License-fee dispute ousts staff at Ohio Division of Wildlife

Ohio Division of Wildlife

License-fee dispute ousts staff at Ohio Division of Wildlife

There has been a bloodletting at the top of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Ohio Division of WildlifeEight senior officials, including the chief, have been removed from their posts after a bid to increase the cost of in-state hunting and fishing licenses divided the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

On one side was former chief Ray Petering and a coalition of 41 sporting organizations that support higher fees to help meet the division’s needs. On the other, advocates say, was Jim Zehringer, head of the agency, who opposed the increase.

The cause of the divide was a $220 million budget shortfall projected over the next decade by the Sportsmen’s Alliance, and a grassroots-initiated proposal for a license fee increase to help address that problem.

“Ohio sportsmen and women have never had to fight so hard to convince the government to pay our own way,” said Robert Sexton, a consultant with the Sportsmen’s Alliance.

Sexton said the Division of Wildlife is primarily funded by money from the hunting and fishing licenses and federal taxes on game gear sales. No other taxpayer money goes to the conservation agency. He said the division hadn’t had a license fee increase since 2003.

“We believe asking people to pay more gives people more reason to put away fishing poles and shotguns,” said Matt Eiselstein, spokesman for the department.

The initial resistance to the fee increases seemed political to Petering, despite the idea that they would serve the department’s self-interest and were broadly supported by the community that would pay them. The Wildlife Council, an advisory board for the Department of Natural Resources, unanimously supported the budget amendments.

The Sportsmen’s Alliance calculates that the division will need nearly $130 million to address capital needs and nearly $100 million for operational cost increases. The fee increases would garner $40 million over that time, partially addressing the shortfall.

Although license fees for Ohio residents will remain the same, the coalition was able to persuade state lawmakers to adopt a budget amendment raising non-resident fees. For out-of-state hunters, the cost of a license will go from $125 to $175, while a deer hunting permit will rise from $24 to $75. Turkey permits increase $5 to $29 and a fishing license will increase from $40 to $50. The changes go into effect next year.

The timing and method of the leadership changes raised eyebrows across the state. By July 3, Natural Resources officials had removed civil service protection for assistant chiefs of the agency, which allowed for political appointees to fill the positions.

“This was not a knee-jerk reaction,” Petering said. “This was fairly calculated. … It points to something rotten in Denmark.”

The exodus continued on July 5 when Zehringer fired Petering. Two of Petering’s assistant chiefs were soon assigned to other jobs, as were the wildlife management section chief, the information and education chief, the law enforcement chief, the top law enforcement training officer and the division’s federal aid coordinator. Petering sees his firing and his employees’ reassignments as “clean and clear” retribution for his position opposing department officials.

The wholesale change in leadership jarred some, including former chief Mike Budzik, who worked for 28 years in the department before retiring. The decision so vexed him that he resigned from his role as a policy adviser and sportsmen’s liaison to Kasich. “In the long-term effect, this is going to be devastating to the fish and wildlife conservation in Ohio, without question,” Budzik said.

The department said changes in staff come with any new chief of the division. Budzik disagreed, calling the wholesale change in leadership unprecedented. Petering said he relied on the expertise and experience of the team below him when he stepped into the role.

Originally Posted on July 12, 2017 By Andrew Kelper For The Columbus Dispatch

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