Merriam recreates F&W Division post
St. Paul Minnesota DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam appointed agency veteran John Guenther as director of the new Fish and Wildlife Division. Guenther, 59, spent the past 10 years as regional administrator of the DNR's northeast region. He is a longtime friend and hunting and fishing buddy of the commissioner.
"The fish and wildlife director is one of the most important positions within the DNR," said Merriam in a press release. "I selected Guenther because we share similar philosophies, he has a deep understanding of our issues and organization, and I know I can count on him. I have every confidence in John and that's important to me."
Guenther, who will continue living in Cohasset, intends to keep a primary office in Grand Rapids and spend three days a week in St. Paul, where the Fish and Wildlife Division is headquartered. Costs for Guenther's dual offices and his associated commuting will be paid by Fish and Wildlife funding. The new position, also paid with fish and wildlife funds, represents a 10-percent pay increase for Guenther to about $90,000 per year.
With 34 years in state employment, including 28 for the DNR, Guenther already is eligible for retirement. He says he took the job because he can work through the three remaining years of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's term time enough, he believes, to make changes to fish and wildlife management.
"This is a unique time," Guenther says. "I have confidence in this DNR administration and the governor. They are proponents of hunting and fishing."
Admitting that he is not an expert in fish and wildlife management, Guenther says he wants to improve the public image of Minnesota's fish and wildlife managers. He says the public too often views DNR fish and wildlife managers as the enemy, and that he's been too often told they have an agenda that doesn't make sense.
"If we can accomplish anything in the next three years," he says, "I hope it's that people can talk about our fish and wildlife managers and say they're smart, they're honest, and they enjoy talking to them. That's my goal."
As an example, Guenther says he attended a recent public meeting in International Falls regarding proposed new restrictions on sturgeon harvest. He says the DNR has excellent fisheries managers there who are concerned sturgeon are being over-harvested. Local anglers want to keep more fish. Guenther thinks the fish managers need better data about sturgeon and use that to win public support.
"I had people in the back of the room coming up to me and saying we need to clean house at the DNR," Guenther said. "We need to get those guys (DNR fisheries managers) more respect."
Guenther would also like to see fish and wildlife managers spend more time talking to the public, suggesting there may be ways to get individual landowners to voluntarily stop tile draining, plant buffer strips, or leave food plots for wildlife. He plans to work with the private sector to find new ways co-manage fish and wildlife habitat. He also wants to look for ways to maximize fish and wildlife benefits on the state's wildlife management areas. In the northern forest, he is confident that he can work with the Division of Forestry to overcome divisive issues between foresters and wildlife managers.
Merriam's decision to combine the DNR's Fish and Wildlife programs into one division undos an organizational change made by former Commissioner Allen Garber. After unsuccessfully searching for a replacement for retired fish and wildlife director Roger Holmes in 2000, Garber created three new divisions Fish, Wildlife, and Eco-Services.
The increased costs of having three new division directors Ron Payer, Fisheries; Tim Bremicker, Wildlife; and Lee Pfanmuller, Ecological Services were offset by not filling Holmes, position.
Merriam's move combines Fish and Wildlife, but leaves Eco-Services as a separate division. Although Bremicker and Payer have been told they can stay, they are being demoted to their former positions as section chiefs. Both likely will continue to receive the same pay, because neither man is at the top of the pay scale. Not so lucky are Steve Hirsch in Fisheries and Ed Boggess in Wildlife, who are demoted from assistant division director positions to their former titles of fisheries operations manager and wildlife program manager. Both men will take a pay cut.