The president of the League of Ohio Sportsmen recently told members of the Fulton County Sportsmen Club he suspects the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has targeted its Division of Wildlife for the revenue it generates.
In his presentation to the club members, Paul Brooks said actions taken by the ODNR leave him to believe the department will consolidate its wildlife division into other agencies within the umbrella organization. He said it appears the ODNR may be going after millions of dollars the Division of Wildlife holds from state fishing, hunting, and trapping licensing fees, which it uses to operate and for public programs.
Brooks, who is also a field director for Sportsmen Alliance, a non-profit organization defending the rights of wildlife sportsmen, said Tuesday the ODNR has taken actions recently that could signal the death of the state’s Division of Wildlife.
“There are a lot of things that give us a lot of concern,” he said. “It’s all speculation, but something’s up. Things of this magnitude don’t happen without a reason.”
He said in July the department made an unprecedented transfer of the Division of Wildlife’s entire executive planning group to other ODNR areas, most notably the Parks and Watercraft Division. Brooks said the group members were invited to join the other divisions or seek employment in the private sector.
The department also declassified two Division of Wildlife assistant chief positions and transformed them to political appointments. “That increases the possibility that we will not have a scientifically managed Division of Wildlife,” something sportsmen think is vital, Brooks said.
He also stated that ODNR Director Jim Zehringer called Ohio’s Sports Alliance and other state sportsmen organizations “a conservation cult,” and specifically said the Fulton County Sportsmen Club “does not represent any sportsmen.”
“These are some of the reasons that we believe they are up to no good,” Brooks said.
The Division of Wildlife is self-sustaining, not supported by taxes, and relies on the sale of fishing, hunting, and trapping permits to operate, he said. Yet rates for those permits have not increased in 14 years, and extra revenue the division uses to fund public programs is reimbursed by the federal government at only a 75 percent rate.
Consequently, the division is down 28 staff members and doesn’t have the finances to provide seven Ohio counties with game wardens, Brooks said. He said in order to keep the Division of Wildlife afloat both state sportsmen and conservation groups, past leaders of the Division of Wildlife, and members of the state’s Wildlife Council petitioned to raise fishing, trapping, deer, and turkey permit prices by $5, and non-state resident deer tags by $100.
“They can’t afford to hire because the money is just not there. And that is why we wanted this increase,” Brooks said.
The ODNR denies a money problem, he said. However, calculations by the Sportsmen Alliance show a $220 million shortfall for the division. To verify that amount, the organization requested Gov. John Kasich’s office in June to also run the numbers. Their results were different by a mere $6 million.
“When you have that overwhelming amount of support from sportsmen and related councils, how can the ODNR come back and say it’s not a problem? Something’s going on,” Brooks said.
He said two years ago the ODNR merged the Water Craft Division with the Parks Division, which is tax-based. The issue, he said, is that Water Craft is available for federal dollar matches, money the ODNR can now use for other purposes.
Brooks will concede that consolidation has led to gained efficiency, and said he’s not against that. He’s concerned that if the Division of Wildlife is consolidated its 75 percent federal reimbursements will be used for purposes outside the division.
His main concern, however, remains that the division would no longer be scientifically managed.
According to ODNR spokesperson Matt Eiselstein, “The director has said on more than one occasion that he has no intention of merging the Division of Wildlife with other divisions. Our focus is on securing and increasing access and opportunities to preserve Ohio’s outdoor heritage for future generations.”
Eiselstein said to his knowledge Kasich’s office has never indicated the Division of Wildlife suffers a financial shortfall. “I can’t speak to how the (Sportsmen) Alliance prioritized their budget items to create this ‘shortfall,’ but I can say it doesn’t reflect Wildlife’s actual budget or financial standing,” he said.
He also said Zehringer never called sportsmen clubs conservation cults, “nor does he believe that.”
As for the merging of the Water Craft and Parks divisions, Eiselstein said they share similar stakeholder groups and their missions overlapped. He said the Division of Wildlife’s executive planning group members were reassigned because Wildlife’s new chief was permitted to choose his own leadership team.
And the declassification of two Wildlife assistant chief positions into political appointments is a measure being done across all ODNR divisions, as well as pursued by other state agencies, Eiselstein said. “Assistant chief positions have fiduciary duties that require a higher level of accountability to Ohio’s taxpayers,” he said.
Brooks said that, despite Eiselstein’s assertion to the contrary, the biggest shock for him was the ODNR’s blatant disrespect toward the state’s sportsmen “by calling us a conservation cult. As sportsmen, it would seem that our voice was not only ignored, it was chastised, because all these people signed on for support, and they called us a cult.”
He urged sportsmen to visit the “Save the Ohio Division of Wildlife” Facebook page and to write their state representatives.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.