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Concerns Over Impact of Possible Wisconsin DNR Scientist Cuts

Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Critics of move to cut Bureau of Science Services positions fear DNR will be unable to keep up with challenges facing natural resources.

The Legislature's joint finance committee voted in support of Gov. Walker's plan to eliminate 18.4 researchers within the Bureau of Science Services. The DNR says that amounts to 31.5 percent of the authorized positions within the team.

Todd Ambs is one of the people upset about the cuts.

He heads the Healing Our Waters -  Great Lakes Coalition and served as as Water Division Administrator at the Wisconsin DNR from 2003 to 2010,

Ambs says the Bureau of Science Services is designed “to have independent, civil service scientists within the agency able to look at a challenging scientific questions and provide their best scientific analysis and recommendations on what to do about emerging challenges in the state.”

He says that includes studying an increasing number of pharmaceuticals in our water, along with “excess nutrients running into Green Bay and other concerns around the state."

"The only folks that have that ability and flexibility to dig into those problems within the DNR are the science bureau folks,” he says.

But not everyone has praised the bureau’s work.

Ambs says sparks flew when its scientists examined the possible environmental impacts of a proposed iron mine in far northern Wisconsin.

“They did an independent objective scientific analysis and came back and said mining along the shores of Lake Superior might not be the best thing for Lake Superior, and the Bad River watershed folks got upset about that,” Ambs says.

Longer interview with Todd Ambs aired June 10 on Lake Effect.

Senator Tom Tiffany supported the proposed mine, but says the negative analysis is not the reason he supports cutting the bureau that produced the report.

“This Bureau of Science Services – some of us just believe just went off and did their own thing at times and I think …it’s very important for them to stay focused on being able to offer more opportunities for sportsmen,” Tiffany says.

Tiffany says he’s most concerned about the time and money the science bureau has funneled into studying Chronic Wasting Disease – CWD – that has plagued the state’s deer herd.

“There’s been $45 million spent on CWD research in Wisconsin. And I understand early on, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, they might spent $10 million, even $20 million finding a way to eradicate it or find a cure. But after they weren’t successful they began to throw good money after bad,” he says.

Tiffany also blames the bureau with making recommendations that diminish hunting and fishing opportunities.

“And it’s not just deer hunting, the Minocqua Chain of Lakes now this year is shut down for walleye hunting. Imagine that, one of the premier chain of lakes in northern Wisconsin and you cannot keep a walleye on there; and it has a real economic impact,” Tiffany says.

He says enough with studies, it’s time to put money into rebuilding opportunities for sportsmen.

Adrian Wydeven says it would be a mistake to decouple research and wildlife management. He is a wildlife biologist and headed Wisconsin’s wolf recovery efforts.

“There are different layers of scientists, and the people in the field are managers. And the managers don’t have time to do the research. That’s one of the benefits of having scientists within the agency. They’re very focused on doing research for the things that the managers most need,” Wydeven says.

He says weakening the science component could wreak havoc. “Which means there’s greater risks of over harvest of populations, over harvest in certain regions. But one of the other issues I also see there seems to be almost no voice right now for wildlife concerns beyond consumptive users," Wydeven says.

The DNR declined our request for an interview but spokesperson Bill Cosh emailed a statement. It reads, in part:

Science has and always will be part of our agency’s decision-making process. We have resource managers and scientists with PhDs and Master’s degrees throughout our agency. What these cuts require us to do is to better prioritize the research that our scientists are engaged in to help inform management decisions.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.