With their ranks having swelled by 30 percent in the last four years, the volume of assignments for the state's nearly 2,000 master hunters has not kept pace.
As a result, the current membership of this cadre of elite hunters is in the minds of many associated with the program, being under-utilized, therefore the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on Tuesday, Dec. 4 announced it is suspending enrollment indefinitely and will not take any more applications.
These specially vetted, trained and sworn hunters have been used since 1992 in special hunts in sensitive locales to disperse or remove troublesome wildlife such as bands of elk or deer.
These special controlled hunts often put master hunters into the field with little competition from other hunters but under conditions and in locations where they're under a microscope, so to speak, and their every action may be subject to intense scrutiny and perhaps public criticism.
To qualify for membership, successful candidates must withstand a criminal background check, take a prescribed course of study, pass a written exam and demonstrate marksmanship with the hunting weapon(s) they will use to hunt.
Besides these initial vetting elements, the final steps before admission to the master hunter ranks require all of them to perform a set number of hours of volunteer field work on wildlife or habitat related projects.
They also must sign an affidavit swearing to adhere to high standards of ethical and social behavior when hunting.
A condition of maintaining their certification from year to year requires master hunters to perform ongoing volunteer work.
With such rigorous qualifying standards, hunters who spend the time and pay the expenses to get the master hunter certificate expect that they will have special opportunities available to them.
Mike Britton, himself a master hunter, who chairs an advisory panel consisting of master hunters which counsels the agency on all issues related to the program agrees with putting recruitment of more potential elite hunters on hold.
"There is an urgent need for WDFW to identify priority volunteer needs and actively engage master hunters in meaningful work," said Britton.
Agency wildlife enforcement officials managing the program say they will take the time afforded by this enrollment hiatus to clarify the mission of the master hunter program to make sure all who are accepted in the future as master hunters can be used effectively and efficiently.
WHATCOM CREEK CLOSES
Under an emergency order issued at the end of November by the state fish and wildlife department, Whatcom Creek will close to all fishing Monday, Dec. 10, to safeguard returning hatchery-bound steelhead.
To get sufficient steelhead eggs to keep the Nooksack River program going, the agency has turned to raising and releasing 40,000 of its annual basin smolt production at the Maritime Heritage Center, an educational/working fish hatchery operated by the Bellingham Technical College and home to its Fisheries and Aquaculture Sciences and Technologies Course.
It's expected from this that instead of returning to the river and experiencing the gauntlet of nets, some adults will enter the downtown Bellingham fish-rearing facility to be secured as sources of eggs to propagate for future runs.
Under WDFW policy, many hatchery runs must be sustained within each individual major river basin. Inter-basin transfers of steelhead eggs are no longer allowed if a hatchery comes up short on broodstock.
NEXT RAZOR CLAM DIGS GIVEN NOD
With a green light for consumption from the state health department, a new round of razor clam digs on Washington's coast will take place next week in four of the five beach management sectors.
This is the fifth of six opening slated for this fall. The last will be an inter-holiday, if marine toxin levels stay low, the last four days of December.
This six-day opening starts at noon Tuesday, Dec. 11, with digging legal each day between noon and midnight through Sunday, Dec. 16.
Twin Harbors beach (the coastal stretch between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor) will be open all six days.
The Mocrocks (north of Grays Harbor) and Long Beach (south of Willapa Bay) beach sectors will be open Friday, Saturday and Sunday in this sequence. The Copalis Beach sector will open just Friday and Saturday.
Diggers should be rigged and ready to go when they hit coastal communities including already having purchased the appropriate license to dig. WDFW shellfish managers advise that razor clammers should be aware of other considerations such as enroute traffic problems, beach access rules and the location of off-limits razor clam sanctuary sands where bivalve populations are monitored.
The daily limit is the first 15 razor clams brought to hand regardless of size or condition and each digger in a party must have a separate container.
Other rules apply, so check the Fish Washington sport fishing regulations pamphlet and visit WDFW's dedicated razor clam Web portal at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/razorclams/.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983, has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at http//pblogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoor.