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DNR fisheries

The DNR has decentralized its research bureau and placed scientists in program offices, like the one that covers fisheries. Above, in a file photo, a DNR fisheries biologist, transfers netted walleye to a holding tank on Kawaguesaga Lake in Minocqua. 

Deep in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal is a seemingly benign item formalizing the transfer of 15 scientists within the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Two years ago, Walker and lawmakers enacted a budget that cut 18 DNR science service bureau researchers amid complaints that their research related to climate change, pollution and wildlife habitat were controversial and unneeded.

Now the science services bureau is being dissolved and its remaining scientists moved to program offices that use their research.

A frequent critic of the DNR said the move will give more control to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, who was appointed by Walker in 2011 to make the department friendlier to business.

“I think it’s a more disciplined approach where the leadership of the Department of Natural Resources really directs that research,” said Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Hazelhurst Republican and part of the GOP majority on the Legislature’s budget committee.

Stepp should be able to ensure that research benefits sportsmen and the DNR should be better able to prevent further research that takes climate change into account, Tiffany said.

Tiffany doesn’t accept the findings of 97 percent of working climate scientists that the climate is changing rapidly in large part because of human-caused pollution.

“It’s theoretical,” Tiffany said. “It’s based on models that have not been proven.”

Stepp has said that while the DNR doesn’t take a position on the causes of climate change, it does work to make sure it is adapting its fish stocking plans to findings that show certain lakes and streams are growing too warm for some fish species.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick didn’t respond to requests for more information on the department’s current and future plans for adapting programs to climate change.

However, about two years ago DNR scientists began dropping out of a collaboration with other agencies that began in 2007 to help the state adapt to climate trends, said David Liebl, a co-chairman of the organization.

Some of the researchers have retired or gone to work in other states, but those who remain still want to help the state minimize the potential damage to natural resources from climate change, said Liebl, a UW-Extension professor emeritus and leader of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

After Walker and other Republicans took over state government in 2011 and began pressuring the DNR to change its focus, department scientists tried to keep their work under the radar by substituting terms like “climate variability” for climate change.

Public plan discontinued

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper delivered to lawmakers recently revealed that two years ago the DNR stopped publicly laying out its research plans and priorities, a move Democrats said eliminates accountability and gives Stepp more control.

“This is just part of the continued effort to discourage the use of science or evidence in this administration’s decision-making,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Middleton Democrat on the budget committee. “Gov. Walker and Legislative Republicans don’t want science to get in the way of their politics.”

Walker didn’t respond to requests for comment. Dick said Stepp wouldn’t comment while lawmakers were deliberating on Walker’s budget.

The fiscal bureau paper said the DNR argues that eliminating the science bureau and placing remaining researchers in program offices will provide “clarity on who ‘owns’ and makes decisions with respect to research priorities.”

Publicly available documents indicate the DNR created at least one or two public plans spelling out departmentwide research priorities before Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle left office in 2011.

The fiscal bureau said staff from the science bureau and in programs concerned with hunting, fishing, forestry, recreation and air and water pollution spent weeks discussing what research was most needed. The DNR secretary’s office approved of plans before they were delivered for information purposes in January of odd-numbered years to the DNR’s policy board, the fiscal bureau said.

In 2014, staff members created a draft fisheries research plan obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal that listed ongoing and future research projects, including several related to how climate change would affect stream flows and fish.

It was never completed, and the DNR was unsure when it would complete a plan for 2017 because it is reviewing its process, the fiscal bureau said.

Dick said the DNR had many research agendas that weren’t sent to the policy board.

“Programs have any number of research agendas in the works at various stages of development,” Dick said. “There is not just one fisheries research agenda or wildlife agenda or invasive species agenda. There could be any number of them in the works or being updated at any given time.”

Dick didn’t provide copies of documents describing current research priorities when the State Journal requested them June 6. Friday afternoon he said it was too late in the day to obtain one.

‘Transparent process’

Mike Meyer, who was a science bureau wildlife biologist until his position was cut in 2015, said the departmentwide plans were created because of concerns bureau research wasn’t sufficiently integrated with needs of fisheries, wildlife and forestry programs.

“It was a pretty transparent process where anyone could look at the rankings,” Meyer said. “But when they stopped issuing the report, you lost that transparency.”

Former DNR secretary George Meyer said placing the researchers in program offices may make them subject to a variety of pressures that could affect the way they design their research on controversial topics such as chronic wasting disease in the deer herd.

The science bureau had about 60 employees before the 2015 cuts. Of the 15 remaining science bureau researchers, 13 will perform research in programs and two will work in wastewater management. About 22 other bureau staff members will also be transferred to other offices.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.