One thing we now know about the Department of Natural Resources’ long-anticipated and politically delayed reorganization is that it won’t include Tom Hauge, the agency’s longtime wildlife bureau director.
Hauge, 62, was notified Sept. 19 by Sanjay Olson — administrator of the DNR’s newly combined division of fish, wildlife and parks — that he would become wildlife supervisor for the agency’s Southern district, effective Oct. 2. In other words, Hauge was demoted after 25 years as Wisconsin’s chief wildlife supervisor.
Hauge had 13 days to decide whether to take the reassignment. Nine days later, while recovering from back surgery Sept. 20, he instead announced his immediate retirement.
“As much as I love the Southern District wildlife team, I did not want to subject them to a transient new leader,” Hauge emailed DNR staff. “I had planned to retire a year from now, and I feel it is better for that team that they receive a replacement (who) is going to stick around awhile.”
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp announced plans for the agency’s reorganization in late July 2015, and expected to implement the changes by July 1 this year.
A “Core Work Analysis” released in February said “final alignment determinations” would be made by late spring, but June and July passed with no announcements. On Aug. 23 the agency informed employees it wouldn’t implement changes until late fall — presumably after the Nov. 8 elections.
The reorganization is expected to be the agency’s largest shakeup since the 1995 budget process made the DNR secretary an appointee to the governor’s cabinet. Since then the agency’s responsibilities increased while its workforce declined nearly 20 percent to about 2,650 positions.
Among the DNR’s largest new responsibilities is regulating CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — and sand-mining for hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” in North Dakota. This process forces fine sands into underground rock to release large amounts of natural gas.
Despite delays in announcing the reorganization’s details, several changes have occurred since the initial announcement 15 months ago. At the time, the DNR was already eliminating its water division while consolidating air- and water-pollution efforts into one division.
In February, the agency also announced experimental plans to allow some businesses to write their own environmental permits. And in late September, Stepp informed agency employees she had named five “Field Integration Leaders” to help regional directors in Milwaukee, Fitchburg, Eau Claire, Green Bay and Rhinelander.
Even so, no one predicted Hauge’s demotion. He has worked for the DNR since 1979, and was stunned by his removal.
“When you’re in a ‘career executive position’ as I was, you serve at the discretion of the DNR secretary, so I’ve always known change was possible,” Hauge said Tuesday. “But it still hit me as a surprise. My main disappointment was the way it was executed. To learn the day before you’re going in for back surgery, and to have to make a major decision in such a short window, I felt like they could have given me more of heads-up after all my years of service.”
Hauge said he wasn’t told why he was removed from the DNR’s central office.
“All I understood from Sanjay’s (internal) message the next day was that they wanted someone with a strong customer focus and the ability to engage on high-profile issues,” Hauge said. “I don’t know how to translate that. I guess I wasn’t the guy they wanted in that position going forward. When I step back and look around, they have new leaders in parks, fisheries, heritage conservation, and facilities and land, so I’d become the old guy. I guess they wanted a fresh face to manage all the changes they’re putting in place for wildlife.”
Hauge said the largest issues he leaves for his successor, who has yet to be named, are staffing, long-term funding, and chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer.
“The last time I counted we had about 20 counties without a wildlife manager,” Hauge said. “We have several wildlife managers trying to serve one county while working in another. They’re doing a good job, but it’s not the same as having a wildlife presence working with the county’s agencies and sportsmen’s clubs.”
Hauge said wildlife funding will become increasingly difficult, assuming that hunting-license sales don’t stabilize and rebound, and if state and federal governments don’t find alternative revenues.
“The model we’ve enjoyed for decades, where hunters fund our nation’s wildlife programs, is facing long-term issues,” Hauge said. “I would have liked to have had a more positive impact on that.”
Likewise, he sees long struggles ahead with CWD.
“I wish I could have put that genie back into the bottle somehow,” Hauge said. “I don’t regret our early actions to try to control CWD, but we probably lost the communications battle with those who want to dismiss its risks before we realized we had lost it.”
He also said scientific management became more difficult after governors began appointing the DNR secretary and top DNR executives.
“It’s much harder under the current system to bring scientific conviction, perspectives and leadership to bear,” Hauge said. “We have to do the best we can.”
Still, Hauge defends the DNR’s current CWD-sampling efforts, saying the agency is effectively monitoring the disease.
“If the objective is to know precisely the boundary and spread of CWD, sampling would have to greatly intensify,” he said. “But we haven’t prioritized that objective at this point, and it would be expensive to make that kind of sampling effort.”
Hauge also said he understands CWD’s possible health implications, but believes “that’s not where most people are at.”
He continued: “Most folks don’t see this as a human-health issue. They think CWD is more about the deer herd, and whether the disease will trigger baiting and feeding restrictions where they hunt. … I’m very, very aware that low risk is not no risk. Each time you pass a CWD-positive animal through a human body, it’s Russian roulette. That’s my interpretation of the science; that at some point something is going to happen.”
Maybe Hauge’s successor will find a way to make Stepp, legislators and Gov. Walker grasp the risks they’re minimizing while they play their reorganization shell game.