OLYMPIA — The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will allow the public to attend four committee meetings Jan. 16 at which commissioners will talk about hatcheries, wolves and other issues.

The committees will meet back-to-back the day before the commission convenes Friday and Saturday for its regular meeting, which must by law be open to the public.

In contrast, the committee meetings are open at the consent of commissioners, and future committee meetings could be closed to the public, according to the commission.

Commissioner Kim Thorburn, chairwoman of the Wolf and Wildlife committees, said Monday there may be times commissioners will close meetings to hear from department employees and “argue about science and that sort of thing.”

“I’m sure there would be public interest, but it would hinder our ability to do the work,” Thorburn said.

The commission has farmed out to committees policy discussions about some of Fish and Wildlife’s high-profile issues, including wolves and cougars.

Each committee officially has four of the commission’s nine members, though sometimes more than four commissioners attend. Officially holding each committee to four members gives the commission the option of closing meetings, according to the department.

The committees “kind of guide the policy for the whole commission,” Thorburn said. “They’re quite influential.

“It’s an opportunity for a set group of commissioners to delve more deeply into different issues with our staff to be really informed,” Thorburn said. “If it’s just the four us deciding to meet with the staff, we may not hold it as a public meeting.”

The public has been generally allowed to attend, though Commission Chairman Larry Carpenter closed a meeting in June of the Executive Committee. Efforts to reach Carpenter to comment for this story were unsuccessful.

The committees last met in December in Bellingham, and the public was allowed to attend each meeting. The meetings were not recorded. The department does post online recordings of full commission meetings.

Committee chairs give verbal reports to the full commission.

Thorburn reported that the Wolf Committee had a “hefty discussion” about the scope of a plan to manage wolves once they’re numerous and widespread and no longer a state endangered species.

“We, as the Wolf Committee, decided that we will sort of pick up our frequency of meeting once the review of the scoping topics has been completed by staff, so that we can ensure that we’re well informed in deciding when to bring things forward to the commission,” she said.

Center for Biological Diversity wildlife advocate and attorney Sophia Ressler said watching Fish and Wildlife develop policy was “incredibly important to us.” She said she wasn’t certain how the organization would react to a closed committee meeting.

“We’d probably have internal discussions and look at public meeting requirements,” she said. “We really value transparency, and the department has told us they value transparency. Hopefully, that would apply to commissioners as well.”

The committees will meet Thursday, Jan. 16, in the Natural Resources Building, 1111 Washington St. S.E., in Olympia. The scheduled is: 1 p.m. Fish Committee, 2:30 p.m. Wolf Committee, 4 p.m. Wildlife Committee and 5:30 p.m. Big Tent Committee.

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