Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten is defending the recent hire of a former employee of the environmental group Oceana following a complaint from a Republican state senator that Cotten's department is picking new employees from the "injunction industry" -- a sarcastic reference to lawsuits filed by advocacy organizations.
Anchorage Sen. Cathy Giessel sent a letter to Cotten last week referring to a "steady stream of personnel changes" at Fish and Game, with replacements coming "overwhelmingly from the conservation advocacy sector."
"It is my sincere hope that the arrival of individuals who have dedicated a part of their lives in an antagonistic relationship with the state of Alaska is not a reflection of a new philosophy in policy on the part of the department," said the letter from Giessel, who chairs the Senate's resources committee and is a mining- and oil-industry booster.
Cotten said in a phone interview Wednesday that he'd been hearing concerns about his department's recent hiring of Chris Krenz, a former senior scientist at Oceana who worked on the group's campaign opposing Shell's oil drilling program in the Arctic.
Krenz is working on a research program in the wildlife conservation division, Cotten said, adding that he's not aware of any regulations or permits from his department that affect Shell.
And Cotten said that he hadn't been involved in Krenz's selection, which came after a competitive hiring process.
"I didn't know the guy had gotten hired until after I'd gotten some people saying they were not happy about this," Cotten said. He said he nonetheless thought Krenz, who has a doctorate degree in zoology, was a "good hire."
"He's a respected scientist and I think we're lucky to have him," Cotten said.
Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Krenz declined to comment. He's not the first person to transfer between state employment and Oceana -- former Gov. Tony Knowles' longtime chief of staff, Jim Ayers, left state government in 2001 to work for the group.
Cotten acknowledged that his department had replaced several high-level employees in the months since Gov. Bill Walker's election in November, when Walker, running as an independent, unseated incumbent Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican.
The ousted employees included Doug Vincent-Lang, the former director of wildlife conservation, and the director of habitat, Randy Bates.
The two Parnell appointees, especially Vincent-Lang, had drawn praise from industry interests for their efforts fighting protections for certain species and habitats -- protections some viewed as impeding resource development. But the two were also sharply criticized by citizen and conservation groups -- and even some department employees -- who said some of the Parnell administration's policies disregarded science and public concern.
Cotten said his department also more recently removed a budget staffer, Sunny Haight, and a legislative liaison, Ben Mulligan.
The changes at the department have drawn criticism not just from Giessel, but from the Alaska Republican Party. In a newsletter published Wednesday, the party asked whether Cotten, a former Democratic speaker of the House, was using a "Democrat litmus test in downsizing the workforce."
"Cotten has been told to get rid of every trace of Parnell staff in the state," the newsletter said.
Cotten responded that there's no litmus test, and added that it's "normal for changes to be made when administrations change."
He said he plans to meet with Giessel on Friday.