As the latest Ohio Division of Wildlife chief, agency returnee Ray Petering can expect to earn every penny of his $108,000 annual salary.
Retiring from the agency in 2011, Petering subsequently dabbled with the parent Ohio Department of Natural Resources before being plucked from an unknown number of candidates to become the Wildlife Division’s 20th chief.
Today (November 16) was Petering’s first day with his latest assignment. With at least 30 years experience Petering almost certainly didn’t need a tour of the Wildlife Division’s Fountain Square citadel.
Instead, Petering began to establish his administration from the get-go, laying an agency framework he says will do a better job of communicating internally along as well as with the Wildlife Division’s core constituencies.
And also with people who for one reason or another have believed themselves to be outside the Wildlife Division’s fish and wildlife management beltway .
In the process, Petering desires to shore-up the current morale hemorrhaging that is impacting the Wildlife Division’s 425 employees. Some of these employees and former employees characterize the agency’s morale as being at an all-time low; a point Petering stresses is not true.
Likewise, Petering says he wants to help ensure that hunters, anglers, trappers – as well as birders, hikers, and other outdoor types – can again put their trust in the Wildlife Division.
Neither task will prove easy, says Petering, but both are vital if the Wildlife Division is resist the drag of inertia and “move forward,” a theme the new chief stressed during a telephone interview earlier today.
“We have a very talented staff,” Petering said. “But we are thin on experience.”
To illustrate, Petering noted that 10 years ago the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies awarded the Wildlife Division its coveted title as the nation’s best fish and game agency.
“But we have just two high-level administrators who are still here and who also were here as leaders back then,” Petering said.
The problem as Petering sees it more than a few key leadership positions are anchored by individuals who did not ascended in the ideal way the management ladder, building experience one step up after another.
“That sort of short-circuits the process,” Petering said.
And it’s tough for a person to “wrap his or her mind around” a job without also having a firm foundation that only experience can provide, Petering says.
No wonder then that sometimes this less-developed leadership attribute can run smack into a constituency which believes that its insight count for nothing, Petering said.
“We need to reconnect with the people,” Petering said. “Flat-out it’s not going to be lip service.”
Thus n all things, Petering says, the agency has a whole - and trickling down to the county wildlife officer, district biologist, and wildlife area technician – must remember that people “need to see evidence that their opinions matter and not just something checked off on a survey box.”
All with the caveat, however, that whatever the agency does in the way of fish and game management must first have firm grounding in science.
“Within that there will be room for public input,” Petering said.
Such “wiggle room” – another term favored by Petering during the interview – is important “since you can’t just throw out figures and numbers and then say ‘that’s the way it’s going to be,’ ” Petering said.
“Those are some of the things we’ll be working on,” Petering said.
Admitting that the Wildlife Division needs “do to a better job of dealing with people who utilize the resource,” Petering said the agency similarly also has to better articulate its mission, goals and funding needs to the state legislature and even with the administration to which it is joined at the hip.
Nor does the Wildlife Division intend to neglect the less vocal users that are often referred to as non-consumptive outdoors participants.
That outreach will prove daunting since push-back is very much a reality when – not “if” – state and federal fish and game agencies once again seek an excise tax on various items used by these so-called non-consumptive users.
An effort to accomplish just that came close to blossoming a few years ago but was killed. The effort will be resurrected shortly, Petering says.
“That’s going to be a challenge but the key will be finding a way to do it,” Petering said.
Not any easier will be going before the Ohio state legislature a third time and seek an increase to various non-resident licenses, tags and permits.
Even more difficult would be asking these elected officials to approve an increase to the licenses, tags and permits that Ohio resident hunters, trappers and anglers now pay.
Yet don’t dismiss such a fishing expedition, says Petering, because “everything is on the table.”
Still, the Wildlife Division is not broke; certainly not the way the Pennsylvania Game Commission and other states’ fish and wildlife agencies are now entrapped by legislative fiat.
That being said, the Wildlife Division has enough money to ensure that it can stay afloat for the next three to five years without severely limiting or eliminating programs, projects, and making further cuts in personnel through attrition or other means, says Susan Howard, the Wildlife Division’s chief numbers cruncher and who served as acting chief up to Petering’s appointment.
“This is where we are at today,” Petering said. “We need to look at funding other than just coming from our hunters and anglers.”
By Jeffrey L. FrischkornJFrischk@Ameritech.net
Jeff is the retired News-Herald reporter who covered the earth sciences, the area's three county park systems and the outdoors for the newspaper. During his 30 years with The News-Herald Jeff was the recipient of more than 125 state, regional and national journalism awards. He also is a columnist and features writer for the Ohio Outdoor News, which is published every other week and details the outdoors happenings in the state.