Division of Wildlife employees critical of agency | VailDaily.com

Division of Wildlife employees critical of agency

Scott Condon/Aspen Correspondent

Daily file photoBill Heicher, Eagle's former district manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, agrees with critics of the agency and says, "political influence is trumping biology and science."

A survey of managers in the Colorado Division of Wildlife shows they feel the agency’s scientific integrity has fallen victim to politics.

About 88 percent of employees who filled out the survey said the agency’s work is compromised because the head of the Department of Natural Resources is a political appointee. Another 74 said they don’t trust the wildlife division’s top administrators “to defend the state’s wildlife resources against political pressure from special interests.”

The survey was conducted by an organization called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility – or, PEER – which is based in Washington, D.C., and has a branch in Denver. PEER, a nonpartisan watchdog group, conducted the survey after it was approached by Colorado Division of Wildlife employees.

A spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources said the survey will be ignored because it isn’t statistically valid. “We have looked into it and we do not believe there is a problem,” said department spokeswoman Dawn Taylor Owens.

Chas Offutt of PEER responded that his organization would welcome an opportunity to survey more wildlife division employees. The organization mailed 343 surveys to biologists, game wardens and regional managers. It eliminated new employees and top managers. It received 91 surveys or 26.5 percent.

Owens countered that there are more than 1,000 employees in the wildlife division.

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Political lightning rod

Other results showed 67 percent of respondents said Colorado’s “wildlife resources” are less protected today than they were five years ago. One third said they felt the wildlife division was headed in the right direction.

The survey wasn’t an indictment of wildlife division director Russell George of Rifle. About 83 percent of respondents said he is doing a good job as director. But 87 percent do not think that Greg Walcher is doing a good job as director of the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the wildlife division and six other agencies. Walcher was a controversial appointment five years ago by Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican.

Walcher has taken cpositions controversial among Colorado conservationists. His department filed an appeal to the White River National Forest Plan to allow more logging than proposed in the plan to allegedly improve “forest health” and to increase the “water yield” from spring runoff. The idea was derided by critics as “logging for water.”

The department also sided with ski areas in their appeal to increase the level of activity allowed in potential lynx habitat.

The Division of Wildlife has also been criticized while under Walcher’s oversight for not weighing in with science on important land use issues. It missed a deadline for commenting on wildlife issues in the forest plan and was tardy in offering its expertise in the debate over gas exploration on Roan Plateau outside of Rifle.

Science trumped?

While the Department of Natural Resources is dismissing the survey as statistically invalid, a longtime wildlife officer known for speaking his mind and taking controversial positions on issues around Eagle, Colo., said “that survey is right on.”

Bill Heicher, who retired earlier this year, said the wildlife division has always been subject to politics to some degree, even under the administrations of former governors Roy Romer and Dick Lamm, both Democrats. It’s worse now, Heicher claimed.

“Walcher is obviously pulling political strings,” he said. “There is time and again where political influence is trumping biology and science.”

One example Heicher offered was the Department of Natural Resource’s effort to get a DOW biologist to change results of a study to show that coyotes and other predators were to blame for the inability to increase the size of Colorado’s deer herds. The report said lack of habitat was the biggest factor. The biologist wouldn’t budge.

“Chilling effect’

Heicher claimed that Walcher’s political motivations have had a chilling effect on the wildlife division. Wildlife division managers don’t want to upset their boss for fear it will harm their careers.

The PEER survey showed that 50 percent of respondents said many DOW decisions “ignore sound wildlife or fishery biology” and 42 percent said they had been directed to overlook or ignore a specific threat to wildlife.

Sixty percent of respondents said they fear the possibility of retaliation for action on a controversial topic.

Heicher said the current political nature of the wildlife division is driving good employees into early retirement. He left even though he felt he could have worked another 10 years.

“Right now (the DOW) job is not to piss off the economic drivers – timber, oil and gas, and development,” Heicher said.

Full results of the PEER survey are available at http://www.peer/org/rocky mountain/12 03 DOWsurvey.html.