The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

DNR to replace Mercer field office, moves fisheries staff


October 23, 2019

Tom LaVenture/Daily Globe

Jim Zarzycki, a part-time fisheries technician at the Mercer field operations office of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, stands amongst equipment in the storage area for the fisheries program on Tuesday. He will remain in Mercer while the two full-time staff will now be based out of the Ashland service center location.


MERCER, Wis. - Just as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced plans to replace the Iron County Forestry office in Mercer, area residents are also upset about fisheries staff being reassigned to Ashland.

Two full-time fisheries biologists currently working out of Mercer will be based out of the Ashland service center within the next few months, said Mike Vogelsang, the fishery supervisor for northern Wisconsin. The DNR is undergoing programmatic changes and will eventually transition more permanent staff positions to larger service centers around the state, he said.

The transition would have occurred upon retirement of the current employees, he said. But they agreed to the move voluntarily, he said.

"One of the staff already lives in Ashland, and the other lives in Park Falls, so it's about the same distance to Ashland as to Mercer," Vogelsang said. "If they had any concerns or were wavering with the decision then we wouldn't even approach it."

The work in Mercer will continue with the Ashland staff, he said. Biologists from surrounding field stations in Woodruff, Park Falls and Spooner will continue to be available, he said. The seasonal part-time fisheries technician will remain at the Mercer field office, he said.

Local officials and residents do not support the fisheries staff reassignment.

John Sendra, chair of the Town of Mercer Board of Supervisors, said the staff are needed in Iron County where there are more lakes. The inconvenience and expense is not good for Mercer or Wisconsin, he said.

"It's like moving pilots to an airport where there are no planes," Sendra said.

Sendra was referring to the three-person fisheries staff who manage 494 lakes and 224 miles of streams in Iron County. Ashland County has 84 lakes in comparison, he said.

The fishery management staff have worked out of Mercer for 39 years, said Jeff Wilson, a retired wildlife technician with the Wisconsin DNR in Mercer.

"I worked at the DNR for 30 years and believe in it," he said.

Mercer is an outdoor recreation tourism area that typically has more walk-ins with questions about area wildlife and fishing license sales than the field offices in larger communities, he said. There is a need for staff to respond to people on a daily business, he said.

The transfer is not cost effective when considering the commute for staff and equipment, Wilson said. The DNR should be sensitive to the idea of making a smaller carbon foot print, he said.

The 14,000 acre DNR managed Turtle Flambeau Flowage is an eight-mile drive from the Mercer field office and a 68 mile drive from Ashland, he said. The fisheries season from ice-out to freeze-up requires an average 20 weeks on the water for around 60 days per season, he said.

"These professional positions are much more needed in Iron County than in Ashland County," Miller said.

Wilson said he reached out to fellow retired DNR biologists and fisheries staff and to members of Iron County Lakes and River Alliance, Gile Lake Association, and the Turtle Flambeau Flowage Association. There was strong support for the idea that as a conservation agency the fisheries staff should be closer to the resources they work with on a daily basis, he said.

"This is not a one-man crusade," Wilson said.

The Mercer field office buildings pre-date the DNR back to the 1930s and present aging infrastructure issues to the wildlife, forestry, law enforcement, fire control and scenic waterways mission on the 40-acre campus just north of downtown Mercer, Vogelsang said. After several years the request to replace them was line-item approved in the 2019-20 state budget, he said.

The buildings are not code compliant and present accessibility issues with the American Disabilities Act, he said. The planning phase has started and the campus is under review with input from staff to help determine needs for the design phase, he said.

"We are just in the initial stages of planning the project," Vogelsang said.

Three of the five area forestry stations were previously approved and are further along in the process, he said. The Mercer and Minong field offices are just starting the process now, he said.

The new facility will provide more space for offices and conference rooms that will also serve as training space for hunting and other public certification programs.

A priority was placed on building a warm garage for the firefighter vehicles to be able to keep them stored full of water during winter months for immediate emergency use, said Matt Blaylock, the Park Falls area forestry leader, who covers the six county area of Bayfield, Ashland, Iron, Price, Sawyer and Rusk counties for the Wisconsin DNR. The rest is about updating aging infrastructure and meeting current demands, he said.

A recent auction was held in part to prepare for construction of a new ranger station, he said. It was a way to part with accumulated gear and equipment that was no longer needed for current use, he said.


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