June 22, 2018
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Stop silencing Maine’s bear experts

Brian Feulner | BDN
Brian Feulner | BDN
Randy Cross (left), a wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, holds up a yearling cub of the mother black bear Lugnut during their bear study near Ashland, Maine.
By Ron Joseph, Special to the BDN

The controversial referendum outlawing bear baiting won’t be settled until November 2014, but the first salvo of the battle was fired recently during a press conference when Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler Woodcock stated his opposition to the referendum.

However, Woodcock and Gov. Paul LePage’s manipulation of state employees around this issue is more serious than the bear baiting debate itself.

Woodcock and other LePage commissioners grant state employees limited permission to speak to the media. Woodcock stated, “It would be foolhardy for the people of Maine to remove some of the best biologists in the country from the opportunity to manage this species [bear].” He added, “Our biologists have the full permission from myself and from the governor to involve themselves in the biology of the question.”

The problem? This is the same Woodcock who micromanages his staff about what information can and cannot be shared with the media, nongovernmental organizations and the public. Woodcock is OK with IFW biologists speaking up with his approval on subjects that suit the governor. But IFW biologists do not have Woodcock or LePage’s “full permission” to speak publicly on rulemaking or existing laws pertaining to the protection of wetlands, vernal pools and the health of our lakes?

The reason is obvious: LePage wants to weaken those laws, and statements from “the best biologists” might derail his plan to roll back environmental protections to advance his pro-business, Maine’s-environment-be-damned agenda. The department’s official position may be to oppose the referendum, but the issue is far more complicated than people think, and staking out a position so early polarizes the process and makes it harder to have educated discussion.

Woodcock’s calculated public praise of IFW biologists is symptomatic of the deceitfulness of the LePage administration. State employees are fearful of losing their jobs or being demoted by the governor’s hand-picked commissioners for sharing facts with the media. The unspoken LePage administration message to state employees is “speak up without permission at your own peril.”

An IFW biologist told me that under Woodcock, “Everything related to information sharing requires Augusta’s approval. He’s strictly a top-down commissioner who is ultra-sensitive to the wishes of the governor.”

LePage jokes about a roll of duct tape he keeps on his desk to remind himself “to keep my mouth shut.” What’s not funny though is the virtual duct tape he and his commissioners frequently apply to state employee mouths to prevent them from educating the public.

State employees should be allowed to talk freely, even if their message is not in lock step with the LePage administration. After all, you and I are paying the salaries of state employees, including the governor and his commissioners. We deserve to hear what state workers have to say and not just what LePage, Woodcock and other commissioners spoon feed us. Silencing state worker voices undermines the credibility of IFW and state government and turns citizens into cynics.

Hunters and nonhunters alike have an equal voice in how bears should be hunted. We all get to decide the fate of the 2014 bear referendum. It’s the democratic process. For each of us to decide how to cast a vote on bear baiting and other ballot questions, we’re best served by hearing and weighing different points of view.

Unfortunately, governors have a horrible habit of manipulating public opinion by muzzling state employees. In 1997 Gov. Angus King prepared an Atlantic Salmon Conservation Plan largely without input from state government’s top salmon biologists because he didn’t like hearing that Maine’s wild salmon are not mongrels. However, LePage and his commissioners have stooped to new lows in silencing and manipulating state employees. In April 2012, LePage called state workers “corrupt.”

Woodcock was a teacher at Mt. Blue High School before becoming IFW commissioner. He and LePage should reread Thomas Jefferson, who wrote: “Whenever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government.”

Information needed to enact laws that work for the majority of citizens comes from the very people we pay to acquire and share that knowledge: state employees. Until state workers can speak freely and openly without fear of reprisals, politicians such as Woodcock and LePage fuel government mistrust.

Ron Joseph of Camden is a retired Maine biologist.

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