Battle results in new chief at the Division of Wildlife

New Division of Wildlife Chief Mike Miller (third from left) at the ribbon cutting for the new canoe access sites on Ohio Brush Creek this past April.

By Tom Cross – 

You had to know it was coming. After the bruising battle the Division of Wildlife (DOW) waged against the Ohio Department of Natural Resources over resident license fee increases, some heads were going to roll. The first sent into retirement was DOW Chief Ray Petering, replaced with Mike Miller, who was named the new Chief of the Division of Wildlife on July 5.
Miller comes to the Division with a long pedigree of accomplishments and was former chief of the Division of Watercraft. Miller’s roots are from law enforcement, spending 20 years with DOW as the Knox County wildlife office and later supervisor, winning numerous awards and recognition for his law enforcement efforts. Miller was also instrumental locally in helping Adams County Tourism secure a $15,000 grant to build two new canoe access sites on Ohio Brush Creek.
ODNR Director James Zehringer commented, “Mike brings an experienced wildlife law enforcement perspective to the position along with some creative ideas in regard to helping the Division thrive. I believe Mike will bring energy and focus to the chief’s role that will help us provide additional opportunities and access for our hunters, trappers and anglers.”
Troubles for the DOW begin when former DOW chief Petering made the comment, “doing 2017 programs on 2004 money” and begin pushing for an increase in resident hunting and fishing license fees. Taking its cue from Chief Petering, the Ohio Sportsmen’s Alliance assembled a coalition of sportsmen groups at times referred to as “The Orange Hat Brigade”. The Ohio Wildlife Counsel sent an open letter to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) requesting an increase in resident hunting and fishing licenses, predicting a budget shortfall at DOW in the near future.
An increase in non-resident license fees had already been agreed to in House Bill 49 being debated in the Ohio Senate. The Wildlife Counsel’s letter blindsided the leadership of ODNR who were already solidly behind a non-resident license fee increase. The movement snowballed and more Ohio sportsmen’s groups entered the fray. However ODNR and the Kasich administration stood firm against any license increase for Ohio resident hunters and fishermen.
In a letter dated April 25, ODNR Director Zehringer laid out his opposition to a resident fee increase. “You don’t have to be an economist to understand that increased cost means decreased participation. Raising fees on Ohioans should be a last option not a first.”
That’s when things turned ugly against Governor Kasich and the leadership of ODNR. Some outdoor columnists were openly calling for Director Zehringer’s resignation. A Facebook page sprang up called “Save the Ohio Division of Wildlife” in which a daily dose of the ongoing tug of war between to two agencies was daily fodder. Conspiracy theories and rumors were often posted about ODNR and the tone of the debate sounded more like Washington DC.
In early May, six former DOW chiefs sent an open letter to Governor Kasich supporting a fee increase for resident hunters and fishermen. Another open letter to Kasich from “Ultimate Upland” suggested appointing the DOW to a cabinet level position, increasing resident hunting and fishing license fees $7, adding a $10 fee for anyone accessing public land, charging a special fee for upland bird hunting, and tying all future license fee increases into inflation.
But perhaps the most damaging event was a resignation letter from former DOW chief and Kasich adviser Mike Budzik to the governor accusing ODNR of “having no regard for the sportsmen and women of Ohio and no respect for the organizations that represent them.”
The intensity of the debate changed from one of policy to an actual challenge to the Kasich administration over who is governing the Ohio Division of Wildlife. The DOW had now sparked a polarizing debate that was also engulfing sportsmen, driving a wedge between those who sided with the DOW and those who did not want a license fee increases. The only rare agreement between those two camps was to increase non-resident fees. The rhetoric has only intensified with the recent firing of chief Petering.
At an Ohio Senate sub-committee hearing, testimony was given from both sides of the now bitter debate between ODNR and DOW. The DOW turned to an offense of intense lobbying from sportsmen’s groups that had proven successful in the past. Senator Joe Uecker said the Senate was under intense pressure from DOW supporters to raise resident license fees. Language was even drafted that would raise fishing licenses to $24, and deer and turkey permits to $29.
In the final bill, no such resident fee increases were included in Senate budget H.B. 49 signed by Kasich last week. The DOW gambled that their supporters could eventually swing the Senate against the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The Ohio Sportsmen’s Alliance, as expected, is spinning this into a victory. However, their real objective of raising resident hunting and fishing license fees fell short, sending a grim signal to the DOW. To that end, ODNR removed the civil servant protected classification on the Assistant Chief to unclassified thus leaving them unprotected. The Ohio Senate backed the leadership role of ODNR and as a result the Division of Wildlife got a new boss.
In the recently passed Senate bill, non-resident deer permits increased from $24 to $250. Non-resident turkey permits went from $24 to $75 and fees for non-resident hunting licenses went up from $125 to $175. Fees for non-resident fishing licenses will increase to $50.
Active duty personnel in the armed forces while on leave or furlough can purchase a deer or turkey permit at a resident rate regardless of whether a person is a resident of the state. For Ohio residents, fees for hunting and fishing license and permits remain unchanged.
Update: More shake up at the Division of Wildlife. On the morning of July 10, assistant DOW chief Susan Vance and Scott Hale have been reassigned to Parks and Watercraft. Replacing them at the Division of Wildlife are Scott Sharpe and Mike Luers. Sharpe had a previous career with Parks and Wildlife. Luers comes from Human Resources at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The change was made to assist Mike Miller in his transition as the new Chief of the Division of Wildlife.