Political Power Play in Ohio Provides Harsh Reminder to Sportsmen Everywhere

July 12, 2017 | by Nick Pinizzotto

Hunting in Ohio, particularly for non-resident deer hunters, has been a real bargain. Some might even call it a steal prior to last week’s passing of a new budget by the Ohio General Assembly. Despite being one of the top destination states for non-resident deer hunters, the cost for a license and first tag was just $149. Even with the approved increase, it will still be well below other big buck states at just $250. In fact, the average cost for non-residents in what are considered to be the top 10 destination states is $393, with Texas being the highest at $630.

The hunting license and deer tag increases, combined with an approved increase for non-resident fishing licenses, will result in more than $40 million in new revenue to the Division of Wildlife over the next 10 years, which is projecting a $220 million shortfall during that same span. Better yet, sportsmen and more than 40 different sporting organizations not only pushed hard for the increases, they sought escalations on resident fees as well to help support the financially strapped Division. Even though legislators weren’t quite willing to raise the price for residents, it was a reason for great celebration for everyone who hunts, fishes, or manages wildlife in the Buckeye State. Or was it?

As you would expect, the top brass at the Division actively supported the effort. It was a no-brainer, and the right thing to do. The move made perfect sense to just about everyone, except, apparently, Governor John Kasich and a few of his top administrators, led by Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Director, James Zehringer. Several media outlets covering the push for increases described the Kasich administration’s opposition as being driven by what the politicos called “forbidden tax hikes,” and their unsubstantiated assertion that people would stop coming to Ohio to hunt and fish resulting in more losses for the Division. Many close to the situation also describe a rift between ODNR and the Division since Governor Kasich took office as the most significant factor.

So what did the leadership of the Division get from their bosses for their good work in helping to secure much-needed revenue for the betterment of fish, wildlife, and sportsmen in the state? In a move that can only be described as political backlash, Director Zehringer removed and either fired, reassigned, or demoted nearly the entire leadership team within days of the budget being passed. Here is a breakdown of the changes as described by the Ohio-based Sportsmen’s Alliance, which led the effort to increase license fees:

  • On July 3, ODNR removed civil service protection from the assistant chiefs of the agency, allowing the agency to bring in political appointees to fill these positions, which have always been experts in their respective fields. The move also cleared the way for the assistant chiefs to be fired without cause.
  • On July 5, Director Zehringer fired Division Chief Ray Petering with no justification given.
  • On July 10, ODNR continued its decapitation of Division leadership by removing the two assistant chiefs.
  • Additionally on July 10, Director Zehringer removed the Wildlife Management Section Chief, Information and Education Chief, Law Enforcement Section Chief, and the agency’s head law enforcement training officer.
  • Finally, Director Zehringer removed the Division’s Federal Aid Coordinator – the person responsible for coordinating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure Ohio receives its fair share of federal aid dollars that come from excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, archery equipment, and fishing gear.

Further in the press release, they stated that, “the Sportsmen’s Alliance has learned that neither ODNR, nor the governor’s office, communicated any need for these changes with members of the Ohio Wildlife Council – a group specifically created to advise the governor and director on matters impacting fish and wildlife resources. The Wildlife Council also had broken ranks with ODNR earlier this year, advising the governor and legislature of the need for the fee increases.”

This is one of the ugliest examples of politics getting in the way of important fish and wildlife management needs that I have seen during my career. As an Ohio resident and someone who knows just about all of the people involved with the situation, I can tell you that the sting is felt a little stronger. Despite strong support from sportsmen, conservation groups, and eventually the General Assembly, which ultimately included the fee increases in the budget, apparently Governor Kasich’s and Director Zehringer’s feelings being hurt was all that mattered, and the reclassifications, reassignments, demotions, and even firings resulted.

It’s a sad day when political backlash results in people losing their jobs, or being reassigned to lower positions with lesser pay. If that’s not bad enough, wildlife, fisheries, and ultimately the people who enjoy hunting and fishing, are also likely to suffer due to a complete dismantling of the leadership charged with overseeing the Division. That’s simply unacceptable, and as outdoor enthusiasts and tax payers, we must demand better.