DNR confirmation fight brewing after chair refuses to leave

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democrats are demanding Republican lawmakers confirm Gov. Tony Evers’ choice to replace the GOP-appointed head of the Department of Natural Resources board in a battle that could shape how the agency approaches a host of pressing issues including this fall’s wolf hunt to pollution limits.

Former Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, appointed Fred Prehn to the DNR board in 2015. The Wausau dentist has served as chairman since 2019.

His six-year term on the board ended May 1; Evers tapped Ashland High School agriculture teacher Sandra Naas to replace him on April 30. He also appointed Sharon Adams to replace Julie Anderson, another Walker appointee whose term ended on May 1. The moves would give Evers appointees a 4-3 majority on the board.

Traditionally, a prior administration’s appointees step aside to make way for their replacements, as Anderson left to make room for Adams. But Prehn has refused to vacate his position, citing a state law that allows him to continue to serve until the state Senate confirms his replacement. Republicans control the Senate and have yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for Naas or Adams.

That leaves Walker appointees in control of the board, which has the power to approve, tweak or kill DNR initiatives and regulations on everything from deer hunt quotas to manure restrictions. Conservationists and Democrats fear Prehn’s stance is a political power play designed to preserve a conservative majority on the board indefinitely, which could lead to higher kill quotas for this fall’s wolf hunting season, as well as softer pollution restrictions.

Attorneys for the Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter Tuesday to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul asking him to remove Prehn from the board, arguing that state law caps board members’ terms at six years. The groups said the board needs a leader who cares about wildlife, noting in a news release that hunters blew past DNR-imposed kill quotas in this past spring’s wolf hunt.

“Prehn should accept that his term is over and finally step down before he does any more damage,” Collette Adkins, the Center for Biological Diversity’s carnivore conservation director, said in the release.

Kaul’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Ballweg, said the state Justice Department was reviewing the groups’ letter.

Democratic state Sens. Robert Wirch and Melissa Agard, who are members of the Senate’s natural resources committee, sent Prehn a letter Wednesday telling him to leave the board. They also sent Senate President Chris Kapenga a letter demanding he refer Naas’ confirmation to their committee for a hearing.

“It is disheartening to see a Wisconsin resident step up to serve her state, only to be subjected to partisan gamesmanship,” the Democrats wrote.

Prehn didn’t respond to a message The Associated Press left at his dental office on Thursday. He told WISC-TV in June that he has received hundreds of emails from people demanding he step aside, with some threatening to kill him.

“I don’t react well to threatening emails or name-calling. I just don’t,” he told the station. “I’m a respected individual from Wausau ... and I will not bow to political pressure from anybody.”

An email sent to Naas’ high school inbox bounced back Thursday with a note saying she was out until late August.

Senate Republican leaders took the unusual step Wednesday of referring Naas and Adams’ confirmations to the Senate Committee on Organization. That committee decides what proposals the full Senate takes up and rarely meets, often voting by paper ballot. Typically confirmations go to standing committees that deal with an appointee’s subject area.

Kapenga’s spokeswoman, Debbie Michalak, declined to discuss the matter beyond noting that the appointments were sent to the organization committee. Adam Gibbs, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who chairs the organization committee, also declined to comment.

Agard called the referral to the organization committee “unprecedented.” She said she’s afraid the referral is designed to trap Naas’ appointment in legislative limbo, ensuring that Prehn can go on running the board.

“I fear this is action taken with a political bent as opposed to moving forward in an agreed-upon manner, in a manner that has worked for quite some time,” she said.


This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Sandra Naas’ last name, which had been misspelled “Nass.”


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Todd Richmond
Todd Richmond
Richmond covers Wisconsin government and breaking news.