When Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Director James Zehringer and appointee Gary Obermiller tossed Division of Wildlife Chief Ray Petering from his job last July 5, they immediately appointed Division of Parks and Watercraft employee Mike Miller as the new boss.
Five days later, after reclassifying and removing civil service protection of assistant chiefs Susie Vance and Scott Hale, Miller sent them packing and picked Scott Sharpe and Mike Luers to replace them.
Also ousted were section heads of the Division of Wildlife: Ken Fitz, head of the law enforcement section; Greg Wade, training supervisor; Dave Kohler, the state’s wildlife management boss; and Stacy Xenakis, federal aid coordinator.
These wildlife experts, who had dedicated their lives striving to fill the positions that they held, will likely finish their careers as paper pushers in agencies for which they never wanted to work.
It’s interesting to note that the assistant chiefs are currently working in a “temporary duty” status, meaning that they don’t have to worry about being ejected like their predecessors, having a parachute that will land them in a (likely hand-picked) job in the event that a similar group decides to flex their muscles.
During a conservation club meeting in Findlay that was meant to discuss these changes with fired chief Petering, newly-appointed assistant chief Sharpe and assistant director Obermiller made an unexpected visit and asked to be placed on the agenda.
Since Petering was afraid of the possible confrontational nature of the visit, he bowed out early and the duo were given the opportunity to speak.
They asked that they be given a chance to lead the Division of Wildlife, expressing a deep concern for the decreasing sales of hunting licenses in the state (a situation they neglected to mention was a national phenomenon). Recruitment and retention of hunters and anglers was going to be the high point on their list of priorities.
When the electronic licenses system became available, the Division of Wildlife had created the Conservation Club Competitive Grant Program to ensure that the conservation partnership between the clubs and the state continued to flourish.
On Dec. 8, Miller sent a letter to conservation clubs outlining that $500,000 in grants will be made available to them this year, and that application requests cannot exceed $7,500. Much of this money comes through federal funding based on the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold in the state.
It is noteworthy that in the year prior, Petering, wanting to capture federal aid dollars and promote outdoor activities, facilitated as many programs as possible, resulting in $1.3 million awarded toward club events. During that time, the maximum grant a club could apply for was $15,000, twice of what is now available.
Miller’s funding cut breaks an agreement between Ohio’s conservation clubs and the Division of Wildlife that guaranteed that the grant program would never fall below $750,000 per year, while in many years it has exceeded that total.
Ohio’s sportsmen’s clubs are vital to conservation and hunting, fishing and trapping. This army of volunteers conducts youth education and recruitment events, women’s events, veterans events, shooting events, mobility-impaired events, hunter education classes and much more.
They are vital to the recruitment of new hunters, anglers and trappers, while providing the social hub of communication to the sportsmen’s community. The use of club grounds is most often donated, along with thousands of volunteer hours that provide the Division of Wildlife with the match to receive federal aid dollars and event funding.
Despite this incredible bargain to Ohioans, 2018 grants will no longer fund food, drinks, cooking equipment or any prizes for participants and volunteers. Giving kids a hot dog and a soda at a recruitment event is no great burden and can help provide an enjoyable event for participants and volunteers.
There are several troubling aspects to these cuts. First, despite pleas from Ohio’s sportsmen and women that the Division of Wildlife needed additional funds during last year’s budget battle, ODNR, accompanied by the forced censorship of Division of Wildlife employees, offered the storyline that insisted the agency was flush with funds. If that’s so, why cut funding to this important program?
During the budget debate, ODNR officials repeatedly stated that they were concerned about falling hunting and fishing participation. How does cutting funding toward recruitment and educational programming address that concern?
Why were these cuts made without dialogue with the affected clubs? While the Division of Wildlife is going to hold meetings to explain their storyline to the public, their decision has obviously been made.
The Division of Wildlife cannot accomplish its mission without strong partnerships with the conservation community. While the cuts to this program are a small fraction of the overall budget of the agency, they are a huge blow to Ohio clubs that were promised this would never happen.
One of the most important tools utilized to promote outdoor activities has been the close ties of wildlife officers and the many sportsmen’s clubs scattered in every one of the state’s 88 counties. The idea of reducing the number of wildlife officers serving Ohio still seems to be on ODNR’s radar. This continues the idea that there is a disconnect between those in control and the public it serves.
Finally, my concerns are these: is this a result of ignorance of the system or historical work of the division; inexperience at leadership positions; incompetence or lack of knowledge of how funding is secured; is it federal aid manipulation or diversion; or is it a desire to discredit and undermine the Division of Wildlife to ripen the prospect of creating a Division of Law Enforcement?
After speaking to U.S. Fish and Wildlife representatives, they certainly have their concerns, too.
If you would like to attend the meeting about these conservation initiative cuts, the northwest Ohio meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Division of Wildlife Office, 952 Lima Ave., Findlay.
“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.” — Spencer Johnson
Along the way
It’s been a long time since an Eighth Air Force bomber crewman left the deadly battles in the cloud-strewn ether over Europe to return to his hometown. He brought back the integrity of that greatest generation and a dream of capturing a life he was so fortunate to still possess.
Bill Jaqua’s dream of opening a sporting goods store resulted in his shop, once located on Main Street in Findlay until being moved to its current location on East Bigelow. He also developed a trap shooting club that drew shooters from around the nation. In 1962, Bill commissioned Colt to create a special run of gold-inlayed revolvers to commemorate the Fort Findlay sesquicentennial, an item cherished by collectors.
In 1987, he was inducted into the Hancock County Sports Hall of Fame for his efforts at putting trap and skeet shooting within reach of shooters of all ages and for his service as director of the Ohio State Trap Shooting Association.
An avid hunter, fisherman, shooter and firearm collector, Bill was well known and well liked in the sportsmen’s world and a staple at local clubs. He passed away on Dec. 31, but his legacy will remain cemented in our community, with his family, with the store that carries his name, and with those he introduced to the shooting sports and to fine firearms. I owe him my thanks.
Step outside
• Tomorrow: Sporting clays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• Tomorrow: Fun pistol shoot, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., HCCL, 13748 Jackson Township 168, Findlay.
• Today and tomorrow: Maumee Valley Gun Collectors show, Lucas County Recreation Center, Maumee.
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 45867-0413 or via email at jimsfieldnotes@aol.com.