Friday, January 27, 2012

Indicted Wildlife Division officials now on unpaid administrative leave

The three remaining Ohio Division of Wildlife officials who are under indictment in Brown County were today placed on unpaid administrative leave by the parent Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

These officials include the Wildlife Division’s Human Resource Manager Michele Ward-Tackett, its Law Enforcement Executive Administrator Jim Lehman, and District Five (southwest Ohio) Manager Todd Haines. Each was indicted on single counts of obstruction of justice and complicity to obstructing justice.

Not impacted by this action are now-retired former Wildlife Division chief David Graham and now retired Wildlife Division assistant chief Randy Miller. Each of these two are also under the same indictment.

The five defendants lost a legal round Monday before Ohio’s 12th District Court of Appeals. That court ruled in favor of Brown County prosecutor Jessica A. Little.

It was Little who argued that the five are not protected by the so-called “Garity Rule.” This legal fiat protects certain government employees from testifying on matters if they believe that by doing would jeopardize their jobs.

In their arguments before the appellate court judges the defendants’ attorneys said the rule applied to their clients, a position accepted by Brown County Common Pleas Court judge Scott Gusweiler but ultimately rejected by the higher court.

At that point the Natural Resources Department began a thorough review of the matter, promising a quick reply. This was done today, says Bethany McCorkle, the Natural Resources Department’s deputy chief of communications.

“There’s not much of a statement but the three have been placed on unpaid administrative leave as the legal system takes its course,” McCorkle said. “The three were placed on this administrative action because they are under indictment for felony charges before the Brown County Court system.”

While McCorkle said the Natural Resources Department does not intend to issue a further statement on the matter she did say that the unpaid administrative leave status of the three Wildlife Division officials will run for no more than two months.

After that period the Ohio Revised Code dictates that they be placed on paid administrative leave, McCorkle said also.

This story will be updated as additional information becomes available.

Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twiter: @Fieldkorn

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Updated 3: Power plant closing will impact local fishing, birding

With Akron-based FirstEnergy's announcement that it will permanently shutter its Eastlake's coal-fired power plant, area anglers will face a reduced fisheries.

This point is particularly true during the winter months when the plant's discharge of warm water during the electricity-generating process keeps open a large swath of water.

The open water attracted not only bait fish and steelhead but also anglers. These fishermen would line up along the publicly owned breakwater located at the end of Erie Road in Eastlake.

During warmer months the anglers there will often case for white bass and yellow perch along with just about anything else that bites.

For birders the loss will hurt, too. The winter-time open water was a haven for waterfowl, American bald eagles, gulls and terns of all kinds as well as some rarely seen or uncommonly viewed bird species.

Besides the Eastlake coal-fired power plant FirstEnergy also intends to permanently close three others. They include the plants at Ashtabula, Cleveland and Bayshore in Toledo.

All of these plants operated on a limited, as-needed, basis but now will be close permanently sometime later this year.

FirstEnergy says it is less expensive to close them than it would be to retrofit them with the latest air pollution control systems. The Eastlake plant became operational in the 1950s.

The Cleveland Lakeshore plant - and to a lesser degree the one at Ashtabula - also often offered open-water fishing during the winter.

John Pogacnik, Lake Metroparks' biologist, said birders and anglers often stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the seawall, each doing their own thing.

"There's been a lot of really good records of birds being observed there," Pogacnik said. "It's been one of those places where everybody cam to watch for birds in the winter."

Rich Miecznikowski, owner of Erie Shore General Store, a local go-to bait store at the corner of Erie Road and Lakeshore Blvd. in Eastlake, said the seawall fishing location has always been popular with anglers.

“There’s a fair amount of people who do go there in the winter for the trout but not as many as those who fish for white bass in the summer,” Miecznikowski said.

“And what attracted the white bass was the current that was always there, but this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Don Schonauer, area taxidermist and angler, said he sometimes fished the mouth of the Chagrin River when the lake and stream were both open during the winter.

“That will be a big loss since it’s been such a good staging area for steelhead before they ran up the river,” said Schonauer said.

Similarly the shut-down of the Cleveland plant will hurt the fishing, too.

“Well, there goes my winter minnow-collecting site,” said Paul Liikala, formerly of Perry Township and now of Cuyahoga Falls. “That’s not good news. Both were real nice places where guys could go to in the winter and get away from cabin fever by catching some steelhead.”

Liikala said that while he liked fishing the discharge waters from both the Eastlake and Cleveland power plants he is pleased that the Bayshore plant is closing. That is because this plant has a notorious reputation for sucking in and chewing up untold numbers of small walleye and other sport fish.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twitter: @Fieldkorn

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

3rd Update: Prosector wins appeal against so-called "Brown County Five" state wildlife officals.

The Brown County prosecutor won an important legal victory today in a nearly two-year-old case involving five current and former top officials with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

In a ruling announced today by the five-member 12th District Court of Appeals the five felony-indicted officials are not protected by the so-called “Garity Rule.”

This legal fiat protects certain government employees from testifying on matters if they believe doing so would jeopardize their jobs.

The defendants’ attorneys said the rule applied to their clients, a position accepted by Brown County Common Pleas Court judge Scott Gusweiler.

However, Brown County prosecutor Jessica A. Little took issue with that ruling and appealed Gusweiler’s opinion before the state’s 12th District Court of Appeals.

Little won her plea and said she’s “very pleased with the decision.”

The next step will be to place this matter back on the Brown County Common Pleas Court, Little said also.

“I hope we can get this disposed of quickly; let’s get a trial on the merits and come to a resolution,” Little said. “I’m hoping for a pre-trial hearing and then a trial (but) only the judge and the clerk knows that, but I would like to see it resolved as expeditiously as possible since it’s been around for so long. These are fifth-degree felonies so they’re the lowest degree of felony.”

Attorney Michael Cassity is representing James Lehman, who is currently the Wildlife Division’s law enforcement administrator and one of the officials charged by Little.

“We’re disappointed in the decision (but) I’ll have to talk with my client and see what are our options,” Cassity said. “We could go to the Supreme Court or go to trial.”

Looming large is what are the implications of this ruling on the status of the three indicted officials who are still employed by the Wildlife Division: Lehman, Todd Haines, and Michelle Ward-Tackett.

Carlo LoParo, communications director for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the agency is “currently gathering further information to see what the actual status of the case.”

“We’re reviewing the decision, and based on that review we’ll make a determination as to what administrative actions need to be taken, if any,” LoParo said.
Loparo did say there is no deadline as to when the information collecting process is complete.

“It shouldn’t be very long, maybe in the next few days,” he said.

This is the text of 12th District Court of Appeal’s release on the subject:

“The Twelfth District Court of Appeals has reversed the decision of the Brown County Court of Common Pleas, suppressing the statements of employees of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“Chief of the Division of Wildlife David Graham, Ohio Wildlife Assistant Chief Randy Miller, Human Resource Manager Michele Ward-Tackett, Law Enforcement Executive Administrator Jim Lehman, and District Manager Todd Haines were indicted on single counts of obstruction of justice and complicity to obstructing justice. Each was an employee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and was involved in an internal investigation into allegations that Wildlife Officer Allan Wright falsified a hunting license so that his out-of-state friend could obtain an Ohio hunting license.

“The matter was investigated by the Ohio Inspector General and each employee gave statements during an interview with the Inspector General that they believed Wright’s conduct was not criminal in nature and so they punished him according to administrative policies. The Ohio Inspector General wrote a report regarding Wright’s activities and the way the employees handled the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ internal investigation, and gave the report to the Brown County
Prosecutor. The Prosecutor then decided to press charges.

“The defendants filed motions to exclude evidence of their statements, arguing that they were coerced by the Inspector General into giving their statements, and that the coercion was based on their belief that they would be fired if they did not cooperate with the investigation. The trial court agreed and suppressed the defendants’ statements.

“The state of Ohio appealed to the Twelfth District and argued that the trial court improperly suppressed the statements because the defendants gave their statements voluntarily and without threat of termination.

“Writing for the majority opinion, Judge Robin N. Piper found that the trial court erred in suppressing the statements because the defendants gave their statements voluntarily. Presiding Judge Stephen W. Powell agreed with the majority opinion. Judge Rachel A. Hutzel concurred in part dissented in part.

“The decision of the Twelfth District Court of reversed the decision of the trial court to suppress the defendants’ statements and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.”

This story will be updated as additional information becomes available.

The text of this release is available through the court at:

Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twiter: @Fieldkorn

Friday, January 13, 2012

UPDATED 2: Wildlife Division fish hatchery manager arrested, placed on unpaid administrative leave

David A. Insley - the superintendent of the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Castalia State cold-water Fish Hatchery near Sandusky - was placed on unpaid administrative leave Thursday, Jan. 12.

This action was taken based an arrest by the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s Ohio Highway Patrol, said Carlo LoParo, communications director for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Insley had been the manager of the fish hatchery since April, 1988.

The Ohio Highway Patrol’s web site contains the following Jan. 11 release regarding the matter:

“The Ohio State Highway Patrol in conjunction with the Inspector General’s Office and Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) executed an arrest warrant on David A. Insley, Superintendent of the Castalia State Fish Hatchery in Castalia, Ohio in Erie County. He was charged with theft in office and incarcerated at the Erie County Jail. The investigation began when Patrol was notified this past August by ODNR that they believed the suspect was misusing his state issued credit card.”

LoParo said the Natural Resources Department defers all comments to the Safety Department’s Ohio Highway Patrol.

Ohio Highway Patrol Lieutenant Clif Spinner said “it is our case but obviously it’s still a pending criminal case so at this point we cannot release any additional information.”

And Ohio Deputy Inspector General Carl Enslen said his agency’s policy is to refrain from speaking on any on-going investigation until its been completed.

“We certainly don’t deny the Ohio Highway Patrol’s statement,” Enslen said also.

Enslen said also in a follow-up email that once the investigation is completed and a report filed  then the agency will try to answer any questions that might arise.

The Castalia facility is renowned as the state’s premier cold-water fish hatchery. It is currently undergoing extensive renovations in order to help better accommodate Ohio’s steelhead rearing and stocking program.

The hatchery also was where the Wildlife Division propagated a Northeast Ohio native strain of brook trout for restocking into several Lake and Geauga County streams.

This blog posting will be updated as further information becomes available.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twiter: @Fieldkorn

Yes, it's been quiet

I know, there hasn't been a posting here for a while. It's been more quiet than I would have guessed but I have been trailing several leads that I hope will pan out soon.

No question, things are changing in Columbus and the matter in the Ohio Appeals Court regarding the so-called "Brown County Five" remains on the table - far longer than many experienced court followers had expected.

When something does break and I find out, believe me, I'll let you know.

Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twitter: @Fieldkorn

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

State nails muzzle-loading season deer kill

Ohio’s top deer management biologist correctly nailed the 2012 muzzle-loading season’s kill. Mike Tonkovich - the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s deer management administrator - said before the Jan. 7 to 12 season started that the state’s roughly 265,000 muzzle-loading hunters would kill about 20,000 animals. Tonkovich was off by only 749 white-tails. For the just-concluded four-day season hunters shot 19,251 deer. During the 2011 four-day muzzle-loading deer-hunting season hunters shot 16,934 deer. Of course, the weather Saturday through Tuesday was far and away more pleasant and conducive to what hunters encountered in 2011. Back then, very cold temperatures, high winds and frequent heavy snow showers combined to keep hunters huddled by firesides instead of taking a stand in the woods. This year hunters could strip themselves of their heaviest and warmest garments, climb a ladder stand or sit on an over-turned pickle bucket and enjoy firing their one-shot muzzle-loading rifles. What is left now is the remains of Ohio’s four-month-long archery deer-hunting season, which concludes Feb. 5. For this late season Tonkovich says hunters typically kill an additional 20,000 deer. The Top 10 counties reporting the highest number of deer checked during the muzzle-loading were: Coshocton - 722, Licking - 639, Muskingum - 638, Guernsey - 612, Tuscarawas - 581, Belmont - 577, Harrison - 569, Knox - 470, Meigs - 466, and Jefferson - 465. The following is a list of deer checked and tagged by hunters during the statewide muzzle-loading deer-hunting season. The number taken during the 2011 four-day season is showed in parentheses: Adams -336 (281); Allen –77 (59); Ashland – 294(247); Ashtabula –374 (279); Athens –457 (372); Auglaize –87 (44); Belmont –577 (516); Brown –273 (229); Butler –131 (93); Carroll –418 (428); Champaign –132 (95); Clark –75 (52); Clermont –239 (218); Clinton –76 (55); Columbiana –331 (350); Coshocton –722 (622); Crawford –103 (60); Cuyahoga –5 (4); Darke –62 (28); Defiance –140 (126); Delaware –140 (109); Erie –42 (31); Fairfield –216 (233); Fayette –26 (29); Franklin –46 (36); Fulton –58 (55); Gallia –333 (305); Geauga –154 (140); Greene –67 (60); Guernsey –612 (576); Hamilton –89 (79); Hancock –111 (70); Hardin –141(77); Harrison –569 (618); Henry –68 (40); Highland –278 (244); Hocking –384 (315) ; Holmes –388 (343); Huron –173 (155); Jackson –282 (272); Jefferson –465 (431); Knox –470 (446); Lake –41 (26); Lawrence –220 (230); Licking –639 (627); Logan –179 (132); Lorain –162 (153); Lucas –31 (26); Madison –50 (39); Mahoning –154 (114); Marion –65 (45); Medina –146 (107); Meigs –466 (461); Mercer –52 (19); Miami –61 (23); Monroe –422 (419); Montgomery –41 (30); Morgan –340 (354); Morrow –143 (104); Muskingum –638 (593); Noble –389 (353); Ottawa –37 (9); Paulding –122 (86); Perry –333 (298); Pickaway –71 (59); Pike –216 (159); Portage –176 (135); Preble –87 (64); Putnam –56 (19); Richland –290 (268); Ross –388 (323); Sandusky –72 (57); Scioto –276 (216); Seneca –142 (113); Shelby –95 (58); Stark –192 (156); Summit –52 (41); Trumbull –231 (246); Tuscarawas –581 (660); Union –92 (62); Van Wert –91 (39); Vinton –309 (231); Warren –139 (88); Washington – 462 (410); Wayne –139 (143); Williams –166 (134); Wood –40 (47); and Wyandot –136 (136). Total –19,251 (16,934). - Jeffrey L. Frischkorn Twitter: @Fieldkorn

Muzzle-loading season a pleasant fizzle

With little wind to rustle the air and a cloudless sky to reinforce the warmth the deer-hunting blind was more than adequately comfortable.

So pleasant were the conditions that I managed to remove my gloves and thickly padded blaze orange hunting vest.

All pretty unusual stuff for what’s been a pretty unusual hunting year.

I mean, after all, there it was January 10, no snow on the ground to speak of, an air temperature in mid-40s and it was the last day of Ohio’s statewide muzzle-loading deer-hunting season.

Which was a far cry from the conditions I encountered during the same season one year ago. That was when bitterly cold temperatures and deep snows made deer hunting a miserable affair.

Not that Ohio’s primitive weapons season is a big deal. While the general firearms season may attract upwards of 400,000 participants the Ohio Division of Wildlife says the muzzle-loading season draws might attract about one-half that number. Maybe more, but I’m guessing much less.

The thing is, the season runs just four days. And either you start the season on a weekday or you watch it end on a weekday. In the case this year, that date fell on a Tuesday.

A Tuesday? Tuesday is kind of the step child of the work week, something of a stretch to the weekend and thus not very memorable.

But the season is what it is, and if a person is prepared to drop a few hundred bucks on a front-loading rifle and all of the associated truck that goes with owning such a deer slaying device then you have to make do with whatever the Ohio Division of Wildlife gives you.

Yes, a hunter can employ a muzzle-loader during the state’s general and bonus weekend firearms deer-hunting season. However, a lot of deer gun hunters shy away from using a single-shot muzzle-loader when they can stuff a slug shotgun with three rounds and then force feed it with additional ammunition as needed.

Muzzle-loaders are typically slow and deliberate to charge, and while some owners are pretty quick about it, most of use take our good old time.

Still, I rather enjoy the muzzle-loading hunt, even with all of the pre-work that goes into building plastic tube containers of pelletized powder and bullet, loading the assembly and then the clean up of the rifle’s guts whether I actually shoot it or not.

Which is one reason why my oldest brother, Terry, has walked away from muzzle-loading hunting and is trying to hock his rifle to the first customer he sees.

I’ll pay the price, and enjoy it just the same. Especially given the season’s unseasonably mild weather.

But I kept my expectations low; and I wasn’t disappointed.

A long morning and a short evening of hunting on opening day didn’t so much as yield even the sighting of a deer, though I was surprised at the intensity of the shooting I could hear that were being fired elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the evening hunt didn’t even feature that, the two hours passing with grave silence.

The same went for Tuesday’s season closure, not that I was anticipating a rollicking good time of deer prancing across the pasture and to my game feeder. It didn’t go that way.

By the close of the season at 5:20 p.m. I packed it in and stashed the gear, mentally taking note of the pieces I’d need to keep in the gear bag.

Ohio’s archery season goes on a while longer, to Feb. 5, in fact. That will give me another three weeks of deer hunting.

I’ll enjoy it though in all honesty I’m looking forward to the fishing season. That’s why you’ll now find my chest waders and steelhead-fishing tackle anchored in my vehicle.

And it’s why I’ve been examining in detail the arrival of the “spring” fishing tackle catalogs from Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops.

The seasons come and go and I do my best to participate in as many of them as possible. Even those that enjoy only a four-day run.

Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twitter: @Fieldkorn

Friday, January 6, 2012

Snow-less winter not good for living things

While the following isn't entirely about outdoors issues impacting sportsmen it is worth noting since we all have a stake in how the weather impacts the world around us.

It comes from AccuWeather, the world's largest private weather-forecasting firm, and a totally reliable source of weather information.

State College, Pa. -- 6 January 2012 -- reports the snow drought across the U.S. so far this winter has raised questions about impacts on water supply, ski resorts and agriculture.

Only 22 percent of the nation was covered by snow on Jan. 4, 2012.

A snow depth analysis on Jan. 4 from 2004-2012 reveals the smallest area of the U.S. is covered by snow this year. The year 2007 ranks as the second smallest area of the U.S. with snow cover of about 27 percent.

The Intermountain West, especially the Sierra of California and the mountains of Nevada and Utah, shows a substantial snow drought this year when compared to normal and past years. The northern Plains and the upper Great Lakes are other areas that have little snow cover compared to past years.

Snow Drought in the West: Water Supply and Ski Impacts

According to the California Department of Water Resources, a snow survey on Jan. 3, 2012, suggests one of the lowest mountain snow packs on record for the date.

The statewide snow pack's water content was found to be 19 percent of the Jan. 3 average and only 7 percent of the average April 1 average. The snow pack is usually at its peak early in April before melting in the spring.

Mountain snow that melts in the spring and summer accounts for about 1/3 of the water for California's households, farms and industries reported the California DWR.

"Fortunately, we have most of winter ahead of us, and our reservoir storage is good," stated the DWR Director Mark Cowin in a recent press release. Expert Senior Meteorologist Ken Clark, who specializes in forecasting the weather in the West, analyzed the snow depth this year in the West compared to normal.

While snowfall amounts have been well below normal this season across the Sierra to the mountains of Utah, snow amounts were above normal across this same area last winter.

"After last year's huge increases in the reservoirs, one year of drought may not bring massive changes in water allocations," explained Clark of the reservoir water storage.

"The weather pattern we have seen for over the last month really does not change noticeably over the next couple of weeks . . . I see no reason why there is much to be optimistic about seeing a major recovery in the snow deficit the rest of the winter."

"The big impact in the short term is on the ski industry," said Clark.

Snow Drought's Agricultural Implications

The lack of snow cover across portions of the Midwest might spell "big trouble" for winter wheat yield later this year.

"If there is an arctic cold outbreak with below-zero temperatures, that could cause big problems for winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and goes dormant in the winter. Subzero cold could cause stunted growth and reduce the production for this year's wheat crop," according to Expert Senior Agricultural Meteorologist Dale Mohler. meteorologists believe that a change in the winter pattern is on the horizon, and more cold waves might penetrate the U.S.

Snow cover actually acts to insulate winter wheat from arctic cold snaps, keeping the soil temperature closer to freezing rather than subzero.

Mohler said the lack of storms and mild weather are the factors that have left winter wheat vulnerable.

Most of the other crops of the Midwest should not be damaged by the lack of snow cover. However, many crops in this region rely on moisture from melting snow during the spring. If there is a snow deficit in the winter followed by a dry spring, that would be bad news for other crops as well.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twitter: @Fieldkorn

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cool: New reptile species discovered

Just goes to show you that even with a few billion people and Google Earth there are still wildlife discoveries to be made.

Glad to see we don't know it all.

In a remote Tanzanian forest lies a new species of horned viper discovered during 2010-2011 biodiversity surveys. Check out National Geographic’s gallery of the elusive predator:

The snakes are called Matilda’s horned vipers. Their exact location is being kept secret in order to protect them from pet collectors.

The snakes sport black and yellow zigzag markings and yellow, hornlike scales above their olive-colored eyes. Although little is known about the snakes’ biology, scientists do know that they share at least one quality with other vipers: They are venomous.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twiter: @Fieldkorn