MADISON, Wis. — The group of state Department of Natural Resources scientists that Republican lawmakers targeted for cuts has been working on a number of politically charged issues in recent years, including climate change, pollution and mining.
Republicans say the cuts are designed to refocus the DNR on more practical research projects that help hunters and anglers. But Democrats say the GOP wants to slap the researchers down as political payback.
"It has to be political," Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, a member of the Legislature's budget committee, said of the cuts. "The public hasn't called for this. Most people in the state want decisions about the environment to be based on science, not politics."
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, included provisions in his state budget to slash 17.5 researcher positions from the DNR's Science Services Bureau, which would leave it with 12.85 research positions. The budget says only that the positions no longer serve the DNR's core mission. Asked to expand on Walker's rationale, the governor's spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said in an email that Walker is focused on streamlining state government and making it more efficient.
The Bureau of Science Services' biennial research plan released in 2013 called for extensive study on how climate change has affected the Great Lakes, Wisconsin's river ecosystems, and the state's forests, wildlife and fish. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, of the 96,200 hours the bureau worked in fiscal year 2013-14, 2,800 hours were spent on climate change-related research.
The plan also called for research into what it termed "emerging" pollutants such as prescription drugs, hormones and industrial additives and agents. It also called for developing ways to predict and mitigate how sand, iron and sulfide mining affects air and water, plants and animals, and creating new monitoring strategies for newly permitted mines.
The bureau's fish and wildlife-forestry sections undertook 109 projects in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years, according to the Fiscal Bureau. Thirteen involved pollution research. One involved providing research to the DNR's water division on recommendations for monitoring parameters in iron mining applications.
All of those issues have been politically sensitive for Republicans, who by-and-large reject the notion that human activity is causing climate change, despite a preponderance of scientific evidence that it is, and oppose over-regulating industrial pollution. Two years ago, they completely revamped Wisconsin's mining laws to clear the regulatory path for a giant iron mine just south of Lake Superior.
Republicans on the Legislature's finance committee approved the position cuts earlier this month. Committee member Tom Tiffany, a Republican state senator from Hazelhurst who authored the mining regulation overhaul, led the charge, writing a motion to keep the cuts in the budget.
Committee Democrats accused Republicans of retaliating against the scientists for their work on climate change and mining. They demanded the GOP turn its ire toward DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee who approved the bureau's research plan. Republicans didn't offer a direct defense, although Tiffany assured the Democrats that other DNR divisions could absorb the work and dismissed their complaints as hyperbole.
Tiffany denied in a phone interview that the cuts are retaliatory, but he said he doesn't think the office has helped sportsmen. The bureau's deer population estimates, for example, led to too many antlerless permits in northern Wisconsin over the years and the region's herd still hasn't recovered, he said.
Integrating the scientists' tasks within the DNR's divisions will improve focus on practical projects rather than "theoretical" issues such as climate change, Tiffany said.
"Let's make sure we're doing applied science that benefits people here in Wisconsin," Tiffany said. "Let's offer more opportunities for sportsmen rather than going off on something that's theoretical."
More than 90 percent of peer-reviewed scientific literature supports the notion that the world is warming due to human activity, especially burning fossil fuels.
The science bureau's director, Jack Sullivan, declined to comment. DNR spokesman Bill Cosh said the agency hasn't yet identified which research positions would be eliminated. But he stressed other managers and scientists will carry on their work. He also pointed out that Stepp's administration is the first to adopt a policy on scientific integrity.
"What these cuts require us to do is to better prioritize the research," Cosh said in an email. "Regardless of where our scientists are located or where they are, this policy is in place to assure we have sound science that we will use to make decisions."
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