DNR’s two-person leadership of fish and wildlife won’t be blended

DNR's two-person leadership of fish and wildlife won't be blended

The Fish and Wildlife Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will stick to its two-pronged structure after listening to objectors who said consolidation would diminish services to hunters and anglers.

“We’ve decided NOT to make dramatic changes to regional, research or habitat team organization structures,” Fish and Wildlife Director Dave Olfelt wrote in a recent memo to staff.

The decision ends more than two years of angst for active and retired resource managers who opposed the idea of ​​unifying leadership jobs that now run in pairs.

For instance, the DNR considered merging the jobs of statewide fisheries chief and statewide wildlife chief. In the DNR’s four regions (Grand Rapids, Bemidji, St. Paul and New Ulm), the regional fisheries manager position could have been combined with the regional wildlife manager job. In all, 16 positions considered for consolidation will stay intact, including fisheries habitat manager, wildlife habitat manager, fisheries research unit supervisor and wildlife research unit supervisor.

Olfelt told the Star Tribune this week that the agency is moving quickly to fill jobs that were held open pending final staffing decisions.

“People didn’t see a need to restructure … but they did see that we could be doing things better,” Olfelt said. “We should focus on planning and accountability and less about moving the chairs around.”

Henry Drewes, the DNR’s former Northwest Region fisheries supervisor, said consolidation would have blurred priorities now maintained separately by the two staffs. He opposed the restructuring also because it would have melded the sections’ respective budgets and weakened the technical expertise inherent under the status quo.

The overall effect would have diminished the delivery of fieldwork meant to improve fishing and hunting, he said.

“Do you want a wildlife manager making decisions on walleye stocking?” said Drewes, who retired last year.

Resource managers have traditionally followed one career path or the other, he said. Rarely, if ever, does a single individual hold expertise in both fields.

“You start looking more for generalists than specialists,” Drewes said. “You lose the professional expertise.”

State Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons said he is happy with the outcome. “Our research units and our field operations are functioning very, very well,” he said.

Olfelt said the Fish and Wildlife Division — with 550 employees and an annual operating budget of $65 million — has benefitted from the internal review and will likely make changes to improve planning, accountability, policy development, equipment sharing and public outreach. Feedback from talking to people inside and outside the organization described a “silo” mentality between fish and wildlife that needs to be erased by better coordination and more communication, he said.

“We do intend to take this opportunity to re-examine and re-engineer how we do our work … and to be more accountable to ourselves and the people we serve,” Olfelt wrote in his memo to staff.

He said the division will strive to collaborate more, as it did last summer when it built a rugged, 3,000-foot woven, wire fence around an illegal carcass dump site in a public forest in Beltrami County. The dump, created by a local deer farmer, created a long-term chronic wasting disease (CWD) biohazard. The 10-foot-high fence is needed to exclude wild deer from the site and lower the risk of farm-related CWD transmission.

Another example of synergy between fish, wildlife and outreach sections is the rapidly expanding CWD-testing program organized by the DNR’s Wildlife Health Group. The program relies on employees across the division and beyond to construct, staff and educate hunters about a network of full-service and self-service tissue sampling stations. Last year the stations were located in 29 deer permit areas as far north as Upper Red Lake and as far south as the Iowa border.

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