Little Thought Goes into Proposed Budget Cuts

By Patrick DurkinJuly 20, 2015

Roughly 50 full-time Wisconsin DNR jobs in wildlife, fisheries, science services and law enforcement will be eliminated in the state-budget draft for 2016-17, and yet a key lawmaker behind the cuts claims they’ll benefit the state’s hunters and anglers.

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said he supports axing nearly 20 research jobs in the Department of Natural Resources’ science bureau because “they are not doing things to enhance opportunities for sportsmen.” Tiffany said in a telephone interview that sportsmen would be better served if staff losing those jobs were “integrated” into the agency’s fish- and wildlife-management bureaus for “more practical, applied science in the field.”

A Wisconsin lawmakers blames the state’s DNR for lower deer numbers in the state’s Northern forests.

A Wisconsin lawmakers blames the state’s DNR for lower deer numbers in the state’s Northern forests.

Those are just some of the DNR jobs facing elimination. A DNR memo in mid-June showed the agency losing 49.94 full-time equivalency positions. The DNR’s science services bureau would lose 18.4 fte positions; fisheries management, 15.94; wildlife management, 7.25; law enforcement, 3.75; support services, 3.6; and facilities and lands, 1.0.

The agency currently has about 2,600 FTE jobs, down from 3,300 when former DNR Secretary Georg Meyer was ousted in 2001 by then Gov. Scott McCallum.

The Wisconsin DNR will lose about 16 full-time jobs in its wildlife-management bureau if the state’s current budget is approved.

The Wisconsin DNR will lose about 16 full-time jobs in its wildlife-management bureau if the state’s current budget is approved.

Tiffany also disputed Democrats’ assertions that he has a vendetta against the science services bureau. “When the Democrats held the governorship and controlled the Legislature in 2009, their Senate majority leader, Russ Decker, said the DNR’s big-game management unit should be fired,” Tiffany said. “I’m not saying that. I’m just saying those people should be integrated into the field.”

When reminded that he issued a press release in 2012 asking that the big-game team be “replaced,” Tiffany denied it, and asked me to send the press release. Instead, I found it on my computer and began reading his July 11, 2012, statements to him, right off his office stationary.

I asked if “replaced” means the same thing as “fired,” and he conceded it did.

He said, however, that the “bigger issue” is that recommendations from the DNR’s science bureau helped crash the Northwoods deer herd. When asked if poor habitat and overpopulated herds 10 years ago played larger roles, Tiffany conceded that “a combination of things probably happened to create significantly less deer numbers.”

And when asked how replacing researchers with fish and wildlife managers would rebuild deer herds, Tiffany replied, “I don’t know if it will change deer numbers five years from now.”

Sen. Tiffany likes to portray himself as the sportsman’s friend, but one wonders how well he grasps hunting, fishing and trapping issues. After all, DNR records show he hasn’t bought a fishing or hunting license since 2008, when he purchased a sportsman’s license, which covers fishing, gun-deer hunting and small-game hunting. He bought the same license in 2006, but that was his only other purchase after opening a DNR customer account in June 2004.

Budget cuts to education and information staff in the Wisconsin DNR could hurt efforts to introduce women to bowhunting.

Budget cuts to education and information staff in the Wisconsin DNR could hurt efforts to introduce women to bowhunting.

Such superficial understanding of DNR issues makes you wonder how much thought Wisconsin’s lawmakers put into this budget. Another example is the failed idea by Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, to cut the DNR’s Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine from six issues to four and its staff from three full-time positions to 1.5, while raising its annual subscription price from $8.97 to $10.

Steffen said the magazine has about 22,000 subscribers, and another 20,000 receive it as a “throw-in, value-added” bonus for buying the DNR’s all-inclusive $165 (resident) Patron’s License for hunting, fishing and state park visits.

Hmm. Not to nitpick, but the magazine’s website puts its circulation at 88,000-plus, and DNR data show about 41,000 people hold a Patron’s License.

Steffen couldn’t get fellow legislators to support his plan, but he vigorously defends the idea, conceding only that it’s dead for the current budget. In a telephone interview, Steffen said his plan would have raised money for the DNR’s “core responsibilities,” and “unless you’re a Madison bureaucrat, I don’t know how you couldn’t support this.”

Again, not to nitpick, but state statutes mandate that subscription money can only be used for producing the magazine, and remaining funds must be used for educational programs.

Steffen said Wisconsin Natural Resources caught his attention because “the state of Wisconsin has a $700,000 operation for a magazine that provides content similar to at least 11 other natural-resources-related magazines in the private sector.”

When asked to name those 11 other magazines, Steffen drew a blank. He said, however, that he evaluated several issues of Wisconsin Natural Resources and thinks four issues are adequate.

Steffen said: “The fact I’m aware of 11 different natural-resources magazines actively sold and produced in Wisconsin with very similar content to the (DNR) magazine tells me if people can’t satisfy their needs with four issues, the private sector will fill that need.”

Steffen’s aide named the 11 magazines later that day in an email. Of the 11, two are basic “how-to” hunting and fishing titles, Badger Sportsman and Wisconsin Fish & Game; two are news and how-to outdoors newspapers, Wisconsin Outdoor News and On Wisconsin Outdoors; two are academic in nature, Wisconsin Magazine of History (Wisconsin Historical Society), and Wisconsin People and Ideas (Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters); two are general-interest titles with little or no fish and wildlife articles, Curb Magazine and Our Wisconsin Magazine; and another, Silent Sports, covers biking, running, snowshoeing and other non consumptive recreation.

What about the other two “actively sold” magazines? One, Wisconsin Trails magazine, hasn’t published a print edition since January 2013 and exists only online. The other, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, ceased publishing in 2009.

The proposed 2016-17 Wisconsin budget would cut nearly 16 full-time jobs in the DNR’s fish-management bureau.

The proposed 2016-17 Wisconsin budget would cut nearly 16 full-time jobs in the DNR’s fish-management bureau.

In other words, Steffen’s analysis was shoddy. He also conceded during the interview that he didn’t evaluate wildlife-agency magazines in other states to compare staffing, pricing and frequencies.

Steffen also hasn’t bought a DNR license since buying fishing licenses in 2005, 2006 and 2007. That might help explain why he thinks Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine is more about “natural resource activities by residents and visitors of Wisconsin than educational articles on DNR activities.”

Steffen grew testy when pressed on his analysis, saying: “If you’re not familiar with legislators, they do not have to be doctors to make decisions on Medicare or Medicaid, and they don’t have to be road builders to make decisions on transportation. We have an $80 billion budget to make decisions on, and to expect every legislator to be an expert on every issue is ridiculous.”

True enough, but shouldn’t legislators be experts on their own proposals?

Patrick Durkin
President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
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