The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence–or the river

CHARLESTON. W.Va. — I’ve recently been working on a story about the musky program in West Virginia.  The program is, in my humble estimation, is one of those great success stories about West Virginia’s wildlife.   There are other shining examples.  The abundant wild turkey population, vastly expanded numbers of deer and the black bear rebound all have been stunning triumphs. When you talk to anyone over the age of 50, they’ll tell you a lot more about how different today’s hunting and fishing is in West Virginia compared to their childhood.  Today, we’re watching the elk reintroduction with an exciting future.

I bring up those stories because they didn’t just happen in a vacuum.  The Division of Natural Resources staff is to be credited for a lot of the work which went into all of those programs.  Biologists and researchers, both presently on staff and those who have long since retired, are owed a great debt by sportsmen and women in the Mountain State for their dedication and drive to achieve those wildlife improvements.   However, it is also important to realize they didn’t do it alone.  Those efforts also wouldn’t have happened without the cooperation and support , both through volunteer efforts and financially, from hunters and anglers. We pay taxes every time we buy hunting and fishing gear–taxes we willingly pay with the funds dedicated to enhancing and preserving hunting and fishing.

Those are relationships which are vital to continuing the pursuits which are so dear to the hearts of many in West Virginia.

Across the river in the state of Ohio, the relationship has apparently been shattered.  Reports indicate the new head of the Ohio DNR has wasted no time cleaning house.  I don’t follow the nuts and bolts of Ohio DNR or their wildlife management and structure of how they do things, but clearly there is a LOT of politics at play there.   Not only is the action impacting a seasoned staff of wildlife professionals, but also the financial coffers of the agency which is ostensibly suppose to be used for wildlife management and protecting hunting and fishing. There is at least some hint the agency might not even be long for the world. Clearly, it’s a mess and leaves sportsmen’s groups leery of who they can trust.

I hope we never get to that point here in West Virginia.  Fortunately, our structure is a tad different.   For starters, by design the state legislature doesn’t control the DNR’s budget. The revenue to run the agency is largely dedicated.   There isn’t much money for the DNR from general revenue–at least in those areas of hunting and fishing management.  Those funds come from you and me when we pay for our hunting and fishing license and when we buy things like guns, ammunition, archery and fishing equipment.    That’s not to say the legislature can’t impact and manipulate.  Lawmakers still control whether fees or license prices can be raised and often use that to curry political favor.   They also control various rules and regulations, just not those governing bag limits and season dates.

The agency is controlled by the Administration, but their decisions about a lot of the wildlife management are controlled by the Natural Resources Commission–which is appointed by the Governor–but also more autonomous in decision making on behalf of sportsmen.  The structure serves to somewhat insulate wildlife management decisions from political pressure.  History has proven in other states when politicians start making decisions for wildlife and trained professionals are ignored–the results are by and large a disaster.   Have a look at California or Maryland for the proof.

It’s true we have squabbles over different things in West Virginia.  It’s not uncommon for hunters and fishermen to have a beef with the DNR for this decision or that decision. That’s to be expected and frankly it’s healthy.  No agency is above the critical eye of its constituency. But in West Virginia the overall impact of the DNR is best judged by the results—and if you take a long view it’s fairly remarkable.   What’s also remarkable is the relationship between sportsmen and the agency in West Virginia.  DNR is one of the most high profile departments in state government.  When they act a LOT of people notice and react.  There must be a level of trust that both sportsmen and the agency are working toward the same thing.   I think for the most part in West Virginia, most sportsmen trust the DNR’s staff to do the right thing. The staff appears willing to engage what sportsmen want to see in a manner which is within the bounds of protecting wildlife resources.  It’s a delicate balancing act. We as sportsmen are reaping the benefits today from the arrangement.

A look at Ohio from a distance makes me wonder if Buckeye sportsmen will be able to enjoy that same level of confidence in their agency in the years and decades to come.   The damage, which appears to be happening there now, might take years to repair.