Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Merriam recreates F&W Division post

Field Editor

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.

Reorganization fallout

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.

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