New Oregon Fish and Wildlife Director Talks Wolves, Bears, and Dams in Exclusive Interview

New Oregon Fish and Wildlife Director Talks Wolves, Bears, and Dams in Exclusive Interview

In late May, Debbie Colbert was appointed as the first female director of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW), following a nine-year stint by Curt Melcher—director since 2015. MeatEater caught up with Debbie after her first few weeks on the job, and got to know who she is and what she envisions for ODFW moving forward. From dam removals on the Snake to hatcheries and wolf relocations, we chatted about some of the issues most concerning to sportsmen and women in the state.

Debbie Colbert

MeatEater: Are you from Oregon? Debbie: I grew up in a big South Carolina family. We were a hunting, fishing, shrimping, outdoorsy family. I was the youngest of five kids. I’m more of an angler, but my brothers hunted, and we all fished and just enjoyed the outdoors, so it’s really just in my bones. Then I moved—kind of all over—as I was pursuing my education. My husband and I ended up in Oregon about 25 years ago, and originally we thought we would just be here while I got my PhD at Oregon State University. But we fell in love with the state and never left.

What did you study at OSU? I did my PhD research studying the five rivers that feed into Tillamook Bay; looking at the interface between the ocean, estuary, and river systems. So really, my roots are all in the field. As a scientist, I’ve done everything from being a fish sampler for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission to doing beach scenes on the Elkhorn Slough Research Reserve in California, to turtle studies in Chesapeake Bay. So it was a pretty varied path that brought me to working for ODFW.

If we can move on to some of the issues hunters and anglers in Oregon are concerned about, what direction do you see the state going with Snake River dam removals? The state of Oregon is one of the six sovereigns that have been involved in the recent Columbia Basin agreement, so we’re really excited about it. The agreement looks to replace services that are provided by the Snake River dams, and looks to the federal government to make some very important investments in replacing those services over the next few years. Once that happens, we can have a conversation about removing the dams. Historically, it’s been our position that removing the dams is necessary for recovering our salmon populations.

Do you see hatcheries continuing to have a big role in Oregon salmon and steelhead fisheries? ODFW owns or operates 33 hatcheries across Oregon. From my perspective, thinking about the future, I don’t see us not having hatcheries. I actually think that not only are hatcheries going to continue to provide really important fishing opportunities, but I think they’re also going to have more and more of a role in terms of conservation of species—especially as we continue to see lower and lower flows in some of our rivers, hotter water, and more invasive species.

Our legislature recently gave us money to really take a hard look at our hatchery system and its resiliency, so over the next year, we’re going to be thinking about how we can continue to provide for abundance. Namely, how we can continue to ensure that our hatcheries are good neighbors to wild fish—and minimize impacts on wild fish—but plan for a system that’s sustainable, given some of the changes that we’re seeing.

Oregon recently gave Colorado the first batch of wolves for a reintroduction program—are there plans to continue that collaboration? Colorado hasn’t asked for more wolves, and we don’t have any plans to provide additional wolves. And in fact, I think Colorado is already working with a different state to pursue the next group of wolves. It was a good collaboration, but we’ll always be balancing the recovery of wolves in Oregon, so we want to make sure that we are sustaining our own populations rather than exporting.

Before this collaboration with Colorado, we did a pretty significant analysis on the viability of our population to ensure that we could actually lose those ten wolves and sustain our populations. If they were to ask us again, we’d want to go through the same approach to make sure it wouldn’t undermine our own recovery efforts.

Neighboring state, Washington, recently did away with their spring black-bear season. If advocacy groups were to push for something similar in Oregon, how do you think you, and ODFW, would respond? As an agency—and regardless of what kind of hunting activity we’re dealing with—we’re always focused on the science and the biology for making policy decisions. And so if those kinds of requests came forward, as an agency, we would bring them to our decision maker: the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The commissioners make the decisions about hunting regulations, and so I can’t tell you what they would do, but I can tell you that we would focus on the science behind it. For example, what the impact to bear populations would be, and if those kinds of closures would be necessary to sustain populations. Currently, we closely monitor bear take via mandatory harvest reporting, and our data shows that Oregon has a large bear population and there are limited concerns regarding the spring harvest.

With regards to land access, how do you foresee ODFW working to keep public lands open, or working with private landowners to open up more acreage to public access. It’s really important to us as an agency to provide for access, and like many states, we have specific programs that provide funding to private landowners in exchange for hunter access. Those initiatives—like the Access and Habitat Program—have been very successful to date. We’re also looking at our own public lands, and making sure that we are prioritizing access there. And in fact, we have to report to our legislature on a biennial basis how many acres of land we’ve added in terms of hunting access. So it’s a focus for us.

Anything else you’d like to add, Debbie? Thank you for not bringing any trivia questions today! But seriously, I’m just really excited to be in this position. I have so much pride in our agency. I think we’re doing great work, making an impact on fish and wildlife, and it really shows for people who want to enjoy the outdoors.

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