Fisheries restructuring to meet state’s needs

Springfield — DNR’s Division of Fisheries was given the go-ahead to reorganize its field staff on July 1, said Dan Stephenson, assistant fisheries chief.

The division has been faced with losses through attrition and retirement in recent years, and reorganization was necessary in order to better cover the entire state.

“We had an alignment that just didn’t fit with where we had people,” he said.

Stephenson said gone are the regional fisheries biologist positions, of which there was only one of those positions still filled after Dan Sallee retired recently.

Instead of five regional biologists, those duties will be carried out through a combination of two program managers and a team of eight team leaders, as the state has now been broken into eight areas.

The team leaders, while not supervisors, will carry out some of the functions that the old regional positions took care of.

The eight areas were determined by geography and prioritized by population, critical habitat areas, places were there are specific threats to aquatic resources, and then those areas that are most heavily used by anglers, Stephenson said.

The new plan is flexible.

“We have to ensure that we can get all of the work done that we need to,” Stephenson said. “This allows that, and is flexible enough that we could change these lines if we need to down the road, but we should be set for the next couple of years.”

In general, most of the field biologists won’t see a major change in the area they have to cover, Stephenson said.

“We hoped to divide it up so nobody got a whole bunch more dumped on them and nobody lost much either,” he said. “There won’t be a lot of major changes, but at least one guy had so much extra work that this should help him. Hopefully this will just spread it out a little bit more evenly.”

Stephenson was recently promoted to the assistant fisheries chief position that he held on an interim basis, while continuing work as a regional fisheries biologist as well as filling in as a district fisheries biologist. DNR recently filled Stephenson’s old district that covered the Springfield area, and that biologist was slated to start at the beginning of September.

But there are still several positions open, and northwest Illinois has been hardest hit, Stephenson said.

“Where we don’t have enough people, that’s where we’ll be focusing our hiring over the next couple of years,” Stephenson said, assuring that no part of the state will be uncovered in the meantime, even if an area is short staffed.

Part of what will help spread the coverage out is district fisheries biologists, which focused on lakes, and streams biologists will all be trained to work on both lakes and streams, Stephenson said.

“We don’t have enough guys to go around,” Stephenson said, noting that some biologists will receive training.

Completely separate from this field structure are the Lake Michigan, invasive species, and hatchery programs, Stephenson said.

Stephenson said the restructuring fits in better with the federal aid the DNR receives via the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program, which is funded by an excise tax on fishing equipment that is doled back to the state based on fishing license sales.

“This whole restructuring ties into our federal aid package and our strategic plan,” Stephenson said, mentioning other plans the division has made for implementation, and research. “We have five plans, including this restructuring, that all tie together now, where they didn’t tie as closely together in the past.”

Stephenson said the plans were an important step in moving forward for a division that has been strapped for cash. The plans took years to flesh out.

“We started this years ago and kept working on it until it covered everything,” Stephenson said. “It sets us up very well for the future. This sets our course for the next 10 to 20 years… We were treading water for the longest time.”

Stephenson acknowledged that the division continues to have many challenges ahead. He noted that the average age of the 27 district biologists in the state is somewhere around 56 years of age, and more retirements are expected in the foreseeable future.

“We have a lot of work to do, but at least we have a framework and plan to work from now on how to proceed into the future,” Stephenson said.

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