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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Over 80 DNR Jobs Vacant as State Navigates COVID-19

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Unprecedented job vacancies in the Department of Natural Resources are hobbling Wisconsin’s fisheries and wildlife programs, especially across the state’s central and northern regions.

Thirty full-time positions in the DNR’s wildlife management division are vacant, as are 24.6 full-time jobs in the fisheries division. In addition, 27 full-time positions are vacant in the DNR’s division of public safety and resources protection. The DNR’s parks division is considered fully staffed, because Gov. Tony Evers’ administration considers their services essential.

The safety and law-enforcement vacancies represent about 11% of the division’s authorized workforce, according to Matt O’Brien, deputy chief warden. He said the division is currently recruiting for over half of those jobs, and considers vacancy levels consistent with annual trends.

The shortages leave the DNR’s wildlife division without 20% of its workforce, with shortages varying from 11% in the agency’s southern district to 40% in its northeastern district, said Eric Lobner, the division’s director. He attributes many vacancies to public-sector cutbacks triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic the past year.

Several jobs, however, have been vacant over two years. The wildlife manager post for Marquette and Green Lake counties hasn’t been staffed since Jim Holzwart retired 3½ years ago.

“We have 13 wildlife-biologist vacancies statewide, so that’s roughly 26 counties without a biologist,” Lobner said. “In one case, Josh Martinez in Green Bay, we have one biologist covering five counties. We’re holding Deer Advisory Council meetings right now in 71 counties, so we’re shifting biologists all over to cover them. I admit we’re not providing real good service in every case when we have biologists who don’t know a lot about the individual county where they’re filling in.”

Dave Clausen of Amery is a former chairman and member of the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy. He said at least $1 million in DNR salary allocations wasn’t spent the past year. “Some people might say ‘so what,’ but that’s at least 10 jobs and who knows how much habitat work neglected,” Clausen said.

Keith Warnke, the DNR’s fish, wildlife and parks division administrator, said statewide budget concerns caused by COVID-19 in spring 2020 restricted hirings to essential services. He said the agency kept its staff intact for operating state parks and monitoring chronic wasting disease. It also met its fish-stocking plans, and completed its hatchery work for every species except muskies and lake sturgeon.

Warnke concedes the agency isn’t where it wants to be with staffing, but recently gave the go-ahead for six full-time jobs: one in parks, two in wildlife, and three in fisheries. He also said the agency’s hiring pace differs little from the Michigan and Minnesota DNRs.

Even so, the chronic nature of DNR job vacancies is sparking irritation and concern from myriad conservation groups, including the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Wisconsin County Forests Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, and the Wisconsin chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society. These groups fear DNR vacancies are restricting or eliminating vital habitat and infrastructure work, little of which receives general taxpayer support.

In fact, none of the vacant DNR jobs are funded with state taxes. Instead, outdoor recreationists fund the jobs when buying hunting, fishing and trapping licenses, permits and applications. In addition, the DNR receives federal funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services via excise taxes on sales of guns, ammunition, fishing tackle, archery gear and marine fuel.

All those sources enjoyed robust sales and funding in 2020, including a 3.5% increase in Wisconsin deer license sales by late November, and a double-digit increase in state fishing license sales by mid-July. The DNR also estimates use of state parks, trails and forests jumped 15% from January to October 2020,with over 19.5 million visitors. The DNR attributes such boosts to people seeking relief from COVID-19 restrictions and challenges.

In addition, federal funding the DNR receives through Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act excise taxes surpassed $19 million in 2020, the 12th straight year those revenues exceeded $10 million. In fact, P-R hasn’t been below $16 million since 2013. It hit a record $24.9 million in 2015; and exceeded $23 million in 2014, 2017 and 2018.

In a letter March 15 to DNR Secretary Preston Cole, the County Forest Association’s Rebekah Luedtke worried that unfilled DNR jobs could force Wisconsin to return some P-R money, which would reduce future federal funding. Such rollbacks could be costly, given that Wisconsin consistently ranks No. 7 nationwide for P-R funding.

Luedtke also called on Cole to loosen work restrictions to comply with new CDC guidelines as more DNR employees get vaccinated. She said that would send more DNR staff afield to do prescribed burns and work with county-forest staff and other organizations.

Several groups also worry the DNR will fail to double or triple grants through matching funds from outside organizations if habitat projects don’t resume.

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the WWF’s 200-plus organizations want the DNR to start filling its job vacancies. He said he understands the DNR had little choice a year ago to suspend prescribed burns and other projects requiring close-quarters work, but habitat losses will multiply if those projects sit idle again in 2021.

“Wisconsin’s fish and wildlife accounts aren’t operating on fumes,” Meyer said. “Our members are reminding the DNR that they pay for these jobs, and work from those jobs benefits all Wisconsin citizens. We consider those programs just as vital to our interests as the state parks.”

Meyer said it’s generally understood that lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers’ administration had to limit government spending during the pandemic. “Because of COVID-19, DNR must go through the Department of Administration to authorize many of those fish-and-wildlife jobs,” Meyer said. “But when DNR jobs sit vacant a year or more, the dollars our members spend on licenses and other fees aren’t used as intended. That has to stop.”

Ken Jonas, vice president and treasurer of the Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, spent 35 years as a DNR wildlife manager. He said four biologist positions covering six counties and three wildlife-technicians posts covering five counties remain vacant in northwestern Wisconsin.

Jonas said no agency can operate effectively with 40% regional vacancies, such as in the “Northwest Sands” ecological landscape. That unique habitat, which sharptails depend on, covers nearly 2,000-square miles across Bayfield, Washburn, Douglas and Burnett counties.

Clausen said he worries the staffing shortages are hurting morale among state workers, who expected the Evers administration to fix myriad problems caused by Scott Walker’s administration from 2011 to 2018.

“DNR staff are frustrated, and I don’t blame them,” Clausen said. “Their morale is even worse now because the current administration so far has been indistinguishable from the previous group.”

Nearly 55 jobs sit vacant in the Wisconsin DNR’s fish and wildlife divisions, some of them casualties of COVID-19 cutbacks in 2020. Those restrictions also shelved many DNR prescribed burns and other habitat projects the past year. — Patrick Durkin photos

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