- By Ken Perrotte
New Exec Director of Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries Outlines Priorities
Updated: Feb 22, 2020
Note: A version of this article was published June 6, 2019 in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
Ryan Brown was appointed Executive Director of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at last week’s meeting of the agency’s board. Brown, age 39 and an attorney by profession, was previously an appointed member of the board, representing Region 4 for the past two years. He chaired the agency’s Wildlife, Boat, and Law Enforcement Committee. Brown succeeds longtime director Bob Duncan who retired April 1. Gary Martel, the agency's longtime deputy director, served as the acting executive director since Duncan’s retirement.
Brown has worked in the conservation arena most of his professional life. After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Richmond School of Law, he worked in the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as assistant director in the policy and planning section. From, there, he became an assistant attorney general, serving as counsel to multiple state conservation agencies, including DGIF. He next became DGIF’s Legislative and Policy Manager, serving in that position until 2016 when he joined a private law firm in Richmond.
I spoke with Brown this week about his appointment. He shared that he up on a family farm in Fluvanna County. Hunting and fishing have been a central part of his life since boyhood. “To this day, I still spend about 150 hours a year in a treestand. I spend my free time on the water or in the woods,” he said.
I asked Brown how he might address those who look at his appointment and say, “But he’s not a wildlife or fisheries biologist.” Many directors of state fish and wildlife agencies come from a background within “the resource,” as people in those agencies like to say. He responded, “I don’t have the same scientific background as my predecessor, who was one of the greatest biologists I’ve ever known, but I certainly have knowledge and enthusiasm for the recreational opportunities we offer and support, as well as the practical knowledge I’ve learned on my own in the woods and working with the DGIF staff over the years.”
The executive director position requires a broad skill set, including administrative and financial capabilities, an understanding of the legal parameters in which the organization operates and an ability to tap good people, including biologists and others with scientific and field operations skills. This is where Brown appears to be a very good fit. Brown’s ongoing involvement with departmental issues and policies over the last decade and more should serve him and the agency well, letting him “hit the ground running,” as he termed it.
I asked where he will focus his initial priorities and if he is developing a “first 100 days” agenda. He said he plans on meeting with DGIF leaders, both staff and board members, to assess how to improve current efforts and develop ideas and direction for the future. He also wants to meet with constituent stakeholders to gain perspective on overall issues and some specific topics of concern, such as Chronic Wasting Disease in deer.
An early priority is better emphasizing education and outreach. “Today’s world is different, even than from when I was a kid,” Brown said. “You might not have hunted or fished but your neighbor or a family member did. You understood it, knew what it was about.” He explained that basic awareness seems to be lacking, pointing out that nobody in his current law office hunts or fishes. “They wonder why I take all my vacation in November. It’s something that doesn’t make sense to them,” Brown said.
Brown shared in an email his initial priorities.
“The battleground of conservation today is just as much within the social sciences as it is the biological sciences that the agency already does so well. Public education needs concerning wildlife are greater than ever, and public support (and in turn, assurance of support for future funding) will depend upon connecting the public with wildlife and recreational opportunities enabled by the department,” he wrote.
Next, he said he wants to promote diversity among the DGIF staff and the audiences it reaches, calling it important to the viability of the department and the revenues it needs to operate. “The department’s staff and programs must become more reflective of the demographics of the public that it serves,” he wrote. “To be sure, all state wildlife agencies and other natural resources agencies struggle with this subject, and it will take innovation and dedication. But truly committed strategies, designed not just for short term statements, but long-term success, must be employed, and I will make it happen.”
Brown also wants increased DGIF participation in the greater conservation community, with better integration of effort with other agencies and organizations in the complete world of Virginia natural resources management. This, he added, would benefit Virginia’s overall conservation efforts and likely provide “readily-available opportunities that not are perhaps not being maximized today.”
Another priority is expansion of habitat preservation and restoration and public opportunities on DGIF-owned lands. “The department is fortunate to have the ability to purchase and preserve many great properties across the Commonwealth. However, an equal amount of effort needs to go into their care after acquisition. In some cases, this means more resources and effort dedicated to promoting habitat and goals for all species (whether game or non-game). In others, it means further development of recreational opportunities and making these areas welcoming destinations for all wildlife enthusiasts, no matter their activity preference or prior experience level,” he wrote.
Brown said he wants to better spotlight the overall economic benefits of Virginia’s wildlife-based recreational and boating opportunities, which he said aren’t well known or appreciated. “They are often overshadowed in discussion by declining license sales associated with hunting and fishing,” Brown wrote.
He also wants to pump up DGIF’s profile in in areas such as outdoor adventure tourism, noting its importance to agency revenues and programs, and local economies across Virginia.
Finally, Brown believes, “Too much unproductive discussion is devoted to categorizing constituencies as ‘traditional vs. nontraditional’, ‘consumptive vs. non-consumptive’, etc. “These categorizations are false,” he wrote. “All wildlife enthusiasts are interrelated and need to be regarded as such for the future of the department, their own interests, and, most importantly, the future of all of our wildlife resources.”