On Nov. 13, 2015, Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Director James Zehringer hired Ray Petering as the new chief of the Division of Wildlife.
“Ray’s background and experience in the field of fish and wildlife resources, as well as his success in establishing and maintaining partnerships to strengthen wildlife conservation, made Ray the ideal candidate for this job. Under Ray’s leadership I anticipate the Division of Wildlife will make great advancements in furthering ODNR’s efforts to improve Ohio’s fish and wildlife management,” Zehringer touted.
It appears that Ray’s success in establishing and maintaining those partnerships with the likes of the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Nature Conservancy, Buckeye Trail Association, League of Ohio Sportsmen, Wild Turkey Federation, State Trappers Association, Charter Boat Association, Ohio Conservation Federation and Sportsmen’s Alliance has cost him his job.
On July 5, Ray was asked to attend a meeting in Zehringer’s office.
“I went in for a meeting that was supposed to be on a different topic, and I was told I was terminated. The director and his two top assistants were there. There was no discussion and no explanation,” Petering said. He was then escorted out of the ODNR facilities.
Recent battles over funding for the Division of Wildlife and an increase in license fees have resulted in a reduced funding package which increased nonresident licenses and permits, a move that many knowledgeable groups deem insufficient to maintain services and a far cry from the recommendations made by the independent (and governor-appointed) Wildlife Council, as well as state and national conservation organizations.
As the Legislature ironed out its final differences in the two-year budget bill, a coalition of 41 sportsmen’s organizations attempted to convince state representatives and senators that a modest $3 dollar increase for each hunting and fishing license, along with bringing nonresident fees into line with other states, would solve the financial issues. After all, there had been no license increases for 14 years.
The increases were opposed by Zehringer’s ODNR, which continued to tell legislators that the agency was solvent even though research clearly demonstrated the agency is facing the largest financial crisis in its existence.
The research and unanimous support of Ohio’s conservation community finally convinced legislators to at least approve the nonresident fee increases as part of the budget bill signed June 30. This is expected to produce upwards of $40 million in new revenue over the next 10 years toward a projected $220 million budget shortfall.
The Division of Wildlife’s personnel have surely been instructed that the budget was a wonderful development and to spread the happy news “¦ or else, especially considering that division personnel were ordered to stay mum during the budgeting procedure.
Ray’s ouster is bad for professional wildlife management and enforcement, on par with Mike Budzick’s disgusted departure from his position as liaison between ODNR and the governor’s office.
According to ODNR, Mike Miller was immediately anointed as the new chief of the Division of Wildlife. “Mike brings an experienced wildlife law enforcement perspective to the position, along with some creative ideas in regard to helping the division thrive,” Zehringer said.
I’ve known Mike for a number of years as both a wildlife officer and as a member of the training unit, of which I was also a member. He was always a nice guy who would do whatever he was asked.
He served with the Division of Watercraft as an officer, transferring to the Division of Wildlife. He left wildlife and went back to watercraft, serving most recently as the boating law administrator. This was all during the Division of Watercraft’s recent absorption into the parks division, helping to secure the waterway safety fund and boating registration cash for “the greater good.”
I hope that Miller will work hard for the sportsmen and women of Ohio and the state’s wildlife resources. Unfortunately, doing that could cost him his new job. Apparently, he has been given marching orders.
In a controversial July 3 move, ODNR reclassified all assistant chief positions, including the Division of Wildlife’s, moving them from civil servant-protected classifications to an unclassified, and thus unprotected, status. This essentially meant that they could be terminated and replaced with barely any reason or explanation.
The assistant chief positions were once an assignment that dedicated and educated personnel could strive to work toward, but are now accessible to folks with good political connections and little or no experience, which is a great way to politically control how resources are managed, policies are formulated and money is spent (or misspent) while providing a neat way to award cronies.
On Monday, July 10, a scant five days after Zehringer sent Petering packing, the Division of Wildlife’s two assistant chiefs were replaced. In the parlance of private business, this would be referred to as a “hostile takeover.”
In the case of Zehringer’s office, it’s called “politics as usual.”
Miller exercised his authority and ousted wildlife’s assistant chiefs Susie Vance and Scott Hale. They were “not terminated,” nor were these expert wildlife employees offered a return to their old jobs; instead, they were given the opportunity to take jobs with Parks and Watercraft.
There was no consideration given that would allow them to return to their old jobs.
On the same day of the Vance and Hale removals, Miller appointed Scott Sharpe and Mike Luers to the assistant positions; both were Division of Parks and Watercraft employees. Sharpe did serve in Wildlife District 1 as an officer prior to leaving the department, later returning and working for a short time as the Hancock County wildlife officer.
Apparently, these removals still weren’t enough for Zehringer’s department, as section heads of the Division of Wildlife were quickly lopped off the table of organization.
Ken Fitz, head of the law enforcement section, was transferred to ODNR’s communications center.
Greg Wade, in charge of training, has a new home with Parks and Wildlife.
Dave Kohler, in charge of all of Ohio’s wildlife management programs, is now in charge of nuisance geese in state parks.
Stacy Xenakis, who oversaw federal aid coming to the Division of Wildlife, has gone to another assignment yet to be revealed.
These wildlife experts, who had dedicated their lives striving to eventually fill the positions that they held, are now going to finish their careers as paper pushers in agencies they never wanted to work for, all for political expediency.
The dog has been officially neutered, but it’s not dead. I’m certain a lot of sportsmen and women will be quite upset, and should be. This decapitation of this well-known, well-liked, well-supported and once well-funded agency will not sit well with the public.
But why is this being done? Follow the money “¦ it’s really that simple.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife, once the flagship with which other state’s agencies were compared, derived its very existence from the hunters and anglers who support it; the birders who can once again spot nesting eagles and ospreys or enjoy visiting Lake Erie marshes; and wildlife watchers who once again enjoy otters frolicking in Ohio’s rivers. It was their contributions that made the division work.
It appears that the division is now under political attack to create a financial situation that makes it eventually appear that their takeover is necessary due to lack of funding. If that $200 million shortfall is as accurate as research suggests, how long before the conquering DNR requests the same license hike?
Is there a possibility that the millions of dollars of financial aid available from the federal Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson acts, money that is earmarked for the good of wildlife, are now at risk? Could future funding be misappropriated for obtuse projects which have little link to their original intent?
The power of the director’s office should not be absolute; it should have to answer for its decisions and clearly and openly explain its actions. It is obvious that all of this was preplanned and that individuals had been handpicked to fill positions prior to the dismissals. It’s also clear that these good soldiers were also given their marching orders and that the goal is to discredit and dismantle the Ohio Division of Wildlife that outdoors folks have known and trusted.
Where are our state’s senators and representatives on this issue?
It’s time that the state’s sportsmen’s clubs, including the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance and the League of Ohio Sportsmen, encourage the creation of a Wildlife Commission, independent of the Department of Natural Resources. Let Zehringer have his sandbox.
Creedence Clearwater Revival may have said it best with their lyrics, “I see a bad moon a-rising “¦ I see trouble on the way “¦”
“The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication.” — Cecil B. DeMille
“If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” — Alan Simpson
• Tomorrow: 50-bird trap shoot, practice at 11 a.m., program starts at 12:30 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• Thursday-Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard, OH 45867-0413 or via email at email@example.com.
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