Veteran IDFG Official Takes
by Eric Barker
Jim Unsworth is new director of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
The way Jim Unsworth sees it, Washington has everything a hunter or angler could want, and for a career wildlife manager, it has unprecedented challenges.
Unsworth, the deputy director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, was selected last week to be the new director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He starts his new job Feb. 2 and will replace Phil Anderson, who is retiring.
"I've always wanted to take a shot at being a director, so I've looked in the Northwest," said the Idaho native. "Washington is a state that kind of has it all, plus some of the most interesting and some really exciting resource issues, with their fish allocation issues and their emerging wolf issues - something I have experience with."
Unsworth, 57, has spent his entire professional career with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, where he has been both a big game manager and a research biologist. For the past few years, he has been deputy director. He has helped guide Idaho through the wolf recovery process and the post-recovery management of the controversial species. That management includes both hunting and trapping of the top-line predator.
Washington is where Idaho was perhaps a decade ago, with a small but expanding wolf population that is protected by state and federal regulations, and a human population still growing accustom to the animal's presence.
Unsworth has less experience managing fish, but he has overseen Idaho's fisheries bureau as part of his deputy chief duties.
"It's amazingly complex," he said of Washington's task of managing salmon and steelhead and allocating harvest among commercial and recreational anglers, while also balancing harvest shares with the state's 27 American Indian tribes, Canada, Alaska and neighbors Oregon and Idaho.
He will earn $146,500 a year while overseeing the department, with 1,600 employees and a biennial operating budget of $376 million.
"For a wildlife professional it's got it all, I guess, in terms of interesting issues, not to mention 7 million people also," Unsworth said. "That complicates things a whole bunch."
Jay Holzmiller, a member of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission from Anatone, said he is confident Unsworth is the right person for the job.
"I think he is going to be a really good fit. I'm really happy with the way it all shook out," he said. "He's stepping into the big leagues but I think he is more than capable."
He said Unsworth will have to lean heavily on his people management skills as much as his training in wildlife science.
"Dealing with a state like Washington that is not only geographically but politically split the way it is and then when you have highly charged issues like commercial fishing and sport fishing on the coast and in the Columbia and the tribal issues we deal with and throw in the wolves, you probably spend more time dealing with the human component of it than the biological part of it," Holzmiller said.
While preparing for his interview, Unsworth said he read some of the department's scientific papers and was impressed with the work of the staff he will oversee.
"It was very obvious to me Washington has a terrific, professional staff," he said.
Now he wants to get to know those employees and the people of the state, especially those who pay close attention to fish and wildlife issues.
"I'm going to get to know the people as quickly as I can," he said. "I hope in my first month to get to all the regions and meet the staff, and I hope at some point to start getting to know the sportsmen."
Even though the department is larger than the one he will leave in Idaho, Unsworth said most fish and wildlife agencies operate under the same basic premise, even if each does things a lit bit differently.
"The governor, Legislature and commission set policy and the fish and game departments, we are the ones that try to inform that policy with science and get them the very best information to help them with those decisions, and then of course we help implement the final decisions," he said.
Unsworth has a bachelor's degree in wildlife management from the University of Idaho, a master's degree from Montana State University and a doctorate in forestry, wildlife and range sciences from the University of Idaho. He and his wife, Michelle, have four adult children.
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