Two groups that are suing to restore federal protections for gray wolves sent a letter this week calling on Wisconsin’s attorney general to remove the head of the state’s Natural Resources Board before its August meeting. The letter comes as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is expected to recommend a wolf harvest quota for the board’s approval ahead of the fall wolf hunt.
The Humane Society of The United States and Center for Biological Diversity are accusing the board’s chair Dr. Fred Prehn, of unlawfully remaining in office past the end of his six-year term. Prehn, a Wausau dentist, decided to remain on the board until the state Senate confirms appointments made this spring by Gov. Tony Evers.
Nick Arrivo, an attorney for the Humane Society, contends Wisconsin law is “crystal clear” in its definition of board members’ terms.
“It specifies that terms are for a six-year period ending on May 1, and does not say anything about a lawful right to hold over beyond that time,” said Arrivo.
The groups argue Prehn’s continued presence undermines the transition of power and harms those “concerned with the sound, responsible and accountable management of natural resources held in the public trust.”
The Center for Biological Diversity said the board needs new leadership after the state’s wolf hunt in February, during which state-licensed hunters blew past their quota of 119 wolves. Hunters killed 218 wolves in less than 72 hours.
In a statement, Collette Adkins, the center’s carnivore conservation director, said the board needs a leader “who actually cares about the state’s wolves and other wildlife.”
“Prehn should accept that his term is over and finally step down before he does any more damage,” wrote Adkins.
The letter is among the latest calls for Prehn to step down in a contentious debate over the board’s balance of power as members hold the final say over natural resources policy, including harvest levels for the fall wolf hunt.
Evers, a Democrat, announced the appointments of Ashland teacher Sandy Naas and Milwaukee real estate developer Sharon Adams on April 30 “to fill vacancies created by the expiring terms” of Prehn and Board Secretary Julie Anderson. Only Anderson stepped down. Both were appointed under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. As it stands, a majority of the current board is made up of Walker appointees.
Prehn has insisted his decision to remain was not political and questioned the motivations behind the Humane Society’s letter.
“There’s no reason the Humane Society would write such a letter unless they were desperately opposed to me being present in the August meeting where the NRB sets quota for the wolf hunt for this fall,” said Prehn. “There’s a clear correlation between the two.”
Prehn has said the board has a responsibility to manage the wolf population in line with state law that requires a wolf hunt and the DNR’s existing wolf management plan, which set a goal of 350 wolves. Critics say that plan is vastly outdated. The current plan was first written in 1999 and last updated in 2007. A DNR advisory committee meets Thursday to begin the process of revising the wolf management plan.
Prehn argued the Wisconsin Supreme Court has already weighed in on office holders who remain past the end of their terms. A 1964 ruling found there’s no vacancy in an office if the person in an appointed position “holds over” until a new appointee is confirmed. That means Naas can’t exercise the powers of the position until the Senate confirms her. The governor also can’t remove a holdover in an appointed position without just cause.
Prehn said it’s up to the courts if they want to revisit that decision.
The Humane Society’s Arrivo argues the 1964 Supreme Court decision doesn’t apply to Prehn because it referred to recess appointments made by the governor and predates the law that created the board as it exists today.
The state’s largest business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce said in a statement Wednesday that Prehn should remain on the board until the Senate confirms Evers’ nominations.
“What Dr. Prehn is doing by remaining on the board and continuing his public service is perfectly legal,” said Scott Manley, WMC’s executive vice president of government relations. “It’s something that’s been done in the past.”
Two former board members stayed past the expiration of their terms in the early 2000s: Steve Willett and Jim Tiefenthaler Jr. But, it’s unusual for members to remain on the board past their terms.
Manley said Prehn has been an independent voice who hasn’t served as a rubber stamp for the DNR’s policy proposals. WMC has been an outspoken critic of the agency’s policies. The business group has argued against the DNR in court over its authority to regulate high-capacity wells, large-scale farms and environmental cleanups related to PFAS contamination.
According to the board’s liaison, Prehn’s decision to stay on the board has drawn around 742 emails and comments, although it’s unclear how many support or oppose his decision.
Prehn said he has received death threats about his decision to remain and hoped people would remain civil as the process plays out.
Democratic state Sens. Bob Wirch and Melissa Agard, who serve on the Senate’s natural resources committee, joined calls for Prehn to step down this week. In a letter Tuesday, they urged their Republican colleagues to refer the nomination of Naas to committee for a vote. Evers’ nominations were referred to the Senate’s organization committee on Wednesday.
Prehn said he hasn’t spoken with lawmakers or Attorney General Josh Kaul, adding whether he remains on the board is up to them. If Kaul decides to remove him, Prehn said he would review his options at that time.
Manley said the attorney general would be “ill-advised” to remove Prehn. He wouldn’t say whether WMC would challenge such a decision but said it’s likely someone would.
A DOJ spokeswoman said they’re reviewing the Humane Society’s letter.