While the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), which includes the Division of Fish and Wildlife, has only been around for a little more than 40 years, fish and wildlife conservation has been happening in Delaware for a century.
Major changes to the vision over the course of the last century include a more “holistic” look at wildlife conservation and more public and private partnerships.
Delaware’s Simeon Pennewill appointed the first members of the Fish and Game Commission enforcement section in 1911, and their first game warden, Fred B. Murphy, was hired at $60 per month. In 1913, through “competitive examinations conducted along civil service lines,” the first Chief Game Warden, John P. LeFevre, was chosen, along with a number of deputy wardens.
The goal, according to the 1914 biennial report from the Board of Game and Fish Commissioners, was “seeking to have in the service only men of highest type who have at heart the conservation of wild life.”
“For 100 years, Delaware’s fish and wildlife agents have acted not only to protect and serve the citizens of Delaware but also our lands, waterways and wildlife. Today, these well-trained, professional men and women continue to play a key role in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s mission to promote and practice environmental stewardship and conservation,” said DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara.
By the 1950s, fish and wildlife enforcement was on its way to what it is today, according to officials. Fishing and hunting licenses and dog control had been established, conservation was becoming a priority, the first managed state wildlife lands had been purchased and, in 1952, the first marine patrol boat was purchased for enforcement work in tidal waters.
The 13-warden statewide force was involved in game stocking and fish rearing – work that was later transferred to the Division’s Wildlife and Fisheries sections – in addition to its primary mission of enforcing the state’s game, fish, dog, songbird and certain marine laws.
By the early 1960s, the Division of Law Enforcement had a marine branch and a game warden branch, which were eventually merged to form the Enforcement Section of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, and had an increased emphasis on information and education and public outreach.
Much has changed since those early years, although they still have the same mission of conserving Delaware’s fish and wildlife resources and enforcing laws designed to protect them. Today, the division consists of four main sections: wildlife, fishery, mosquito control and enforcement.
“It still is, and always will be, hunter- and angler-based,” said the division’s director, David Savieky. He explained that much of their funding comes from federal aid based on excise taxes on fishing and hunting gear, rifles, etc.
“But, with climate change and sea-level rise, and changing demographics, the focus is shifting to be a bit more holistic.”
In addition to enforcement, administering statewide dog control through contracts with the SPCA and the Department of Health, providing hunter and boater safety education programs, controlling mosquitoes with integrated pest management, and educating the public with environmental programs, the division owns and manages 65,000 public acres that provide for outdoor recreation including hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching.
Savieky explained that, while they always tried to manage the land for multiple species, it hasn’t always been the priority that it is becoming now. He said they don’t have the “luxury” of managing for just deer or quail anymore; rather, they have to manage both game and non-game wildlife on a “landscape level.”
“People not only hunt and fish, but now they birdwatch, go hiking, horseback riding, etc. and the division has to accommodate those changing demographics and different outdoor ‘user groups,’” he explained.
Savieky said this look at the landscape in a more holistic manner can’t only be done with the thousands of acres owned for conservation by the state, but must also be done in conjunction with private land owners.
“They will play a bigger role, as will organization like the Nature Conservancy. They are playing an increasing role in land management,” he explained.
“There are fewer lands as the decades go on and fewer recreational opportunities,” he said, adding that, in addition to purchasing land for protection, they also concentrate on restoration of existing habitats.
“We like to keep a little green on the map,” explained regional fish and wildlife manager Rob Gano, who is based out of the Assawoman Wildlife area, one of five wildlife areas in Sussex County, Del., that together encompass 13,000 acres and are managed by the division.
The Assawoman Wildlife area offers crabbing piers, picnic pavilions, bird and wildlife watching, hiking and bicycling, canoeing and kayaking, two boat ramps, and deer, waterfowl, dove and small-game hunting, by permit in season. It features 3,128 acres of tidal marsh, impounded wetlands, forestlands and grasslands.
Gano, who has been with the division for 26 years, is proud of what they can and have accomplished. He said that, for a state that has been settled since the 1600s and has a “highly fragmented and heavily used landscape … some of the most important spots are still undisturbed … and those are the state wildlife areas, the state forest and state parks.”
He explained that his day’s work can be as mundane as running around picking up trash and cutting grass or as dramatic as managing endangered plants and animal species. One such plant species is only found in two places in the world, and one of those is local to the Assawoman Wildlife Refuge.
“We are getting better at looking at things in a more holistic way and anticipating the effects of sea-level rise and trying to stay ahead of that,” he explained. “Right now, we are working off a wildlife action plan that focuses more toward those species that are not hunted – and that is a big change from the old days.”
In recent years, Savieky explained, the division has become more focused and coordinated in their efforts to preserve and manage Delaware’s fish and wildlife resources. His agency works closely with the Division of Parks and Recreation and the Division of Watershed Stewardship. They even meet weekly to discuss their concentrated efforts and are currently looking for a joint restoration project in the Chesapeake Watershed as a demonstration pilot project where the divisions can work together toward a common goal.
In addition to their broad management, conservation, and restoration of wildlife habitats and wetlands, the division is a leader in recycling. They participate in artificial reef creation with the sinking of marine vessels that have outlived their usefulness. The latest is a multi-state reefing partnership among Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland, along with the U.S. Navy.
The U.S.S. Radford, a decommissioned Navy destroyer with 26 years of service on the water, in August became the longest vessel ever deployed on an artificial reef in the Atlantic Ocean – the Del-Jersey-Land Reef, located 26 miles off the coast, equidistance from Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.
Savieky explained that the division helps strip and sanitize oils, fluids, etc., that are found on such vessels, which are then sunk in a controlled manner to help with the formation of reefs that will support marine life. The reefs also provide recreational fishing and diving opportunities, which translates into jobs.
“Our artificial reefs bring in thousands of fishing and dive trips annually – and that brings in something else we like to see in Delaware: jobs,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in Philadelphia, where the U.S.S Radford started its journey to the bottom of the ocean.
“Our team at DNREC is working hard to protect our environment, promote incredible biodiversity through our extensive reefing efforts and provide special recreation opportunities for families and explorers.”
Offering his views on what the state will look like 100 years from now, Savieky said, “We will have done the best we could to adapt to sea-level rise. There will be more wetlands than if we had sat back and done nothing. Instead of patchwork sections, we will have larger continuous tracks of land that are protected and managed, and better integration of public and private lands with the government, the private sector and organizations.”
So, while the division and DNREC as a whole can do many things toward greening the state through their conservation and land-management efforts, as well as habitat formation and restoration, the bottom line is it needs to be a collaborative effort to work, said Savieky.
“Government can’t do it all.”