Wolf Song of Alaska News

Alaska's Habitat Division Back with Fish and Game

Jobs cut by Murkowski after department's first move will not return

Kate Golden / Juneau Empire / July 6, 2008

After a five-year, Frank Murkowski-sponsored stretch in the Department of Natural Resources, the Division of Habitat officially moved back to the Department of Fish and Game last week.

The 22 jobs the last governor cut and the 12 vacant positions he deleted from the books with the move are not returning. But state officials from both DNR and Fish and Game said that hasn't impeded Habitat from doing its job of protecting Alaska's fish.

"We've managed to make it work," said Kerry Howard, who was acting director during the 2003 move and has since become its permanent director. She said the department would not be asking for more positions in the next budget cycle.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin was more effusive on the question.

"I don't think there's a single instance - the ball was not dropped because of the quality of these people," Irwin said.

Irwin joined Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd in recommending the transfer back to Gov. Sarah Palin. She issued an executive order doing so in February.

Murkowski moved the department to ease natural resource development and renamed it the Office of Habitat Management and Permitting. The move was criticized by conservationists.

When Habitat biologists arrived in 2003, Irwin said, DNR instructed the biologists that "if some project would compromise the habitat, it was OK to say no."

"But we also asked, how can we get to yes without compromising the habitat or your principles? We don't want to be a state that says no, no, no," he said.

Irwin said he recommended the move partly to avoid the widely held perception that the division's habitat protection was compromised in its DNR home.

Owners of the proposed Pebble gold mine in February wrote the governor a letter supporting the return of Habitat for the same reason.

As a result of the original executive order, 37 positions transferred to the Department of Natural Resources, 37 moved to other divisions of Fish and Game, 22 were laid off and 12 vacant positions were deleted.

In the move back, Habitat will keep its 37 positions and reincorporate eight that had been moved to other divisions of Fish and Game.

Also, the state Web site has been updated to reflect Habitat's return.

With all the reorganization, the functional changes are hard to pin down.

"The main thing we don't do anymore is duplicate work that other state agencies have responsibility to do," Howard said.

Some of the reincorporated positions deal with the permitting of legislatively defined "special areas," such as the Mendenhall State Game Refuge in Juneau.

Habitat also will get back a half-time position that worked with the Department of Environmental Conservation to review oil spill contingency plans.

More than half of the current Habitat staff have worked formerly at Fish and Game, Howard said.

Howard said the time in DNR was valuable because it allowed biologist-permitters to get to know their DNR colleagues better.

"We welcome being back at Fish and Game, but we hope our improved relationship with DNR can continue," she said. "Because, you know, we're all in this game together. Very rarely is a decision made by a single agency."

As well as changing titles, two of Habitat's seven offices had to move desks, Howard said. Anchorage staff members relocated in May, and four Juneau staff members will move later this year.

"I think everyone is happy to be back at Fish and Game. The move coincides with the busy field season, so suffice it to say everyone's really busy," she said.

Moving will cost a bit more than the $20,000 set aside. And it is a bit messy, even where people are moving right back to their old spaces, Howard said.

"In the five years we were gone, other people moved to occupy it," she said.

* Contact reporter Kate Goldenat 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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