DFEditor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about newly appointed Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife commissioner Judy Camuso and her priorities as she charts the agency’s course into the future.
AUGUSTA, Maine — As Judy Camuso begins her tenure as commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, she has a clear focus on one thing that must change over the coming years: The agency that she knew — or didn’t know — before her arrival 12 years ago must become better at defining itself to all Mainers.
“When I started here in the agency — and I was in a director position at one of the larger conservation organizations in the state — I had very little idea what the department did,” Camuso said during an interview at her office. “And if I didn’t know, my guess is, most people [didn’t] know.”
That’s a shame, the new commissioner said, because the more Mainers get to know about the department that manages every critter under the sun, the more they’ll support that mission.
“One of the things I think we need to improve on is communicating all of the things that we do with the people of the state,” Camuso said.
Many Mainers may realize that game wardens are a part of the DIF&W. Others may recognize fisheries and wildlife biologists. But few probably know the true scope of the research and management efforts going on, she said.
“I would say that our staff are the best in the country. Both our biological staff and our warden service staff are top-notch,” Camuso said. “The people of the state should know they have the best, most qualified people working for them.”
Among the strengths of that biological staff, according to Camuso: Their data-collecting and analysis skills. And those skills aren’t limited to “game animals” — the animals hunters try to find and shoot.
In working with wildlife directors from around the country, Camuso has learned that Maine has an advantage that many don’t, in that biologists can work on non-game animals.
“We are … unique in that many states don’t allocate funding, or they don’t have the constitutional ability to allocate funding, to non-game species like we do,” Camuso said. “So we do work on a suite of species, the whole gamut of wildlife … from invertebrates up.”
Most Mainers care about wildlife in one way or another, whether it’s watching birds at a feeder or spending the day in a tree stand, waiting for a deer. Helping the public understand the DIF&W’s role in all those interactions is key.
“My passion has always been trying to connect people with nature or wildlife outdoors, to get them connected and engaged in the outdoors and outdoor activities,” Camuso said. “I am committed and I believe wholeheartedly that people will protect what they care about.”
Camuso said the department can also do a better job showing women that the state is full of outdoor recreational options for them. As the first woman commissioner of the DIF&W, she said she’d consider that task as a priority as well.
“The most important thing I can do is be visible and be seen, and to be seen as the commissioner,” Camuso said. “I feel like it’s my duty to be seen, to promote the agency and our programs, and to promote women. And to make sure that everybody knows [that] this is a job for anybody. It doesn’t matter what your gender is or your race, or whatever. This is a job that is available to anyone.”
And, similarly, the Maine outdoors is a place for anyone.
“I think we need to figure out what are the things that women are interested in participating in, and do those,” Camuso said. “I want to get away from the ‘We think we know all the answers’ [mindset] and I want to ask some questions.”
Key to getting out the word on the DIF&W’s initiatives is the agency’s Information and Education division, which Camuso plans on giving a long-overdue update.
The problem: The director of information and education has always been an appointed position, subject to the whims of incoming governors and their commissioners. That has led to an inconsistent effort in sharing the department’s messages, she said.
“That position has turned over six times in 10 years, which creates a lot of instability and the lack of focus or vision for our [information and education] division,” Camuso said.
Her plan is to assign the appointed position to her office and have a media relations and gubernatorial liaison manager fill it. Then, she’ll create a full-time, non-appointed position from a current vacancy, and make that person the director of information and education.
Consistent messaging and marketing is especially important given the nationwide trend toward lower participation in hunting and fishing. Those license sales account for the bulk of the department’s budget, and are essential. Maine’s license sales aren’t lagging as much as they are in some states, but it’s still a concern, she said.
“If we want to reverse that trend, we need people who are focused on those things to make sure we keep our revenue stream coming in,” Camuso said.