Springfield — An already understaffed DNR Division of Fisheries faces the prospect of losing more bodies to retirement this year.
DNR Assistant Fisheries Chief Dan Stephenson said that as many as nine fisheries employees may retire this year, which would leave the division at about 70 employees, assuming nobody is hired, and that includes nine employees who are dedicated to the state’s effort to control Asian carp.
“Everybody is stretched pretty thin,” Stephenson said. “Right now, we’re getting by. But if it doesn’t change quickly, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Stephenson, speaking only about the Division of Fisheries, acknowledged that staffing levels are an issue across DNR.
He recalled that the division once had 143 employees in the not-so-distant past.
“We know we’ll never get back to 143, but if we could fill 20 positions, it would sure be better for the state, better for the division, better for the anglers of the state,” Stephenson said. “It would all run a lot smoother.”
New DNR Director Wayne Rosenthal, who met with each of DNR’s 16 divisions – including Fisheries – said he is aware of the staffing situation.
“We want to put people where they can make the most difference, and my goal is to make sure we get the needed help,” Rosenthal said shortly after he came on the job in January.
In February 2013, after the state Legislature approved the Sustainability Bill, DNR Fisheries was optimistic. That legislation was expected to generate an estimated $1.8 million and it ultimately led to DNR filling six positions at the state’s three hatcheries.
“The hatcheries had some relief, though La Salle [Fish Hatchery] could use one more,” Stephenson said.
But while the state hatcheries are in a much better position than they were a few years back, the rest of the division remains aging and understaffed, he said.
Among the statistics that Stephenson cited and that he said should concern the state’s sportsmen: The average age of employees in the division in 58 years old; only four division employees are under the age of 40; 95 percent of division employees are over the age of 45; 20 percent of division employees are over the age of 60.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been talking about for years,” Stephenson said. “Five years ago we said we needed to hire more people, and that fuse is burning. We’re quickly approaching that point. We need to move faster. We know we have some older people that want to retire. They have been hanging on to help train the next generation. Right now, we just have to get people hired.”
But, for the most part, there has been no “next generation” of fisheries employees. And with each long-time employee that retires, years of institutional knowledge walks out the door, along with the chance to pass on some of that knowledge. If and when new employees are hired, they may be starting from scratch, especially on the local level, where it could take considerably longer for biologists to get up to speed heading into those positions without anybody to learn from.
Stephenson said a few positions that had been posted recently are in limbo.
“Everything has slowed down right now in the change of administrations,” Stephenson said.
Two division employees have already retired this year, Stephenson said, including DNR streams biologist Bob Rung and county fisheries biologist Barry Newman, whose responsibilities that covered several counties have already been divvied up among several other fisheries biologists.
“When I was in the field, it was getting stuff done however it had to be done,” Stephenson said.
Overall, DNR’s staff roster now stands at fewer than 1,300. That is roughly half that worked for the agency a dozen years ago.