When Preston Cole took command of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in December 2018, Wisconsin’s conservation community hoped the new secretary would restore leadership, open communications, and science-based decision-making.
Those hopes soon faded. Folks mostly excused Cole’s timid first year, assuming he played it safe so Wisconsin’s GOP-led Senate wouldn’t reject his nomination. But little changed after the Senate finally confirmed him 14 months later in February 2020.
When Cole retired Nov. 23 as DNR secretary, his most remarkable accomplishment was this: He made his four years at the DNR’s helm nearly as forgettable as his 12 years on the Natural Resources Board, the seven-citizen group that sets DNR policy.
Though Cole’s NRB presence 2007 through 2018 bordered on benign anonymity, it helped earn him a unique distinction: Governors of both parties appointed him to the NRB. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, installed Cole on the NRB in 2007. Scott Walker, a Republican, retained him in 2013.
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Maybe that’s why pundits and conservation leaders charitably hailed Cole, a degreed forester, as the perfect man to run the DNR for Gov. Tony Evers. Folks considered Cole a strategic-thinker who binds partisan wounds, not a flaming idealist who sparks futile conflicts.
Unfortunately, that didn’t make him a leader. Cole had sat silently on the NRB as his predecessors, Cathy Stepp and Dan Meyer, stripped science from the DNR’s policy decisions. Then, as the agency’s chief, Cole did little to restore and defend science.
For instance, Cole never defined a policy for combating chronic wasting disease in the state’s deer herd. That’s curious, given that he heard Evers criticize Walker’s inaction on CWD during the 2018 campaign, and assured voters he would unleash science on the always fatal disease. But then Cole and Evers left CWD out of their first budget. Not surprisingly, neither party mentioned CWD in the 2022 governor’s race, either.
Yes, it didn’t help that Cole inherited an NRB stocked with majorities who attack science with the zeal. Still, he caved to his former NRB colleagues rather than fight them on science’s behalf.
In 2019, Cole even helped the NRB quietly reverse a DNR plan crafted by a citizens advisory group to address a CWD outbreak in the Chippewa Valley near Eau Claire. That committee of seven high-ranking Conservation Congress members met publicly seven times in 2018 and 2019 with DNR staff and local hunters, farmers and landowners.
In early July 2019, the committee recommended mandatory testing and in-person deer registration the first three days of the November 2019 gun season in six townships to assess CWD’s prevalence.
The plan had solid local support. Surveys found 64.5% of respondents favored mandatory tests and 70.5% supported in-person registration. On Sept. 3, 2019, the DNR endorsed the plan during a press conference, with NRB member Greg Kazmierski participating.
Then-assistant DNR Deputy Secretary Todd Ambs told the media: “(This) is a prime example of the department working closely with citizens and the hunting community to address … CWD. We must all work together to stop … this deadly disease, (and we) are therefore following the citizens’ lead.”
Four weeks later, Cole reversed the DNR’s course, killing the plan in an Oct. 2 press release, even though the NRB had neither discussed nor acted on the plan a week earlier at its monthly meeting. Instead, Cole obediently let Kazmierski substitute voluntary testing and four vague directives with no timetable.
The result? At the time (October 2019), CWD had been verified in two wild deer in Eau Claire County. It’s since been confirmed in 13 more wild deer in that county, as well as five deer in Dunn County, and one in Buffalo County – Wisconsin’s most fabled deer hunting area.
Cole failed more publicly in February 2021 by sitting silent when Kazmierski suggested doubling the number of harvest tags for the state’s hastily run wolf hunt. Even though Kazmierski lacks any scientific training or practical fieldwork, neither Cole nor anyone from the NRB asked him to cite precedents before approving his tag allocation.
The DNR then offered Kazmierski’s 2,380 tags for sale online, and hunters and trappers bought 1,548 tags, or 13 times the non-tribal quota of 119 wolves. In contrast, the DNR sold a total of 3,911 tags for the 2012, 2013, and 2014 wolf seasons, or 7.5 times the combined non-tribal quota.
Kazmierski insists the 218-wolf harvest was “only” 8% above the 200-wolf quota. But he ignores the DNR’s task was to cap the non-tribal wolf kill at 119. Whether the actual harvest exceeded the quota by 8% or 82%, it didn’t match DNR standards from previous three wolf seasons. Hunters and trappers exceeded the 2014 quota, 150, by four (2.6%) wolves; the 2013 quota, 251, by six (2.4%) wolves; and the 2012 quota, 116, by one (0.86%). Combined, that’s 528 wolves from 2012 to 2014, or 11 (2.1%) over the non-tribal quota.
Given such failures of leadership and science-based decision-making, it’s no wonder the public and DNR staff lost faith in Cole. Fred Clark, a former state legislator and a one-time Cole colleague on the NRB, now serves as executive director of Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a group of retired university and DNR biologists.
When asked to comment on Cole’s tenure, Clark released this statement: “In the last decade, the DNR faced more profound conservation threats and unique political challenges than at any time in its history. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of experienced, committed career scientists and agency administrators, the lack of effective leadership from DNR secretaries the past decade handicapped DNR staff’s best efforts.
Citizens and the environment lost as a result.”
One might wonder what Cole thinks of such criticism, but here’s the thing: Since his appointment to the NRB in 2007, Cole never returned my emails or calls seeking interviews.
And as DNR secretary, he let his communications director handle it. In contrast, his predecessors – from Buzz Besadny in the 1980s and 1990s through Stepp in recent years – routinely granted my interview requests.
Wisconsin can only hope Evers chose more wisely in naming Adam Payne, the Sheboygan County administrator, to replace Cole as DNR secretary on Jan. 3.
For now, here’s all that’s certain: From 1967 through 1995, the NRB – not the governor – hired and fired our DNR secretaries. Gov. Scott McCallum first exercised those duties in 2002 by dismissing George Meyer as DNR secretary.
Two decades later, Wisconsin still seeks evidence that governors are better suited for those tasks.
Contact Patrick Durkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.