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WI: DNR hires Johnson for bear, wolf and cougar position

Paul A. Smith Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Department of Natural Resources has tabbed Randy Johnson, 28, to fill the agency’s large carnivore specialist position.

The role, which oversees black bear, gray wolf and mountain lion management in Wisconsin, was vacant since Dec. 6 when Scott Walter transferred to another job with the agency.

Johnson started work for the DNR on Monday; he is based in Rhinelander.

“I’m excited to be up here in the North Woods and to get started,” Johnson said in a Friday phone interview. 

Johnson is a native of farm country in southwestern Minnesota where he said he grew up fishing, hunting, trapping, hiking and “doing just about everything outdoors.”

After high school he enrolled at South Dakota State University in Brookings where he earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries science (in 2014) and a master’s in wildlife sciences (2017).

His master’s thesis was titled “Mountain lion population characteristics and resource selection in the North Dakota Badlands.”

For his graduate research, Johnson studied cougars in and around Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The work involved trapping, sedating and placing GPS collars on pumas, then following the animals’ movements and behaviors.

Johnson said the goal was to identify the resources and habitats used by the catamounts to inform a species management plan. As part of his work, he produced a cougar habitat suitability map for the entire state.

“It helped define what is now considered lion habitat and where they might be expected in North Dakota,” Johnson said. “It set a good foundation for mountain lion management going forward.”

Following graduate school, Johnson was hired by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. For the last three years he worked as wildlife resource biologist for the agency in its Sioux Falls office.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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His duties included deer research and collaring, including activities related to chronic wasting disease, as well as work on an expanding river otter population, including involvement in a state delisting process and proposed harvest season for the species.

Johnson also worked with livestock depredation issues, mostly due to coyotes.

Johnson’s experience with black bears has been limited to hunting the animals in northern Minnesota.

Among major jobs awaiting Johnson will be updating the Wisconsin wolf management plan.

When the wolf was returned to protections of the Endangered Species Act in 2014, Wisconsin DNR officials decided they would hold off on the work until the state once again had management authority for the species.

The existing wolf plan was written in 1999 and received a minor update in 2007, when even wolf experts were uncertain how many wolves the state could sustain. The plans listed a wolf population goal of 350 animals.

Last year Wisconsin had a minimum count of 914 wolves and 248 wolf packs, according to the DNR’s annual tracking survey. A 2014 survey found most state residents supported maintaining a wolf population at least as large as was found at that time.

Management of large predator species is arguably the most challenging and controversial job in modern wildlife science.

Johnson said none of that was lost on him.

“I know I have big shoes to fill and this is a big position,” Johnson said. “But I think I can bring things to the position, and I won’t be doing it alone, I’ll be talking to and leaning on people who preceded me.”

“I think it’s a good fit. I’m excited to get on with it.”