After years of downplaying climate change, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is again focusing efforts on research and communication about the impact on the state’s environment.
In a memo to all staff sent last week, DNR Secretary Preston Cole called climate change “one of the defining issues of our time” and said the department will again focus on climate adaptation research and communication — as well as working to lessen the damage.
“The DNR is entrusted to protect the people’s resources and as a result we need to recognize the factors that drive change and must plan accordingly,” Cole wrote. “From shifting weather patterns, increases in average temperature, higher frequency and intensity of rainfall to heavier snowfalls, the impacts of climate change directly impact Wisconsin.”
Climate change is “one of the most significant — if not the most significant” threat to Wisconsin’s natural resources, said Dreux Watermolen, chief of the DNR’s environmental analysis bureau.
“It’s pretty central,” said Watermolen, who serves as one of the department’s representatives on the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), a 12-year joint effort between the DNR and UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
Watermolen said understanding the changing climate is essential to the DNR’s stewardship of public resources.
“It would not be prudent to stock cold-water fish in habitats that are not going to be cold water. That would not be good use of resources,” he said. “It would not make sense to plant trees that in 50 years are not going to be in their range.”
Republican lawmakers who head committees on the environment, natural resources, hunting and mining did not respond to requests for comment on Cole’s memo.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, one of the driving forces behind staff cuts and the elimination of the science bureau in 2015, resisted Gov. Tony Evers’ efforts to rebuild the research staff.
Tiffany, who has rejected the scientific consensus that the climate is rapidly warming in large part because of human activity, said in June that Evers’ proposal to add three researchers who would focus on adaptation to climate change was “one of the red flags for me.”
Cole’s memo was warmly received by many current and former employees and marks a change in direction from the previous administration, which scrubbed climate change language from the DNR website and sought to limit staff research and communications about the topic.
“Some people were unsure to what level we could be working on things,” said Madeline Magee, monitoring coordinator for the Great Lakes and Mississippi River and a leader of two WICCI working groups. “The direction is good.”
‘The opposite of a priority’
Climate-related work didn’t stop under the Scott Walker administration, but it certainly slowed, according to current and former employees.
John Lyons spent more than 30 years as a fisheries scientist and supervisor in the research division. He left in 2017 when faced with being transferred into an unrelated area.
In the 1990s, Lyons said, DNR scientists started really studying how a warming climate would affect Wisconsin’s plants and animals. The work continued even into Walker’s first term, though Lyons said scientists sought to keep a low profile.
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But around 2015 he said they began receiving “loads of very clear verbal signals” to do something else.
“Our administration never put anything in writing like, ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that,’” he said. “But it was pretty clear they wanted this stuff scaled back. It was the opposite of a priority.”
Lyons said communication was also restricted.
“We were told not to talk about it,” he said. “It got to the point where even some scientific publications we were doing were held up.”
Watermolen said the Walker administration wanted more control over what scientists studied, and the priority was on wildlife management.
“They were more interested in bobcat population models than the impact of climate change on snowshoe hares,” Watermolen said.
While climate research continued at UW-Madison, collaboration efforts stalled, said Stephen Vavrus, a UW climate scientist and co-director of WICCI.
“Not having open involvement with the DNR, things definitely slowed from our end,” Vavrus said. “We’re optimistic the tide has turned.”
Eliminating half the department’s senior scientist positions was also a setback to the research, said Gretchen Hansen, a former fisheries researcher who left when the science bureau was dismantled in 2015 to work for the Minnesota DNR and now teaches at the University of Minnesota.
Hansen said it will be hard for any administration to build the science division back to what it was, and there’s no way to replace the lost time and data.
“I would say the biggest impact was just the exodus of people,” Hansen said. “The capacity to do the kind of large-scale science needed to understand climate change was reduced.”
In addition to emphasizing adaptation research and management, Cole has encouraged the staff to look for ways to incorporate sustainable practices into their work and said the department will work with Evers’ new Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy.
DNR communications director Sarah Hoye said staff will contribute scientific information and technical expertise to help with the development of a clean energy plan and sustainability standards as well as ways the state can contribute to meeting carbon reduction goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Hoye said that might include planting trees and promoting healthy soils to sequester carbon and working with businesses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Vavrus welcomed the DNR’s commitment to combating climate change rather than just trying to adapt.
“Adaptation is important for various reasons. It’s immediate. We’re seeing the impacts of climate change now,” he said. “Mitigation — it would take a while for us to see the impact on the climate. We’re happy to see Secretary Cole realizes this.”
Cole also committed to keeping staff and the public informed about climate-related research and said new, “easily accessible climate web pages will be coming soon.”
Lyons, now an academic curator for the UW Zoological Museum, welcomed Cole’s memo and said he was frustrated that climate-related work has become politicized when he saw it as necessary to fulfilling the DNR’s mission.
“I’m very happy the department has gone back on course,” Lyons said. “It’s important. It’s important for the future of the state. This is really a fundamental issue that transcends left or right.”