Mumma resigns - wildlife division shaken up

 

Nine years ago, Northern Regional Forester John Mumma stood tearfully before a House subcommittee and said he had been betrayed by the Forest Service (HCN, 10/7/91). Because he didn't meet timber quotas in the 13 national forests under his care, he said, powerful industry and political interests had conspired to force him out of his job. Rather than accept a transfer to a desk position in Washington D.C., Mumma resigned from a job he'd put above everything else.

In 1995, Mumma started afresh as director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He made no secret that he stood for the resource - wildlife - first and foremost. At the division, the former Forest Service employee faced a unique set of political and management hurdles.

"It's like being the star of an Indiana Jones movie," Mumma says of his career at the division. "Once you dispense with one bag of rattlesnakes, someone else is hiding in a corner with another bag of rattlesnakes."

Now, John Mumma says he'll step down from his post in April. In a letter to Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, R, announcing his early retirement, Mumma said he and his wife plan to move to rural Colorado, where they can "continue to instill and mold a strong conservation ethic within our eight grandchildren, and continue to travel and enjoy our natural resources." He urged the governor to "manage our natural resources with a sustainable conservation theme."

Mumma says his career at the wildlife division has been a positive experience, but he sometimes found himself at odds with his bosses. Rick Sherman, a former habitat biologist for the division, says, "I'm sure he's frustrated working with a legislature and governor that's not pro-wildlife."

Handling a "bag of rattlesnakes"

When Mumma took the helm, the state wildlife department was undergoing an extensive management review that eliminated positions and alienated some of the science staff. But Mumma "created an atmosphere where biologists felt they could comment strongly and he would support them," says Geoff Tischbein of the division's Montrose office. Mumma weathered the rough early days and endeared himself to colleagues.

Despite a limited budget, Mumma took on a number of new projects, including restoring lynx, buying wildlife habitat and improving fish hatcheries. The division receives a large part of its funding through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, the cost and number of which have been frozen or declining for years. "Everybody wants you to do more with less resources and less personnel," Mumma says.

During Mumma's tenure, the agency lost political clout. The Legislature passed a law last year giving itself the authority to decide on reintroduction of threatened or endangered species, wresting control from the division (HCN, 5/10/99).

Another bill added two non-voting seats - both for political appointees - to the Colorado Wildlife Commission, the agency that sets division policy. The same bill weakened the status of the agency, putting it under greater control of the Department of Natural Resources.

Since January 1999, the department has been headed by Greg Walcher. Before being named to the position by Gov. Bill Owens, Walcher was president of Club 20, a western Colorado organization that recommended large-scale logging of aspen forests. Last year, Walcher placed a moratorium on buying more wildlife habitat, a move that curtailed one of Mumma's biggest priorities.

"We should be buying the heck out of land," says Mumma.

Most recently, some inside and outside the agency were distressed by Walcher's handling of comments on the White River National Forest management plan (HCN 1/17/00). Walcher declared that all comments on environmental impact statements, and specifically those about the White River plan, had to be approved by his office. The Division of Wildlife had initially supported wildlife-friendly Alternative D. Under Walcher's aegis, many of the division's science-based recommendations were eliminated and no preferred alternative was mentioned.

Walcher denies exerting greater control over the agency. "I don't think there's anything badly broken at the Division of Wildlife." He says his keen interest in wildlife issues has spurred him to be more involved than his predecessors.

Will there be walkouts?

Some within the wildlife division say morale is at an all-time low. Biologist Rick Sherman retired in August, five years early, rather than continue to work in a division he feels is no longer effective. "I'm frustrated by how the department and the governor are trying to railroad the wildlife division." The division, he says, "has become an errand boy for the current legislative agenda." Sherman warns of a rash of walkouts.

"The relationship between the wildlife division and the natural resources department," says Mumma, "is definitely one you work at. We've got half the personnel, half the budget, and 80 percent of the issues."

Mumma denies that these factors led directly to his decision to resign, but says that soon he "should be enjoying life a little more."

The responsibility for finding Mumma's successor ultimately falls on Greg Walcher.

Catherine Lutz is a High Country News intern.

You can contact ...

* Colorado Division of Wildlife, 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80203 (303/297-1192), www.dnr.state.co.us/wildlife;

* Colorado Department of Natural Resources, 1313 Sherman Street, Room 718, Denver, CO 80203 (303/866-3311), www.dnr.state.co.us.

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