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As the head of the Department of Natural Resources, Cathy Stepp is gung ho on building bridges to businesses and boosting customer service to sportsmen. But after a string of political blunders, many fear the agency is drifting too far from its fundamental mission.

In mid-November, the state Department of Natural Resources released a chirpy video of Gov. Scott Walker and DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp side by side and dressed in blaze orange, promoting the opening of Wisconsin’s 2013 deer-hunting season.

“Hey Governor,” says Stepp, flashing a mischievous grin at her boss. “Have I told you the story of my very first buck from last year?”

“Ah, yes, yes you have,” says the governor, playing the straight man. “But I never tire of hearing those types of stories because that’s what deer season’s all about.”

“Well, I didn’t believe it until I tried it for the first time two years ago,” Stepp says. “Now I truly understand the camaraderie and traditions that take Wisconsin deer hunters to the field year after year.”

The public service announcement is light-hearted and upbeat, a stark contrast to the controversy that has dogged Stepp’s tenure at the top of one of the most factious agencies in state government. Although she’s found the camaraderie and tradition of deer hunting, Stepp was widely known for her anti-DNR views before she was tapped to run the agency by Walker in late 2010. A private-sector homebuilder, former Republican state senator and former member of the Natural Resources Board, she took tremendous heat before her appointment for characterizing DNR staff as “anti-development … pro-garter snake … unelected bureaucrats who have only their cubicle walls to bounce ideas off of.”

Today, Stepp fully owns her anti-DNR comments of the past. That was simply her honest experience, both personally and professionally, she says. She now has an entirely different perspective with her insider’s view.

“We’ve tried the hammer, and we’ve tried the Dark Knight persona for decades,” Stepp says in a wide-ranging interview with Milwaukee Magazine. “And that hasn’t been working so well in our interactions with the people that we serve, which is the public. So my goal is to bring in a customer-service attitude and spirit into the agency.”

But critics, including past and current DNR employees, say her policy changes have threatened the department’s core mission. They see a dangerous shift from a science-based resource protection agency to one dominated by politics and special interests.

“I’ve known of Cathy Stepp for many years, dating back to when she was a state senator,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. “She really has always been a very pro-business politician, really is more of a commerce secretary than a DNR secretary. And I think she brings that mentality to the department. Now, it’s much more focused on accommodating businesses rather than aggressively protecting natural resources.”

It’s a description that Stepp doesn’t dispute. “For some folks, it’s hard,” she says. “They don’t want to see things that they’ve implemented be changed. But man, 20 years in today’s economy, there’s a lot of changes that have happened. And if we don’t change as an organization to reflect that, we are not doing our job in serving the public.”

In her push to transform the agency, though, she seems to have found herself at the center of one embarrassing PR crisis after another.

Plans are under way to build what could become the largest open-pit iron ore mine in the world. Gogebic Taconite (GTAC), which purchased the mineral rights to 21,000 acres of the pristine Gogebic Iron Range, helped write legislation that critics claim demolishes environmental safeguards, eliminates public input and rushes the permit review process.

Also, a narrowly written $500,000 Sporting Heritage Council grant was awarded to the politically connected United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation, a move so obviously suspect that Gov. Walker himself eventually rescinded it.

Western Wisconsin has seen a veritable explosion in industrial sand mines and processing plants – from only 10 in 2010 to a whopping 170 in 2013 – accompanied by a 2,100 percent surge in campaign contributions to state politicians from frac sand mining and natural gas industries. Meanwhile, the DNR has appeared to be missing in action: In 2011, issuance of written violations dipped to its lowest rate in 12 years.

In two full seasons of Wisconsin’s first-ever wolf hunt, 330 timber wolves have been killed as of late November, sparking emotional arguments over responsible harvest numbers and the controversial use of hunting dogs, and even a lawsuit against Stepp and the DNR, brought by a coalition of hunters and animal rights groups.

And arguably most damaging of all, Giggles – the “orphaned” spotted fawn named for the cute laughing sound it made – was euthanized by an armed 13-member team of DNR agents and local law enforcement that raided a Kenosha County animal shelter. Although its owner was violating Wisconsin law by holding the deer, a shocked and angry public screamed overkill. Stepp even received death threats in the aftermath.

Through all the missteps, Walker has stood by his virtual hunting buddy. But the negative attention has shaken the DNR’s standing in many quarters, causing some to ask: Is Cathy Stepp an asset or liability?

Since Stepp’s first day on the job, critics have accused her of being unqualified to run the DNR. But from where she sits, she’s uniquely qualified.

She and her husband, Paul Stepp, spent years running the family’s homebuilding business, First Stepp Builders, which they sold in 2004. Stepp says her experiences with the DNR led her to deem them the “agency of no.” She often felt dismissed, frustrated and confused by existing policies and procedures that at times felt arbitrary, and was afraid to engage the DNR to ask for help for fear of it backfiring. She was leading her local builders association in 1998 when then-Gov. Tommy Thompson approached her to serve on the Natural Resources Board, which she did for three years.

“It was an extraordinary, eye-opening experience for me. I call it my ‘backstage pass’ to the DNR,” says Stepp, “learning about how the agency interacted and sometimes wasn’t carrying out the will of the policymakers, the legislature and the governor at the time, how they were really kind of running their own entity off to the side.”

From there, she was approached by then-state Sen. Mary Panzer (R-West Bend), who was the senate minority leader, about making a run for the state senate, an idea Stepp rejected at first as “insane.” She had two little kids at home and a business to run. She’d never had political aspirations in her life. But again, the possibilities proved too tempting to resist.

“I thought, ‘Well, you know, there’s a lot of business things I could bring into the Legislature,’” she says. “And also [with] my experience on the Natural Resources Board, I thought there’s a lot I could do to try and sync up better the employees of DNR with the will of the Legislature and the governor, and maybe I can be more of a bridge.”

During her single senate term from 2002-2006, Stepp’s major focus seemed to be championing the Jobs Creation Acts I and II of 2003 and 2005, respectively. The legislation eventually passed in revised form, but critics called “Job Creation” a euphemism for business deregulation. Initial drafts called for things like allowing trout streams and lakebeds to be dredged without any opportunity for public comment or DNR oversight. Opponents claimed the bills were written by special interests who had contributed nearly $7 million to sitting legislators in the 10 years prior, including Panzer, who introduced the first bill. Stepp, a co-sponsor, collected $165,305 from the special interest supporters of the bill, ranking her eighth out of 132 of her fellow lawmakers. Stepp’s current executive assistant, Scott Gunderson, was No. 23 with $67,050. A former Republican assemblyman, Gunderson introduced both bills.

She was four years out of the senate when Walker asked her to helm the DNR. It was her business perspective and political savvy that he was after. Stepp felt the agency was at bare bones staffing levels, fragmented and disorganized. She believed the administrators in Madison were “paper tigers” with “no authority over anybody on the ground,” and agents were buried in paperwork that kept them in the office and out of the field. She says she immediately went to work streamlining and restructuring the agency.

“I’ve said from the very beginning, my job isn’t to manage the natural resources of Wisconsin. My job is to manage the people who manage the resources of Wisconsin,” she says. “Really, in my opinion, that hasn’t been done in a very, very long time.”

Reminding her staff that it is “a permitting agency, not a prohibiting agency,” Stepp wanted the DNR to work with people before they messed up, not punish them afterward. Her administration created the Office of Business Support and Sustainability, with sector specialists assigned to go out and act as point people for business owners seeking permits. And, stunned by an “abysmal” 40 percent staffing vacancy within the water quality department alone (pivotal players in permit issuance), she argued for and was granted from Walker and the Legislature “hundreds” of new positions.

“This isn’t about paving paradise to put in parking lots,” says Stepp. “This is about helping people understand what the rules are and helping them comply, navigate them through the labyrinth instead of blindfolding them and spinning them around 10 times and hoping they find their way. It’s in our mission statement to protect and enhance Wisconsin’s natural resources while working with the people. The ‘while working with people’ phrase tends to get left off a lot.”

But as she continues to push through her changes, some veteran conservationists fear the DNR mission is drifting from its traditional moorings.

The struggle between political influence and resource protection is not new in Wisconsin. The DNR as we know it today came to fruition under Gov. Warren Knowles in 1967. But long before that, it was a fragmented mosaic of smaller, independent commissions and boards – say, one for water quality, another for forestry – with each headed by a political appointee.

When sportsmen and naturalists in the 1920s and ’30s started to feel environmental decisions were becoming more political than scientific, they rebelled, organizing for what eventually became the Wisconsin Conservation Commission in 1934, a six-member citizen board, which then created a new Conservation Department. The governor could appoint the commission but not the Conservation Department head, who was a natural resources professional appointed by the board. The board would act as a buffer between any given governor’s political agenda and whoever the science-minded head of the agency happened to be.

During Knowles large-scale state government restructuring, the Conservation Department became the DNR. Yet even as dozens of boards and commissions were reshuffled or eliminated, the DNR’s citizen board and its board-elected leader were left in place. The same was true of the Department of Agriculture and Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Legislators at that time felt that these are areas that should not be under partisan control together,” says George Meyer, who has been intimately involved with the inner workings of the DNR for more than 30 years. He led the department’s enforcement division and headed the agency as secretary from 1993 to 2001. In his current position as executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, he rarely misses a meeting of the Natural Resources Board, which oversees the DNR’s policy direction. “So that system worked. You had a secretary that served at the pleasure of the board, but in fact, you still had that buffer.”

In 1995, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, with control of both legislative houses and the backing of business special interests, succeeded in changing the DNR and the Department of Agriculture secretaries to gubernatorial appointments. Meyer, who had been DNR secretary for two years by that point, along with many other colleagues and sportsmen, fought back hard, and lost.

“Governors like control, OK? It doesn’t matter what party they are,” says Meyer. “And the business community, the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), and the Realtors and the builders decided they wanted to push, so that when they put money into gubernatorial campaigns, they could at least rent the DNR secretary along with it. That sounds crude, but that’s how basic it is.”

Meyer says he didn’t feel much encroachment over the rest of his term, which lasted until newly elected Gov. Scott McCallum swept the cabinet out. He says it was actually under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, and Doyle’s first DNR secretary, Scott Hassett (whose father helmed the WMC) that the political interference in regulatory decision-making started to become apparent. Worse, Meyer says, Doyle courted sportsmen like him with a promise to revert the secretary position back to an elected official, and the measure actually passed both houses; then Doyle reneged, in Meyer’s eyes, and vetoed the bill on his desk.

“Everybody knew that this was going to get worse, depending on the philosophy of the governor” at the time, says Meyer.

Enter Scott Walker, who tapped Stepp to head the DNR, saying, “I wanted someone with a Chamber-of-Commerce mentality.” Stepp assembled a team that included Deputy Secretary Matt Moroney, previously the executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee. She tapped Gunderson, a former Republican state representative with close ties to bear hunters, to be her executive assistant.

Stepp and her staff have been unapologetically vocal about their efforts to whip what was, in their eyes, an outdated and disorganized agency into shape.

Attorney Stephen Willett from Phillips, Wis., has served in various environmental-related capacities for governors Lee Dreyfus, Tony Earle, Thompson, McCallum, Doyle and, now, Walker. He first met Stepp in the late 1990s when she joined the Natural Resources Board, where he also served from 1991-2007.

“She is a political animal,” says Willett. “And some people think that the secretary of the DNR shouldn’t be a political animal, and I couldn’t agree less. I think that the more political animal you have in there, the better off you are, because you have so many interest groups, so many concerns, and you need to be able to navigate that to come to an interest that will serve the public at large.”

During Walker’s campaign for governor, Walker and Willett discussed the DNR’s Stewardship Program, which protects natural areas and wildlife habitat. Walker said that he wanted the DNR to become more accountable, and Stepp’s name came up. “I had a couple of conversations with her, and she indicated that she really did want to become the secretary,” Willett says.

In her role as secretary, her political acumen is indispensable, he says. “I think there’s been some statements in the press that she is the handmaiden, if you will, of Gov. Walker,” says Willett. “Believe me, I know both of them very well, and she is a handmaiden of no one.”

On a number of occasions, Stepp’s political skills have fallen short, putting heat on the Walker administration and casting doubt on Stepp’s intentions. Even more damning, each controversy seems to swirl around the same names: Scott Suder, a former assembly majority leader (R-Abbotsford) and Gunderson, Stepp’s chosen executive assistant.

Suder helped introduce the Jobs Creation Acts and, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report, he was one of five Republicans to write the Gogebic mining
legislation, a secretive process shepherded by the WMC, members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (a free-market, limited-government organization made up of state legislators and businesses), and the Gogebic Taconite mining company itself.

Suder’s also a bear hunter. During the 2013 state budget process, Suder inserted a narrowly crafted $500,000 grant to encourage hunting recruitment and instruction. It utilized U.S. Fish & Wildlife funds and was to be issued by Wisconsin’s 12-member Sporting Heritage Council, a group that advises Walker, the Natural Resources Board and the legislators on fishing, hunting and trapping issues. The Heritage Council is chaired by Gunderson. The United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, a special interest group formed in January 2013 with close ties to Suder, was the lone bidder. Its president, Andy Pantzlaff, also sat on the Heritage Council.

“Everybody knew it didn’t pass the smell test,” says Tom Thoresen, who testified against the grant at the joint finance hearing. Thoresen retired in 2005 as deputy chief conservation warden after 26 years at the DNR. He says Walker may have suspected the grant was problematic long before he eventually (and so publicly) rescinded it.

“It flew through joint finance, then the DNR realized, ‘Wait a minute, we could have problems with the feds here because the funding source is federal,’” says Thoresen. “So Walker didn’t veto the grant [at first], he vetoed the funding source so that it would more likely go through.”

But, when the press uncovered that Pantzlaff had been convicted of bear hunting violations and had also misrepresented his group’s tax-exempt status, Walker finally pulled the plug.

“The whole deal stunk to high heaven,” agrees McCabe. “It was striking that the DNR was defending the decision that was made by the Legislature, and seemed absolutely committed to going forward with the grant. The grant was just full of red flags. I mean, on the one hand it was fraudulent, on the other hand it was fraught with cronyism. There was, of course, even a Koch brothers connection.”

That was Luke Hilgemann, listed as an “educator” for United Sportsmen. He has now joined the national office of Americans for Prosperity – the conservative lobbying enterprise of the powerful Koch brothers – after working for the group’s Wisconsin chapter. Before that, Hilgemann was Suder’s chief of staff. Suder left the Assembly in September to work for the Walker administration, but then declined to accept the position with the Walker administration after the United Sportsmen grant fallout. Pantzlaff has also stepped down as president from the Sporting Heritage Council.

Stepp admits politicians, although passionate, don’t always have the best ideas. The United Sportsmen grant, she says, is the perfect example. “I had absolutely no role in that whatsoever,” she insists. “We were just as surprised as most when we saw that came out.” She admits, however, to excitement “at first blush” when she learned that her agency would have half a million dollars to use on hunting education and recruiting opportunities. But after learning more, she says, she “had a lot of heartburn” about it, and she’s glad it didn’t go through. Ultimately, nobody has to ask her what she thinks about legislation of any kind, and she’s very cognizant of that. It’s not the DNR’s place to write laws, but rather to enforce them. And she wants lawmakers to trust her agency enough to ask for scientific input ahead of time.

But McCabe isn’t buying it. “Ultimately, the buck stops with the secretary,” he says. “If the secretary is willing to go ahead with an arrangement like that, then the agency goes ahead with an arrangement like that.”

Three and a half weeks after the Giggles-the-orphaned-deer fiasco, a curious email hit the inbox of George Meyer, former DNR secretary and head of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. The email was a joint press release from the DNR and Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection. Headlined “Proposals outlined to modify captured wildlife laws and policies,” the release outlined four recommended changes to Wisconsin’s captured wildlife law and policy, made at the urging of Walker in the aftermath of the Giggles episode.

Meyer was on board with nearly all of them. After all, the sportsmen group he represents is hardly made up of left-wing ideologues – 79 percent of his members say they are conservative or very conservative. But the fourth recommendation stopped him in his tracks: “Individuals who illegally hold a captured wild deer … may be able to keep the deer if they meet a series of regulations to ensure the health of the deer…”

Meyer was stunned. His whole life – and all of Wisconsin’s natural resource protection history – was built upon a key tenet: “Wildlife is held in the Public Trust.” In other words, wildlife can never be privately owned. The department’s proposal seemed to intentionally disregard that tenet.

A month later, Meyer’s suspicions deepened. He had received the agenda for the Sept. 24, 2013, meeting of the Natural Resources Board. But as he read through the agenda items, one was missing – the proposal to keep captured wildlife.

At first he thought it was an innocent mistake. He had emailed DNR Land Division Administrator Kurt Thiede to ask where the captured wildlife proposal had gone, and Thiede responded that item wasn’t scheduled to come before the board.

Yet, when Thiede made his presentation days later at the board meeting, he handed out a separate sheet, explaining in detail the captured wildlife proposal – the missing agenda item.

Meyer was convinced the DNR was trying to sneak one past its own board by avoiding testimony. But he was ready with the reveal.

As board members questioned DNR staff, Meyer held up the press release from the previous month. “Your agency, our laws, are based on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,” he told Thiede. “And this just flies in the face of it.”

Stepp insists it was hardly a conspiracy. “It was just an informational item,” she says. “If there had been an action item, that would have been placed on the board agenda.” But Meyer says Stepp and her administrators were caught red-handed trying to bypass the board.

After leaving the nearly six-hour meeting early for the long drive home to Fitchburg, he got a call: The board had passed the first three items, as expected. But they’d done more than simply ignore the fourth “informational” item. They’d written a resolution, going “on the record as opposing any legislation that would allow a private citizen to retain an unlawfully taken wild deer.”

“The board figured it out,” Meyer says. “And they did something I’ve never seen before. The board drafted and adopted a resolution on their own, which can only be looked at as a smackdown of the Department of Natural Resources.”

It would be nearly impossible to look at every issue the DNR has its hands in as a state agency, with some 4,000 full-time and part-time employees managing parks, lands, forestry, water and air quality, permitting, enforcement and more. But of all the controversies that inevitably arise across such a massive agency, there’s one that’s arguably more emotionally loaded than anything else: wolves.

Once the literal face of Wisconsin’s endangered species vanity license plates and protected by the federal Endangered Species List, wolves are now legal to hunt. Even more controversial, Wisconsin is now the only state in the country that allows the use of dogs to do so.

Randy Jurewicz is a retired DNR wildlife biologist who currently represents the Timber Wolf Alliance on Wisconsin’s Wolf Advisory Committee, a group charged with updating Wisconsin’s 1999 Wolf Management Plan. Although the Alliance remains neutral on the subject of harvesting wolves, Jurewicz personally supports the practice; Wisconsin’s wolf population grew from just 14 in the 1990s to more than 800 before the first 2012 hunt. But he’s against the use of dogs to hunt wolves, primarily because he believes that wolves – extremely smart, adaptable animals – will start to treat all dogs as enemies.

“You don’t want dog-hating wolves roaming around the state of Wisconsin,” he says.

He’s also seen up-close-and-personal what it looks like when dogs and wolves collide, and he’s “haunted” by the images.

Between 1985 and 2011, Jurewicz issued payments of up to $2,500 from the DNR to people who had their hunting dogs killed by wolves. The total over the years exceeded $420,000 from the Endangered Resources Fund, funded partly through a check-off contribution on state tax filings and from fees collected from the wolf vanity plates. The idea behind the program was this: Because wolves were endangered, dog owners couldn’t legally do a thing to protect their animals; therefore, the state needed to provide reimbursement. But a cursory glance of the DNR’s website reveals multiple areas where depredation payments are clustered, year after year, in known wolf zones. Because most of the slain dogs are hound dogs traditionally used for bear hunting, some animal rights group advocates allege the state is essentially subsidizing a cruel practice that’s easily avoidable.

“Hound dogs have been the most expensive thing that the department has paid for over the years,” says Jurewicz. “These are primarily hound dogs that were in the act of bear hunting or training for bear hunting that were killed by wolves.”

On the morning of Jan. 27, 2012, Wisconsin’s wolves were delisted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, theoretically ending depredation payments. Later that afternoon, then-Assembly Majority Leader Suder and others introduced a bill relating to hunting and trapping wolves. Five days later, they’d already had a hearing in the state Senate. One week after that, they had a hearing in the Assembly. And on April 2, 2012, Walker signed Wisconsin Act 169, the Wolf Hunting Act, into law. In addition to a legal wolf hunt with dogs, it continued the state’s depredation payment program, with the money now sourced from hunting and trapping license fees.

“The DNR’s wildlife policies are being governed not by sound ecology or sustainable harvest, but by the whims of a very small subset of hunters,” says attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin. “Through conduct distasteful to the vast majority of Wisconsin hunters, and at odds with our state’s animal welfare ethic, this element is giving Wisconsin a bad name.”

Sinykin and a coalition of animal welfare organizations, conservation groups and mainstream hunters sued the Wisconsin DNR in 2012 over the use of dogs in the wolf hunt, claiming animal cruelty. Among other allegations, the lawsuit, currently in appeals court, claims the DNR didn’t allow its acclaimed wolf biologist, Adrian Wydeven, to testify at any of the hearings before the state Legislature or Natural Resources Board.

Wydeven still works for the DNR in a reassigned ecology position in Park Falls, and also sits on the Wolf Advisory Committee. He declined to comment for this story. But Jurewicz is a named expert in the lawsuit, and although he won’t comment specifically on Wydeven, he acknowledges the “muzzling of science” within the current DNR.

“The secretary appoints all the heads of the divisions. And so as a scientist working for the DNR, you have a whole chain of command above you that are all political appointees,” says Jurewicz. “When we first got the cabinet form of government in the DNR, I didn’t think it was going to change things that much. I knew all the people around me, dedicated, professional people, and I thought they could just buck up and withstand political pressure and continue to protect Wisconsin like they had ever since the DNR was formed. I was wrong. You can stand up to a lot of things. But you can’t, as a state employee, stand up to your boss.”

The lightning-fast and highly political means in which the wolf legislation was passed runs counter to DNR’s reputation as a methodical and deliberative entity.

“Wisconsin, once upon a time, was a leader in resource management, certainly in endangered species management. You know, revered among other agencies around the country,” says Jurewicz. “Well, that has changed, but I think a lot of people don’t realize it. They don’t realize that the DNR is no longer looking out for them and their environment here in Wisconsin.

“I grew up in a Wisconsin where the DNR was our watchdog, they protected us,” he says. “Well, that DNR no longer exists.”

Part of Stepp’s new strategy in redefining the DNR’s mission is to get out of the way of lawmakers. She no longer allows DNR testimony at legislative committee hearings, instead providing only “technical input,” and only at a legislator’s request.

“When I was in the legislature, there was no trust in this agency to come in and give you unbiased and purely technical and scientific opinion,” she says. “We have to turn that around. If we’re going to make really good, sound policy decisions in Wisconsin related to natural resources, then we have to be trusted to be the experts, and not ideologues.”

Retired conservation warden Tom Thoresen spent the bulk of his career at the DNR. He was there before governors were given the authority to appoint the DNR secretary, and he was there afterward.

Thoresen doesn’t see himself as an ideologue. In fact, he applauds Stepp and Deputy Secretary Moroney for their administrative skills. They get information and they move decisively on issues, whereas with Doyle, things “fell into a black hole.” He’s also glad to see they’re filling badly needed positions.

He does have concerns that natural resources are taking a back seat to business development. “Under the old system where I worked most of my career, it was resource and people first, and then we’ll deal with politics,” Thoresen says. “That’s what I consider the public expects of us. We’re the resource agency. We’re here to make sure your water is clean when you drink it, that you’re not going to get carcinogens from breathing something in, making sure you can hunt and fish and go to a park, things like that.”

Thoresen isn’t dreaming of an apolitical utopia. But he sees less and less balance in the influence of all the special interests. “Special interests are still going to have a big say,” he says. “But the public should have a say, too. And they should hear from scientists as to what the effects are.”

He says he still has a lot of connections among current DNR employees. Over and over again, he’s been told morale is at an all-time low, that people are retiring early or being reassigned unexpectedly. “There’s a real fear of retribution of current people, [that] if they speak out, they’re going to get nailed,” he says. “The average person is very dedicated. They want to do their job. But if you want to know why enforcement is down, it’s part of this whole thing. ‘Why should I make waves and maybe get my head chopped off?’”

Stepp paints a very different picture of morale at the DNR, saying it’s high and rising. Sure, she says, it was difficult at first because she had to do a lot of internal repair on bridges she’d once burned. But she’s getting emails now from DNR staff telling her how grateful they are that they can email her directly, how unusual it is that they can call her by her first name.

She’s focused on outreach, putting 61,000 miles on her car last year alone, visiting staff, conducting roundtables with interest groups across both sides of the aisle, trying to help people see that if they can just work together, everybody wins. If hunters say there are not enough deer in the woods, she wants to hear it. If fishermen say rules are arbitrary and making their sport less fun, she wants to hear it.

Dave Hraychuck is a retired law enforcement officer of 32 years, now devoted full time to his lifelong passions of hunting, fishing and trapping. He’s a licensed hunting and fishing guide in Balsam Lake, population 1,411, where he gets out on the water or in the woods most every day. He served 10 years on the Conservation Congress, was vice chair of the Fur Harvesters and a member of the Big Game committee. He’s been working alongside the DNR most all his life, a group he calls “just a really good bunch.”

He’s not an outspoken guy, and he’s only heard Stepp speak a couple of times at events when she first took office. She seemed enthusiastic, he says, but that’s about all he got out of it.

He remembers when, three years ago, DNR administrators backed Republican legislation that would have allowed the construction of a Bass Pro Shops store in wetlands near Lambeau Field, bypassing current law. After considerable objections, Bass Pro Shops dropped its plan to build.

“There were dealings where we just forgot about the wetlands law for a while because it was better for business,” Hraychuck says. “Well, we could do that all over the state and it would be good for business. But what would it do to our waterfowl hunting, groundwater and everything else?”

As a hunting instructor who runs events for kids and people with disabilities, the $500,000 grant awarded to United Sportsmen – “the Bear Hunters Association and a lawyer,” he says – especially stuck in his craw.

“They talk about kids and hunting and fishing mentors and everything else,” he says. “And they were going to put a lot of money into not a real well-thought-out plan. That wasn’t going to hunting mentors. That wasn’t going to natural resources. We’re not sure where it was going, but it obviously wasn’t the right place, because they took it back as soon as everybody found about it.

“I mean, it’s good that it was caught and it was turned around,” he adds. “I guess my question is, how could it have even happened?”

Hraychuck believes the secretary of natural resources should have a natural resources degree – the way it was back in the days of the DNR’s forerunner, the Conservation Department.

“We’ve got to get more science-based people in there to make decisions and not be making them on the whims of a few hunters who call and cry to the Legislature or to the DNR,” he says. “We’re taking a minute portion of those people and wanting to change the law to fit their needs. If that’s cronyism, I guess that’s what it is.”

A true sportsman, Hraychuck has been out on the water all day. But he didn’t realize his boot had a leak, he says on his cell phone, as he winds down the interview. Now his foot has grown icy cold.

“I would say it’s become more political than I’ve ever seen,” he says, summing up. “And I guess I would like it back to where it was.”