DNR Losing Valuable Knowledge Base

 How can those who don’t know about the past, make plans to advance in the future?
        Just like keeping a comfortable old flannel shirt, there is value in keeping “older things.”
When it comes to buildings many are saved and classified on historic registers, realizing that there is value in preserving history.
        But, the institutional knowledge of people is often discarded by employers as employees retire, including at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
        In past years, it wasn’t surprising to find dedicated retired employees in wildlife research and management continuing their interest in wildlife and often volunteering with different conservation groups (such as Pheasants Forever, the Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Whitetails Unlimited, etc.) as well as participating at DNR species management advisory committees.
        The committees are usually made up of current DNR biologists, law enforcement, customer service, and research professions, along with DNR field staff, representatives of some stakeholder organizations, most notably the Conservation Congress and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
It was not unusual in the past to have retirees attend and participate at the committee meetings, able to relate their experience.
        The committees review and provide guidance on policies, plans, season structures, harvest quotas, and project funding. 
        But during the era when Scott Walker was governor, and Cathy Stepp served as DNR secretary, it became apparent that retired employees, and even some university faculty, were no longer welcome at the meetings.
        Tom Hauge, retired DNR director of Wildlife Management, confirms that a couple years after Cathy Stepp took over as DNR secretary, was when changes occurred.  He said that there were frustrations from groups such as the Hunters Rights Coalition that the advisory groups were completely DNR dominated, and they wanted more public input from stakeholder organizations especially before decisions were made.
        DNR retirees could participate if they represented a stakeholder group and usually the committee chair asks for comments from the public at the end of the meeting.
        Ed Frank, age 85 and retired DNR upland wildlife ecologist, said that it became clear that “We could attend, but we couldn’t speak unless the chair of the committee called on us.”
        Frank soon decided attending meetings for species that he had spent a career working on behalf of, wasn’t worth the time.
        Some of the trend may have coincided during a time when Scott Gunderson, past chair of the Assembly Natural Resources committee, was wanting to see big changes in the DNR deer program and Keith McCaffery, DNR northern deer research leader, retired from the DNR.
Tim VanDeelen was hired from Illinois to fill McCaffery’s position.
        McCaffery, who often refers to himself as a “failure at retirement”, continued to come into the office as a volunteer, even though he had retired. Gunderson was unhappy with that, telling this reporter that he feared that the “old guard” was still around and the new researcher couldn’t change the program.
        On the contrary.  VanDeelen, today Beers-Bascom professor in conservation for the UW-Madison Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, says that, “I enjoyed having Keith at the office. . .  and never once felt like I was constrained or prevented what I thought was best.
        “Keith was also a great resource.  His knowledge of the history of the deer program and the details of how the deer-harvest-permitting system behaved in different parts of Wisconsin was invaluable.”
        Van Deelen added that “Keith is one of the best friends that the deer hunters of this state ever had.  He was instrumental in building one of the best deer programs in the country.”
        But why retired employees are not welcomed remains a question that is also of concern to Bruce Gruthoff, age 81 and retired Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist who later worked for and retired from Ducks Unlimited as Regional Director.
        Gruthoff is appalled that retired DNR employees, especially those in wildlife ecology, are not allowed to actively participate in committees that are established to help manage and plan for the future of species such as pheasants, ruffed grouse, prairie chickens, pheasants, or deer.
        He said that when he took over the prairie chicken project in the early 1970s he met regularly with Fred Hamerstrom, who had retired from the department, and Gruthoff obtained valuable information and advice from this world- renowned researcher.
        He said that was invaluable, and it illustrates problems today where past managers are not allowed to participate in meetings about species that they used to be involved with.
        The history that employees have and relationships they have developed with the public, especially private landowners, are invaluable, and should be seen as assets rather than liabilities. 
        Jim Keir, retired DNR biologist in Wisconsin Rapids, said that, “It makes no sense to me that retirees in general have accumulated years of expertise and to not make use of that makes no sense.”
        Keir spent more than 20 years on the Buena Vista Marsh area.
        John Kubisiak, retired long time ruffed grouse and deer researcher with DNR, said that he had served briefly on committees but then was not advised of committee meetings or dates and was in essence “summarily dismissed after retiring.”
        Keith McCaffery, retired DNR deer researcher, said he was prohibited from species advisory committees along with other retirees and university staff during the Stepp era.  He doesn’t believe that much has changed since then.
        What he terms as “vicious” legislative leadership and appointees from the previous administration still prompt many concerns for people concerned about the management and future of the state’s natural resources.
        The question was put to the DNR and Beth Bier, DNR deputy secretary, explains that several years ago changes were made to the structure of the species management committees in response to concerns that they had grown too large and unwieldly and were not functioning in a way that provided clear stakeholder input to the DNR.
        Previous DNR leadership approved the policies, though Bier said that retired DNR staff are not prohibited from being on the committees if they are a representative of a stakeholder group.
        “They may also attend meetings as a member of the public,” she said.  Adding that it is important to continually assess operations and they will discuss with staff.
        “While our DNR retirees have a lot of expertise and passion to bring to the table, we do want to ensure diverse points of view are present.”
        All good points, and to be sure large committees can be unwieldly, and current employees need to have the freedom to do what they are trained for, paid for, and feel is correct.
        BUT, dis-inviting retirees who have the interest and passion to contribute their experience and knowledge is a waste of resources the State has long invested in.  The new “resource friendly” administration needs to take a look at its policies.

Renewing old acquaintances with Nina Leopold Bradley, daughter of the late Aldo Leopold, were some of Leopold’s students at a 2003 celebration of wildlife management and research at the Leopold Shack near Baraboo., Wisconsin. (L to R): Harry Stroebe, Arman Schwingle, Jim Hale Nina Leopold Bradley, Bob Wendt, Ruth Hine (seated), George Hartman, Don Thompson and Cliff Germain. Photo Copyright Tim Eisele

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