Budget woes might spill into DNR


October 28, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

OAKLAND — OAKLAND-- --Eight state parks will close and more than 135 Department of Natural Resources employees will get pink slips if this week's special session of the Legislature fails to resolve state budget woes.

In a memo to his staff Tuesday, DNR Secretary John Griffin urged them to read the O'Malley administration's plan for $1.7 billion in budget cuts "and make your own determination of what it would mean to you and your family."

Things at the "agency in decline" (an independent assessment, not mine) are teetering on the brink of the abyss. Next stop, the bottom of the barrel.

Now, this could be a bit of gamesmanship on the part of Team O'Malley, a rallying cry for thousands of state workers everywhere to pressure their lawmakers into action.

Could be. But history says probably not.

The DNR, a tiny organization in even the best of times, has traditionally suffered at the hands of the budgeters, who given hard choices between paying for education, public safety and health programs and stuff in the "toy department" always hack away at what they see as the luxury items.

The Fisheries Service, already without a deputy director, will soon lose Director Howard King to retirement.

The Parks Service, which oversees lands visited by 12 million people last year, will be down a superintendent, with the retirement this week of Col. Rusty Ruszin, and the deputy. Worse, few people applied for the top job despite advertisements in national publications because DNR reduced the pay, industry experts told me. Ruszin and Rick Barton, his predecessor, received higher pay because both were classified law enforcement officers.

In addition to reducing DNR's budget, lawmakers have forced the agency to draw down its reserve funds to nothing. There are no umbrellas and boots for a rainy day, such as the destruction left in 2003 by Tropical Storm Isabel.

As a result of all this the cutting, DNR has shrunk as its responsibilities to manage wildlife, waterways and nearly 500,000 acres has grown. Every session, lawmakers order DNR to do more studies and develop more plans. Threats from invasive species and bugs such as the fatal Chronic Wasting Disease in deer stretch biologists like Gumby.

Who's going to do the bidding of the public and lawmakers when the last biologist turns out the lights at the DNR headquarters?

Bears or connector?

A few thoughts from the field during Maryland's fourth black bear hunt:

The longevity of the debate over the black bears takes a backseat to no issue, save the half-century of wrangling over the Intercounty Connector. The ball got rolling in the mid-1980s, when the legislature designated the bear a game animal. The season, which was established in 2004, was debated and studied before approved. Two governors -- a Republican and a Democrat -- endorsed it. At least two attempts to prohibit the season never got to the floor of the legislature for a vote.

When the vast majority of the successful hunters say they plan to stock their freezers with bear meat and even offer recipes to bystanders, that's not a "trophy" hunt, no matter what the Humane Society of the United States says.

"They want to shoot bears for their heads," wrote Michael Markarian, an HSUS honcho, in a letter to The Sun.

Bear meat is no different from any other kind of meat. Some animal died to provide it. It's true that some hunters turn the bear's hide into a rug, and the head into a wall decoration, but people cover their feet in leather, which, the last time I checked, required some brown-eyed, four-legged critter to volunteer its outer covering. At least hunters are honest about where their protein comes from.

Apples is apples and oranges is oranges. "There are now 326 bears in western Maryland," Markarian wrote. "That's fewer bears than in New Jersey, where hunting is prohibited, and fewer than in Florida, where the black bear is a threatened species. There are fewer black bears in Maryland than there are endangered pandas in China."

Where to begin? First, there are 500 bears in Garrett and Allegany, the state's two western-most counties where the hunt took place. That works out to 39 bears per 100 square miles, one of the highest-density bear populations in the East, according to DNR studies. If Maryland had bears at that density in all suitable habitat -- from McHenry out west to Millington on the Eastern Shore -- the population would top 5,000 animals.

New Jersey abandoned bear hunting after one season because the governor played political games, not because the state doesn't need a hunt, which, according to my white-haired suburban mother, it does.

Florida doesn't have many bears because the habitat is poor and people keep moving into open space at the rate of 700 a day, not because of hunting. Further, its version of the black bear is NOT federally threatened and does not have statewide "threatened" status.

Finally, China's problem is one of habitat loss and a genetic disorder that limits its reproductive capacity.


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