Purge Continues at ODNR, Despite New Chief’s Promise

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In a contentious meeting, uncharacteristic of the Ohio Wildlife Council, newly appointed Chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, committed that the round of firings, demotions and transfers within the agency had come to an end. It took less than a week for the department to renege on that pledge. The Sportsmen’s Alliance has learned that ODNR just transferred John Sambuco, who was previously in charge of the Division of Wildlife’s real estate section, to the department’s overall real estate office.

This brings the number of Division of Wildlife agency employees who have been terminated, demoted or forced to transfer to nine. Starting with the removal of civil service protection from assistant chiefs on July 3, ODNR proceeded to fire Chief Ray Petering on July 5 before demoting the two assistant chiefs and transferring them to the Division of Parks and Watercraft. Following that move, ODNR forcibly transferred four mid-level managers, one of whom was demoted as well. Sambuco worked for Stacy Xenakis, who was one of the employees forced to work at another agency of the Department of Natural Resources. 

The latest personnel move shattered whatever good will new Chief Mike Miller attempted to foster during his hour-long question and answer session with the Ohio Wildlife Council, an advisory panel chosen by the governor and charged with overseeing all matters pertaining to the management of wildlife in Ohio. Members of the council had strong questions for Chief Miller about the justifications for the rushed changes just three business days into his tenure as the agency head.

The Meigs Independent Press published a transcript of the meeting. In an exchange between Councilman Tom Vorisek and Chief Miller regarding the need for additional personnel changes, the Independent Press reported:

“Vorisek then specifically asked about transfer of any funds or positions or salaries being split, funds going out from the Division of Wildlife into any other division. He also asked if there was anymore removals forthcoming or to be expected. Miller said not at this time.”

The Sportsmen’s Alliance reached out to the recently ousted chief, Ray Petering.

“Despite Chief Miller’s assurance in a public meeting, the political purge in the Division of Wildlife continues. Now they’ve moved past middle management and into the rank-and-file Division of Wildlife employees,” said Petering. “Ohio’s sportsmen and women deserve to know what real agenda is at work to justify the disruption of so many careers of wildlife professionals.”

The Sportsmen’s Alliance led a coalition of 41 conservation groups that convinced the legislature to approve increases in non-resident hunting and fishing licenses. After initially opposing all license increases, ODNR announced it would no longer oppose non-resident increases. Despite this pledge, ODNR senior staff continued to tell legislators the increases were not necessary because the Ohio Division of Wildlife was solvent. Research by the Sportsmen’s Alliance debunked that claim, revealing that Wildlife faces a $220 million shortfall over the next ten years. 

Many sportsmen’s groups believe that ODNR is planning to consolidate the Division of Wildlife into other ODNR agencies or remove wildlife law enforcement from the division, a fear that ODNR Director Jim Zehringer denied at the annual Governor’s Fish Ohio day on July 11. In his remarks, Zehringer admonished the media to stop writing about those fears by sportsmen because the department says they are not true. Many sportsmen and women aren’t convinced, however.   

“Ohio’s hunters, anglers and trappers don’t know who to trust in ODNR right now, and there has been little to no dialogue to help ease those concerns,” said Evan Heusinkveld, president and CEO of the Sportsmen’s Alliance. “They said they would support the non-resident fee increase, but actually opposed it. They said they were done with their political house cleaning last week, but yet it continues. It’s hard to see how there can be a cooperative working relationship when there is no trust between the fee-paying customer and those charged with stewarding the resource.”

About the Sportsmen’s Alliance: The Sportsmen’s Alliance protects and defends America’s wildlife conservation programs and the pursuits – hunting, fishing and trapping – that generate the money to pay for them. Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation is responsible for public education, legal defense and research.  Its mission is accomplished through several distinct programs coordinated to provide the most complete defense capability possible. Stay connected to Sportsmen’s Alliance: OnlineFacebookTwitter and Instagram.