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Column: While DNR Fish and Wildlife Division reorganizes, jobs go wanting, outposts go dark

The changes follow a wildlife-section reorganization that began about three years ago by DNR managers whose intent was to align the section's staffing, fleet and other expenses with available money.

Minnesota DNR reorganization
Biologists Keith Reeves, left, Josh Blankenheim and Cory Goldsworthy pull out netted lake trout from Lake Superior during an annual spring population survey, on Lake Superior, May 8, 2018 in Duluth. The Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division is reorganizing and some positions around the state might be consolidated. The plan is expected to be complete by spring.
Jerry Holt / Minneapolis Star Tribune / TNS
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(TNS) — Make a call to the Department of Natural Resources office in Tower, in northeast Minnesota about 20 miles southeast of Ely.

Ask for the person in charge of wildlife.

Chances are you will get a recording advising you to leave a message, with a response likely from a wildlife manager in the DNR's Cook office, 25 miles west of Tower.

Or give a ring to the DNR office in International Falls and ask to speak to a wildlife manager. You will probably get voicemail there, too, because DNR wildlife staff no longer are stationed in International Falls.

Instead, deer, bear, wolf and other wildlife management issues along stretches of the Ontario border are now handled from the DNR's Grand Rapids office, 120 miles south of International Falls.

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Similar DNR wildlife-section consolidations can be found throughout Minnesota.

The changes follow a wildlife-section reorganization that began about three years ago by DNR managers whose intent was to align the section's staffing, fleet and other expenses with available money.

The DNR wildlife and fisheries sections are largely paid for out of the Game and Fish Fund, which is primarily supported by hunting and fishing license sales.

"In 2017 and 2018, the section of wildlife was confronted with budget issues and we needed to develop a staffing plan that was in line with our funding, and implement the plan through attrition," DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt said recently.

"Ultimately, we agreed upon a wildlife section staffing complement and then worked to figure out how to distribute the staff that our budget supported. Changes were made throughout the state. In the northeast, for example, among other changes we consolidated the International Falls wildlife office with the Grand Rapids area office."

Similarly, Olfelt said, the area wildlife manager working out of Bemidji was shifted to the DNR Park Rapids office, 50 miles to the south. Now three wildlife staff are assigned to the Bemidji and Park Rapids work areas (excluding technicians and seasonal help), rather than the previous four.

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More DNR organizational changes may be made in coming weeks, each of which, ultimately, could affect the way fish and wildlife are managed in the state — and the effectiveness with which the interests of hunters, anglers and other Minnesotans are served.

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Recently, DNR managers, some 20 in all, met by video conference in an attempt to finalize possible changes to the Fish and Wildlife Division (of which the fisheries and wildlife sections are a part).

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Complicating the shortage is a Minnesota DNR requirement that minnow dealers who trap spottail shiners in waters designated as infested with zebra mussels must remove their gear by Monday, May 23.

The goal this time, Olfelt said, is not so much cost savings, as improved delivery of services.

"Before Fish and Wildlife Division Director Jim Leach retired in 2019 and I was given the job, he started a strategic planning process, one point of which was to look at our organizational structure,'' Olfelt said. "We started work on the reorganization in fall of 2019. Then COVID hit and it was on the back burner. We now expect to have it done by spring."

The process needs to be completed because at least eight key Fish and Wildlife Division management jobs are being held open pending final staffing decisions. Other DNR job vacancies also are open because of the state government hiring freeze that was lifted last summer.

To support the reorganization process, a consultant has gathered information and opinions from inside and outside the DNR. One hot-button idea discussed last week was whether, in the DNR's four regions (Grand Rapids, Bemidji, St. Paul and New Ulm), regional fisheries manager and regional wildlife manager positions should be melded into one.

Some in the DNR say the idea should be a non-starter, because expertise in both fields is rarely, if ever, held by single individuals. Wolves, as an example, are unlike walleyes in every possible way, and to expect one person to command sufficient expertise to make important decisions regarding each is unrealistic.

From all of this, the central question we hope to answer is, 'Does our organizational structure support or get in the way of what we have to get done?'
DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt

The counter argument, Olfelt said, is, "How high in management of an organization do you need subject matter expertise? At some point as you move up it becomes more about the people and systems and less about the biology."

Discussed last week as well was the division's fisheries and wildlife research staff, which is widely regarded as among the nation's best.

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"The review we've done has reinforced to us the importance of science-driven decision making and we want to make sure research remains a prominent part of the organization,'' Olfelt said.

Also on the table was whether the DNR's non-game program should return to the Fish and Wildlife Division from the DNR Ecological and Water Resources Division, where it currently resides.

Habitat that supports non-game in most instances also supports game, one argument goes, and better coordination could be achieved if the two were in the same division. Opponents of the idea counter that non-game staff interact with the Parks and Trails and Forestry divisions as well, and that no compelling reason exists to make the shift.

DNR fish and wildlife management has been reorganized before.

In the late 1990s, under DNR Commissioner Allen Garber, Fish and Wildlife were split into two divisions. In 2004, they were rejoined under Commissioner Gene Merriam.

"From all of this," Olfelt said, "The central question we hope to answer is, 'Does our organizational structure support or get in the way of what we have to get done?'"

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