Jay Paul photo
Bob Duncan won't say it outright, but he'll do just about anything to forego desk duty.
A lifelong outdoorsman, the head of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries would rather visit a fish hatchery, look for wild turkeys in the woods or jump into a bear cage — something he did during a recent weigh-in at a Virginia Tech research facility.
At 60, an age when many people might think about winding down their careers, Robert W. "Bob" Duncan is going full speed, often putting in more than 100 hours of work per week.
But he has had much to do since he became executive director early last year. In February 2008, the department still was recovering from a controversy involving misuse of funds that led to the resignation of the chairman of its board of directors, the agency director and two top officers.
"Unfortunately, the actions of a few served to tarnish the image and reputation of the whole agency," Duncan says. As a result, he has been working to restore the department's good name.
"The greatest challenge is trust, both inside and outside the agency," he says. "It doesn't come easy. It takes time. We don't expect people to freely give their faith and trust; we have to earn it back by our deeds and actions."
Looking ahead, Duncan sees much work remaining. His long "to-do" list includes ensuring financial stability for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, developing new leadership, broadening the agency's public support by reaching out to new constituents and addressing a backlog of needed capital improvements to bridges and dams. The list also includes needs at the nine state fish hatcheries and a new "green-building" headquarters to be constructed in Hanover County by 2011 according to Leadership in Energy Efficiency in Design (LEED) standards.
"My time here is relatively short, maybe three years or five," he says. "We are moving forward. It's like building a watch mechanism, a mechanism that is built to last."
A Stabilizing Force
Duncan says the events surrounding the former leaders' resignations were traumatic for the 93-year-old department, home to 453 employees.
The officials stepped down after an internal investigation surrounding improper use of agency credit cards. The report revealed that items purchased were used during a safari hunting trip the four men took to Zimbabwe in 2004. Although members of the board of directors personally repaid the money (about $15,000), the stigma lingers.
"The individuals involved paid a price, but so did the people who did nothing wrong," he says.
Since then, the board has adopted policy and governance manuals to safeguard against fraud and abuse.
In naming Duncan as the department's leader, the Game and Inland Fisheries board chose a veteran. He joined the agency in 1978 as a district game biologist in Southwest Virginia, after a year with the Kansas Fish and Game Commission and three years with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. He became the assistant director of Virginia's Wildlife Division in 1979 and its director in 1990.
He says his credibility and long tenure gave him a step up to the director's office, after a whirlwind of interim leaders.
"I was a known entity. After 31 years, people get to know you, and they know what your values are. For the agency to be effective, we needed stable, respected and enlightened leadership and continuity. After having four different directors in a three-year period, it was important that the board select someone, preferably someone within the organization, that knew it from the ground up."
The director serves at the pleasure of the agency's board of directors, an unusual setup in Virginia. However, after the recent turmoil, the General Assembly confirms or reconfirms the director every three or four years. The board's 11 members, who are appointed by the governor and serve staggered four-year terms, represent each of the state's congressional districts. Board members are responsible for the financial aspects of the agency, including an overall budget of nearly $55 million.
James W. Hazel, a Fairfax County businessman, was the board's chairman when Duncan was offered the position.
"Bob was hired because of his lifelong commitment to wildlife resources in Virginia and his longstanding relationships with so many of the department's constituencies that enjoy the outdoors," Hazel says. "Whether it's deer or bear hunters, wildflowers or trout fishermen, Bob is committed to all of it."
Hazel added, "For the first two years I was on the board, we dealt with a lot of residue. Now we're getting back to the hunting and fishing."
He noted that his uncle, James W. Engle, a former deputy director of the department, is the person who hired Duncan 31 years ago.
Of the issues Duncan plans to address during his tenure, he cites funding as the highest priority.
"We are dipping into our reserve, our cash balance," he says. "It is critical, absolutely imperative, that we develop funding streams."
Historically, the department's money has come from sources such as fees paid for hunting and fishing licenses and boat registrations. The General Assembly passed legislation in 2000 that gives the agency a percentage of the state sales and use tax on supplies for outdoors activities. But as costs continue to climb, economic predictions show a widening gap between revenues and expenses, Duncan says.
To ease some of the financial burden, Duncan wants to develop more partnerships with sporting groups, land-management agencies and military bases. He also talks about reaching out to new constituents, such as birdwatchers, who don't hunt or fish, but who also enjoy the outdoors.
"We want to get them all under the same tent," he says. "That's important because of advocacy and helping us develop ideas for funding for long-term wildlife protection and management."
Duncan has asked employees for money-saving suggestions as well, and cites several initiatives put into place as a result, such as selling advertisements in agency publications (lowering expenses by $221,000) and using the vehicle fleet more efficiently (saving $550,000).
"We have to become more efficient, more effective, doing everything we can to help ourselves, saving money before we ask the legislature for it," Duncan says.
Among the needs for funding, he says, is a $15 million backlog in dam improvements. Federal standards have changed since the dams were built. "We have to put in more earth, make the spillways larger, bringing them up to the new federal standards."
Other capital improvement projects include a makeover at the Coursey Springs Hatchery, which raises 35 percent of Virginia's stockable trout. The Bath County hatchery had water-quality problems, and had been losing as much of 30 percent of the fish to flying predators.
"Ospreys were coming in and cleaning them out because it was an open area," he says. "It was a fish buffet for birds of prey."
At the new hatchery, thousands of pounds of fish will be raised in large, circular tanks under a roof. The $11.2 million project, which Duncan calls "one of the most ambitious capital-outlay programs we have undertaken in recent history," is scheduled to be finished by next winter.
Another ambitious project under way is a five-year plan to increase numbers of bobwhite quail, which have declined dramatically in the last 50 years, and expand their habitat. This will not only boost the bird population but also promote Virginia's long tradition of bobwhite quail hunting.
"Hunting preserves introduce folks to bird-dog training," Duncan says. "There is nothing finer than to be out there watching those bird dogs point."
With many administrators nearing retirement age, an internal imperative for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is developing new leadership to continue its work, the director says. The agency is putting together curriculum for an 18-month program, which Duncan jokingly refers to as a "wildlife MBA." Participants will learn about the agency's financing, hear guest speakers and attend meetings with board and senior staff members.
"We had 80 employees apply for the first places," he says. "It's one of the most exciting initiatives that we've put forward."
Duncan has high praise for department employees, alongside many of whom he has worked for three decades. They include conservation police officers (game wardens), fish-hatchery workers, wildlife biologists and others spread throughout the state.
"They're out there day in and day out because they love it, because it's a calling," he says. "We have some of the best employees in the country working on behalf of Virginia's sportsmen and women and citizens." He also expressed appreciation for public input, which has helped to shape some of the wildlife initiatives. "Our agency wouldn't be where it is today without implementing things we've gleaned from our public meetings."
Although he has grown accustomed to desk work as a necessity, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Radford native is as comfortable in the woods as any critter. Duncan credits his mother with instilling many of the qualities for which he is known: honesty, dedication, steadfastness and love of people. He says his father and paternal grandfather took him along on their hunting and fishing trips, nurturing his love for the outdoors. He points out that Virginia's new apprentice hunting license provides a way for novice hunters and those under age 18 to gain experience while working with a licensed hunter.
Duncan itches to get in on the action as he did in Blacksburg recently, where he jumped into a bear cage at Virginia Tech to assist students hoisting a sedated black bear onto a pole scale. The weigh-in is one of several scheduled checks carried out every 10 days on the six bears at the Center for Bear Research. Dr. Michael Vaughan, the program's director, explained the animals' presence at the facility as he prepared sedation darts. "These captive bears are part of the program because they became a nuisance, either turning over garbage cans or visiting residential areas. After spending several months here, though, they tend to shy away from humans."
The bears are provided through the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, a partnership initiated in 1987, when Duncan issued captive bear permits for the original study. The research is aimed at pregnant bears, to observe their hormone levels during the winter months. Scientific data is gathered on the cubs born at the compound as well. Groups of schoolchildren visit each year and are allowed to hold the cubs briefly, while learning that the bears are wild animals, a fact punctuated by the cubs' razor-sharp claws. The animals eventually are released back into the wild.
On another recent excursion, Duncan hit the road before daylight, headed to Marion, where he spoke to a group of conservation police officers after shaking numerous hands and slapping a few backs. His presentation resembled a pep talk, incorporating his goals for the department and showering praise on employees who often work overtime without pay.
He then took a rapid-fire tour of the Marion Trout Hatchery, the oldest in Virginia, where 100,000 gallons of natural spring water house almost 2 million fish that eventually will stock waters in numerous state ponds.
Duncan's next stop was the Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Center, where researchers study mussels and salamanders. He just has to hold a particularly ugly salamander, an eastern hellbender, which had been nurtured for ecological studies at the complex.
Laughing aloud, he asks, "Where else could you get a job that allows you to play like this?"
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2009. All rights reserved.