him. Because Shanks feared that his firing, now
inevitable, would bring on another ballot initiative and possibly
a return to the spoils system, he agreed to resign on September
"There are worse things than being unemployed," Bernard
Shanks told me in July. But he was unemployed only for three
weeks. Now he's planning wildlife research for the U.S.
Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia and making more money than
he had been in Washington. "It's nice to be working with
professionals," he says.
~ Ted Williams"