New Support for Game Wardens on Washington’s Coastal Rivers

In Washington by Jonathan Stumpf

Wild steelhead conservation and effective fishery management necessarily take many forms. One sometimes underappreciated key to success is making sure anglers comply with regulations. In some places, such as the Olympic Peninsula, fishing pressure can be one of the primary causes of steelhead mortality. While it’s important for anglers to police themselves, we all know that there are a few “bad actors” out there. Sometimes an actual law enforcement presence is required.

Thus, Wild Steelheaders United has partnered with the Wild Steelhead Coalition and the Wild Salmon Center to support Washington’s game wardens and have donated a variety of gear and technical equipment that has a retail value over $20,000 and gives WDFW Law Enforcement the ability to monitor many more miles of river and public lands.

This effort goes back to 2019, when the Wild Steelhead Coalition initially donated a collection of trail cameras, spotting scopes, and a new raft and oars to the Washington Department of Fish and Game (WDFW) Law Enforcement Detachment responsible for safeguarding the rivers, coastal waters, and forests of the Olympic Peninsula and Hood Canal. These game wardens are responsible for vast amounts of territory and the equipment was immediately, and effectively, put to use by the team.

WDFW Sgt. Kit Rosenberger and Officer Tierra Wessell prep one-man rafts for a float down a west end Olympic Peninsula river.
Top and above images: Ed Sozinho/Wild Steelhead Coalition 

Over the following two years, the cameras and raft allowed law enforcement officers to greatly expand their reach and led to increased enforcement against illegal fishing, hunting, logging, and other wildlife violations and numerous poaching arrests. Encouraged by this success, the Wild Steelhead Coalition reached out to the Wild Salmon Center, WSU, and industry partners at Simms, Outcast, and Sawyer to expand the impact of the original donation with a larger, additional gift in 2021.

After working with WDFW Law Enforcement staff to ensure we provided helpful tools to enforce regulations and find poachers, our group of conservation organizations and business partners have donated a new collection of equipment that includes a pair of small one-person rafts, multiple sets of waders and boots for game wardens, new oars for an existing drift boat, almost forty trail and security cameras, and a drone. This additional equipment gives WDFW Law Enforcement – especially with the drone – the ability to survey a much wider geographical area, and many more miles of river, than might otherwise be possible.

This larger inventory of gear also means the cameras can be spread further afield. The new cameras will be utilized on the Olympic Peninsula, Hood Canal, and throughout the Chehalis River Basin. A few will also go to North Puget Sound where they may be deployed on the Skagit and Sauk Rivers, and other watersheds depending on the season, as well.

As fishery groups, we are particularly interested in this new equipment’s ability to provide important, necessary protections for Washington’s struggling populations of wild steelhead and salmon, but in the off-season it will all also assist WDFW Law Enforcement in their work to protect big and small game animals and non-game wildlife, prevent illegal timber harvest, and discover and document unpermitted hydraulic projects that damage watershed and shoreline habitat.

WDFW Sgt. Rosenberger and Officer Wessell discuss the strategy for their daily patrol.
Image: Ed Sozinho/Wild Steelhead Coalition

Greg Topf, Board Chair of the Wild Steelhead Coalition: “We are proud to be collaborating with conservation and industry partners to provide this new equipment to WDFW Law Enforcement. Washington’s Game Wardens are the first line of defence for the shared, public resources all of us value and want to see safeguarded for the future. We have immense respect for their work and know how much these boats, cameras, and drone will expand their reach and ability to protect wild steelhead and salmon when these key coastal fish populations need it most. Our earlier donation meant more poachers were caught and more fish were protected. We can’t wait to see the impacts of this larger set of tools during the coming years.”

Captain Dan Chadwick of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife Police: “As State and Tribal co-managers take a conservation minded approach to coastal steelhead seasons, enforcement efforts will be a key component. It is necessary for Fish and Wildlife Police to increase enforcement presence, and utilize state-of-the-art equipment to ensure resource protection. Partnerships with local and statewide community organizations like Wild Steelhead Coalition, Trout Unlimited, and Wild Salmon Center are essential in maintaining safe and properly managed recreation opportunities for the residents and visitors to Washington State. We appreciate their generous donations of equipment which will allow our officers to monitor secluded areas with the use of cameras and to access these remote areas with rafts and personal wading gear.”

Jess Helsley, Wild Salmon Center Washington Program Director: “Identifying data gaps that impede management and enforcement actions in the watersheds where we work is a big priority for the Wild Salmon Center. If we’re going to protect the Olympic Peninsula’s prized wild salmon and steelhead runs, we must make sure that steward agencies like WDFW have the necessary tools to address those gaps. And that includes the ability to create a more comprehensive picture of poaching activities on the Washington Coast.”

Jonathan Stumpf, Wild Steelheaders United of Trout Unlimited: “With more steelheaders visiting the Olympic Peninsula each year, it’s critical that Washington Fish and Wildlife Enforcement have the necessary staff, resources, and tools to keep pace with the additional angling effort. Combine that added effort with the past two years of emergency fishing regulations for the winter steelhead fisheries put in place by WDFW fish program staff, and it becomes absolutely imperative that the fish and game wardens in the field are able to provide the necessary coverage to enforce regulations, educate anglers, and protect these last best runs of wild steelhead.”    

Poachers and rule-breakers that selfishly steal from the public trust and harm Washington’s iconic fish, wildlife, game, and natural resources are rightly reviled by law-abiding anglers, hunters, outdoor recreationists, and citizens. All of the organizations and companies involved in this donation hope this collection of equipment will help to enforce Washington’s laws protecting our shared, public resources, properly honor our treaty obligations to co-managers, and ensure these key species, invaluable ecosystems, and wild places have a better chance to sustaining themselves long into the future.

For more information about this enforcement partnership, please visit the Wild Steelhead Coalition website here.