A big pair of shoes will need filling down at the Ohio Division of Wildlife headquarters in Columbus come Jan. 31 - those of Mike Budzik, the chief.
“Bud,” as he generally is known, is retiring after eight years as chief and after a 28-year career with the division, one which began on the bottom rung of the ladder in southeast Ohio as a conservation aide.
“All books have a final chapter,” explained Budzik about his decision to calls it quits at 48.
He is taking advantage of state government's two-year buyout offer to add to his 28 years' service to qualify for a 30-year retirement. “It's time for me,” Budzik says.
“I've been chief for almost eight years. I would like to be more active in my church [Antioch Alliance in Logan]. I'd like to plan some mission trips. I want to spend more time with my wife, Melodee.
“I'd like to divide my remaining time hunting, trapping and fishing,” the chief said. He is an avid wild turkey hunter and also enjoys deer hunting, and pheasant and grouse hunting with his bird dog, Molly, a Brittany.
His leaving is worth special note because his performance has raised the bar of the outdoors public's expectations for the next chief.
Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, told the chief he will initiate a nationwide search for a replacement, consistent with his policy on replacing all ODNR division chiefs. Prospects, Budzik added, “include plenty of homegrown talent.”
The chief is not ruling out eventual involvement on the private side of his profession. Retired wildlife chiefs often are choice prospects for positions in such well-regarded private conservation organizations as the National Wild Turkey Federation or Ducks Unlimited.
“He's always been a straight shooter, and he's always been there for the sportsmen,” said Gene Majni, president of the 500-member Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. “He's just been awesome to work with.”
Rob Sexton, a spokesman for the Columbus-based U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, agrees. “He's the best we've ever had. What a great ride we've had under his leadership. He's going to be sorely missed.”
At the top of Sexton's list with this chief has been integrity - “you could take his word to the bank.” And his hustle - “you could never outwork Budzik.''
But the self-effacing chief deflects personal credit on achievements, saying, “they don't hinge on any one person. It has been a division team. I [just] provided some direction.”
Nonetheless, the wildlife division has come a long way in the eight Budzik years.
The chief for example, today can call the Ohio Farm Bureau “one of our strongest friends and supporters.” Try saying that under some prior chiefs' administrations and you would have been laughed out of town. Some former wildlife administrations were nothing but adversarial with the farm bloc.
Yet without Farm Bureau's blessing, a bill to allow Sunday hunting without complex restrictions (it now is treated the same as any other day) never would have become law. Nor would there be a dove hunting season, which soon after passage was further expanded to include a reasonable Sept. 1 opening day instead of Sept. 15. The bulk of hunting land in Ohio is private farmland.
During his tenure as chief, and immediately prior as Wildlife District 4 manager in southeast Ohio for eight years, Budzik was instrumental in major land acquisitions, principally of reclaimed coal-stripmining lands. The big ones included Tri-Valley State Wildlife Area, 16,200 acres in Muskingum County, Egypt Valley State Wildlife Area, 14,300 acres in Belmont County, and Crown City State Wildlife Area, 11,171 acres in Lawrence and Gallia counties.
Other benchmarks of the last eight years include an annually expanding fall wild turkey hunting season; expansion of spring turkey season statewide; legalization of snares for trappers; and the passage of Senate Bill 241. The latter, emerging from a commercial fishing-rules dispute, closed loopholes that challenged the wildlife division's professional management authority
Some sport anglers still are unhappy about a Budzik decision, early in his tenure, to institute a 30-a-day creel limit on Lake Erie yellow perch, the stocks of which were severely depressed in the early 1990s. Critics wanted commercial fishermen cut out of the perch-conservation equation altogether, but Budzik stuck to his staff's recommendations.
In any event, perch stocks are recovering nicely today under conservative management.
The important Castalia State Fish Hatchery was purchased on Budzik's watch. It is critical in supplying steelhead trout to a popular fishery in Lake Erie and its tributaries, and in supplying rainbow trout for an increasingly popular inland fishing program.
Some of this administration's work has been subtle, too, almost revolutionary for traditionally hidebound fish and game agencies.
Electronic license sales have moved that annual process out of the unwieldy paper age, and given wildlife managers a way to target markets and initiate campaigns to retain and recruit hunters and anglers.
The chief's work with farmers, however, began well back in his career, in 1985, when he was assistant wildlife management administrator for private lands. He spent some of his own time and money to personally lobby federal lawmakers in Washington to help improve the federal Farm Bill and implement the now popular, wildlife-enriching Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP.
Such efforts were the beginning of a national reputation. “Mike has been a leader in conservation for many years and has been a driving force in land purchases, habitat enhancement projects, wildlife research, and many other efforts - not only for Ohio, but for the entire country,'' said Dr. James Earl Kennamer, senior VP of NWTF.
“He and the entire staff at the Ohio Division of Wildlife have played a vital role in bringing back the wild turkey and we consider them part of our family at the Turkey Federation.''