By PHUONG LE
SEATTLE — A bill that would exempt from public disclosure personal information about people who report or respond to wolf attacks in Washington state has cleared a House committee.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and other supporters cite death threats received by state employees, ranchers and others and say the measure is needed to protect those who deal with wolves.
Opponents say the bill would make it impossible for the public to know who, including state employees and contractors, is involved in the state’s wolf management programs.
The bill would exempt from disclosure personal information of people who report wolf attacks as well as those who participate in state programs aimed at preventative measures such as range riders.
House Bill 1465 was amended and passed out of the committee on state government, elections and information technology. It now awaits a House vote.
Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who chairs that committee, said a state wildlife employee presented compelling testimony earlier this month about the threats workers face from carrying out the state’s wolf policies. WDFW wolf policy lead Donny Martorello told lawmakers that he put his family in a hotel last year over such concerns.
“It creates exemptions and it does remove information from the public domain, and I think the reason we did that was to protect the (state’s wolf) policy and the people that are involved,” Hudgins said in an interview Friday.
But Rowland Thompson, executive director for the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said the amended bill “closes the records even more.”
“It’s impossible to have government employees be anonymous and have them running the program,” he said Friday.
He previously said information about people whose animals are attacked by wolves or who report wolf depredations should be withheld. “We are concerned about the locations of those actions and what’s done with those complaints by the agencies,” he told lawmakers at a Feb. 1 hearing.
An amendment withdrawn Friday represented an effort by stakeholders to negotiate a good balance, Thompson said.
Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, the House bill’s prime sponsor before she was appointed to the Senate earlier this month, said she had worked with stakeholders on an agreed upon amendment. “But the bottom line is that it’s the chair prerogative,” she said.
“Is there a way to protect state employees and the public right to know?” she said in an interview Friday. “I’m still committed to finding a way forward.”
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, a bill co-sponsor, told lawmakers that ranchers and others received threats following a report in The Seattle Times that included their address and phone number.
The Seattle Times said it published on its Aug. 25 website article a link to the ranch, as well as a link to the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association home page and Facebook page.
“The story itself – online or in print – never contained the phone number of the ranch,” said China Levy, a Times community engagement specialist.
“All of this information was and continues to be public and easily accessible with a cursory web search,” she said. Following a request from the House Republican Caucus in August, the paper removed the link for the ranch from the online story, Levy said.