MN: Vacancies create gaps in some fisheries work

‘Emergency workers,' volunteers, interns filling in some gaps

St. Paul – For the past few years, the level of DNR Fisheries staff in 28 field offices around the state has continued on a downward path. More recent events – an early retirement option, for one thing – have accelerated the loss of personnel.

Now, according to Dirk Peterson, DNR Fisheries chief, the vacancies equate to about 60 "FTE" (full-time equivalent) positions; field staff used to number just over 300.

So far, just a small portion of field work has been left undone. That could change dramatically by next year, officials warn. While salary savings have allowed the department to hire part-timers to help complete some spring and summer work, without a license fee hike during this legislative session, more work on fish and in lakes and streams will be neglected.

"A lot depends on what happens with the license revenue project," Peterson said, referring to a bill in the Legislature that would raise fees for a variety of fishing licenses, as well as some new options for anglers.

A bill to increase hunting and fishing fees has been introduced in the state Senate by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids. For fishing, for example, the bill would increase an adult annual fishing license from $17 to $24, and it would allow residents to purchase a three-day license for $12. Nonresident adult annual fishing licenses would increase from $37.50 to $39.

While several angling groups say they support the increase, members of the Legislature have been slower to embrace the idea.

There hasn't been a fee hike in 10 years, Peterson said.

The first casualty when the workload exceeds the workforce tends to be monitoring efforts, according to Peterson. The department manages more than 5,000 lakes and about 15,000 miles of streams.

He said walleye egg take and related walleye rearing/stocking activities should be covered this year. Things like ice-out assessments of particular species might have to be scrapped, at least temporarily.

Long time coming

Peterson said that three years ago, Fisheries officials, including then-chief Ron Payer, began to see the effects of inflation when revenue to the Game and Fish Fund was stagnant. Department officials have pressed for fee hikes since then.

"We've tried to manage through attrition … to share the pain, so to speak," Peterson said, regarding the loss of Fisheries employees to retirement.

But as costs continued to increase (salaries for the most part have been frozen the past couple years), the amount of revenue entering the fund was surpassed by the amount leaving. That was about three years ago. License sales (revenue) have been relatively stable during that time. After a typical fee increases, revenue will exceed costs; eventually the two pull even, before inflation causes expenses to surpass fixed funding.

Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager in Bemidji, likens it to one's home expenses. Gas prices have made it more expensive to operate DNR vehicles and boats. Propane and electricity costs, too, have increased.

"The only way to mitigate (the increasing cost of operation) is to take some expenses out," Drewes said.

Right now, the vacant field positions include everything from support staff to specialists to assistant supervisors and supervisors.

Three supervisors – Bruce Gilbertson in Spicer, Harlan Fierstine in Walker, and Joe Geis in Tower – exercised the option to retire early. A fourth, Hugh Valiant in Waterville, left state service, Peterson said, adding that the department is actively seeking to fill the Waterville vacancy.

With these and other salary savings, the DNR has attempted a new approach to completing spring duties, according to Drewes. "We're relying on temporary ‘emergency' help … local folks, to help fill the gaps," he said. "Come June, we'll get reinforcements through student internships."

Volunteers also have played a role.

Said Doug Schultz, large lake specialist for Leech Lake, of the Walker office, "We've been fortunate enough to have an ample supply of excellent volunteers willing to assist us during our peak field seasons, such as walleye egg take on the Boy River, summer/fall assessment work on Leech, and a pending spring muskie assessment on Woman Lake (May).

"It's really helped us continue delivering most of the services we have in the past despite some considerable gaps, but doesn't provide a viable long-term solution to the impending budget situation," he said. "Where we're feeling the pinch most right now is our inability to move on additional identified needs, such as a spring electrofishing bass survey on Baby Lake."

Some field offices have more elbow room than others. Waterville has about four vacancies; Windom has at least three. Park Rapids and Baudette in Drewes' region also have vacancies. The rest are scattered about Minnesota.

In Walker, the office is missing a supervisor, field specialist, and a part-time position.

"We're putting duct tape and baling twine on some locations," Drewes said.

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