Minnesota Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen will launch a national search next week for the sixth DNR fish and wildlife director in the past 18 years — one of two remaining openings on her newly minted leadership team.
The ideal applicant for the marquee DNR job will be steeped in life sciences, dedicated to habitat conservation, proven as a wildlife manager, passionate about hunting and fishing, graceful in public, deft at politics, assertive against competing special interests, gifted in employee relations and financially skilled enough to manage the division’s $200 million annual budget.
The cherry on top would be some clue as to how to connect more Minnesotans to the outdoors.
Since unseating Tom Landwehr as DNR commissioner in the new administration of Gov. Tim Walz, Strommen’s mantra has been to make the DNR more relevant to the masses. The challenge is to broaden Minnesota’s tent of outdoor enthusiasts at a time when the popularity of hunting and fishing isn’t keeping pace with the state’s growing and evermore diverse population.
“It’s someone who has that technical experience but also that big-picture management ability,” Strommen said this week in an interview. “It’s someone who understands the current model but who can help chart a vision for the future.”
The DNR won’t use a headhunter to recruit candidates, but the job posting will be splashed across the industry starting next week. Strommen is hoping for a “robust candidate pool” and for the position to be filled by the end of the 2019 state legislative session. The job, paying upward of $135,000 a year, is open because former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service executive Jim Leach retired after reaching age 65. He was hired by Landwehr three years ago, in time to wage war against a historic outbreak of chronic wasting disease in the wild deer herd.
Because the top fish and game leadership job requires so much experience, it traditionally attracts professionals who view it as a career capstone. Nationally, 24 states in the past 18 months have experienced turnover in the fish and wildlife director position. The directors tend to pack in a few year’s worth of 60- to 80-hour work weeks before tapping out.
Of the past five Minnesota fish and wildlife directors, Ed Boggess served the longest — for five years and one month starting in January 2011.
A month ago, Strommen appointed DNR insider Grant Wilson as the agency’s interim fish and wildlife director. The two worked together previously when Strommen oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Division as an assistant commissioner.
“I am still considering whether to apply for the job once the application process begins,” Wilson said Tuesday. “For now, I’m focused on supporting fish and wildlife conservation and recreation for all Minnesotans.”
Carrol Henderson worked inside the DNR for 45 years before retiring last year as the director of nongame wildlife. His favorite fish and wildlife director was Roger Holmes (1990-2000), who showed unwavering commitment to wildlife and habitat restoration.
“When he testified before the Legislature he would tell things as he saw them — the straight stuff,” Henderson recalled. “He wasn’t going to be bending one way or the other just because of the political times.”
But as important as it remains for Minnesota’s fish and wildlife director to “do the right thing” in resource management, Henderson said, it’s also critical for the next leader to rebuild the outdoor constituency.
Traditional funding sources for fish and wildlife, derived from license fees and excise taxes on equipment, are shrinking, he said. Meanwhile, pheasant populations continue to sink, waterfowl hunting is meager and the state’s cherished deer hunting culture is threatened by chronic wasting disease.
“Seems like we are regressing … we need to be expanding,” Henderson said.
He said he expects to meet with Strommen to discuss ideas on boosting birding and other forms of eco-tourism in the state.
“A good national search is probably needed to find the next director,” Henderson said.
Assistant DNR Commissioner Bob Meier, the agency’s governmental affairs expert, will oversee the search for a new director. He recently took over for Strommen as the overseer of Fish and Wildlife.
The other open leadership job is director of DNR’s Lands and Minerals Division. Jess Richards was promoted from that position to be assistant commissioner overseeing Ecological and Water Resources and Lands and Minerals.