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Wildlife Director Hatcher retires after 37-year career with the agency

Richard Hatcher, director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, retired Friday after a 37-year career with the agency. [Photo provided by ODWC]

Richard Hatcher, director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, retired Friday after a 37-year career with the agency. [Photo provided by ODWC]

Friday was the last day on the job for Richard Hatcher, director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Hatcher retired after a 37-year career with the Wildlife Department. He was hired as a the state's first furbearer biologist and spent the last 17 years as assistant director (10 years) and then director of the agency.

J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and former Oklahoma Secretary of the Environment, has been hired to replace Hatcher as director. Strong will begin his new duties Oct. 17.

Hatcher, 63, answered questions from The Oklahoman about his career and the issues facing the sportsmen and women in the state.

Q: What are the biggest changes you have seen in your 37 years with the Wildlife Department?

When I started with the Wildlife Department in 1979, Oklahomans were harvesting about 15,000 deer annually. Now, it is about 100,000.

We were still trapping and transplanting turkeys. Now turkey populations are in every county in the state. We had no state duck stamp program, no license plate program, no lake record program, no antelope season, bear season, otter season, red fox season, and it was illegal to shoot mountain lions.

We also didn't have a giant Canada Goose reintroduction program, which turned out to be a little too successful.

Q: Your first job with the Wildlife Department was as the state's first furbearer biologist. Did you have an interest in trapping or was that just the job you were assigned?

The position had just been created and it was the job I wanted although, of course, I would have accepted any job at the time. My graduate work was on red foxes in Oklahoma, and I became Oklahoma's first furbearer biologist.

More than trapping, my interest was in managing furbearer populations and the survey and research work that goes along with it. Pelt prices were high and trapping and coon hunting were both very popular, and believe it or not, there was great concern that furbearers were being overharvested.

Q: What was the interest in trapping at the time compared to it is now?

The interest is a small fraction of what it was at the time. While there are a lot of trappers that just love the sport, pelt price drive the fur harvest, and fashions have changed and the market has changed.

Q: What do you think will be the most critical issues facing the Wildlife Department and Oklahoma sportsmen and women in the near future?

Staying relevant. If the conservation community dwindles, our quality of life will dwindle. Especially for kids, fishing and hunting are competing with organized sports, urbanization and video games. Recruitment and retention are critical for the future of wildlife management.

Q: Are the numbers of anglers and hunters in the state decreasing or on the rise? How does Oklahoma compare to the rest of the country in this trend?

We still have a strong hunting and fishing tradition in Oklahoma. Our license sales have been fairly stable as most of the country is in decline. Archery deer hunting, fishing and senior citizen lifetime license buyers are the main reasons.

Q: What is the biggest misconception that people have about the Wildlife Department?

That we are supported with tax dollars like most state agencies. ODWC receives no general appropriations. We survive on the sale of licenses. I guess a second misconception would be that we are responsible for endangered species, which is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We strive to keep species off the endangered species list.

Q: What are the most common questions that the Wildlife Department receives?

Where can I go to catch crappie or a nice bass? What wildlife management areas are open to deer hunting, especially gun season? What are the hunter education requirements and apprentice license regulations?

Q: What is the most common complaint?

Hunting and fishing regulations are too complicated.

Q: Oklahoma has a diverse wildlife population. Does the Wildlife Department focus its management efforts on species that most sportsmen and women pursue, like deer, or do they all get treated equally?

The Wildlife Department has to prioritize our limited resources, and no, not all species are treated equally. However, what we find is that most of our on-the-ground habitat management benefits multiple species. So even if we say we are conducting prescribed fire for quail habitat, an entire suite of species on the prairie will benefit.

Q: I was told you were the last Oklahoman to legally harvest a prairie chicken in the state. Is this true and do you think prairie chickens will survive?

I believe it is true, at least for lesser prairie chickens. I was hunting on the Beaver River WMA on the last day of the last season, and it was late in the afternoon when three chickens flushed.

I was the last of my group to shoot and drop a bird, so I think it is true. Lesser prairie chickens are being managed through the most comprehensive range-wide conservation plan ever implemented. They have always been a boom or bust species, and have a lot of factors working against them, but yes, I think they will survive.

Q: What was the best and worst thing about being the director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation?

The best thing without a doubt has been the friendships and strong working relationships developed over decades. The employees of ODWC have a passion for their careers that I believe is unequaled, and we are like a family.

Friendships with other wildlife department directors, other agencies, landowners and the nonprofit organizations who are all working together for wildlife conservation have been very rewarding.

The most difficult is juggling many issues, meetings, paperwork, administrative responsibilities, and trying to keep them all moving forward at the same time.

Q: What will you miss the most and the least?

Most of all I will miss the people I have been associated with. Least of all the amount of time I spent sitting behind a desk thinking about being in the field.

Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›