Category Archives: Director Message

Something from Nothing

by Gil McRae, FWRI Director

Most will recall the concern associated with the turn of the millennium on December 31, 1999. Many hundreds of hours were spent readying computer systems for that dreaded fractional second when 1999 would turn to 2000.  Prior to about 1997 we had happily been inputting years as only two numbers, oblivious to the fact that someone might interpret “95” as something other than 1995. As it turned out, that seemed to be the biggest adjustment required (not a small one I imagine) – changing your IT systems to delineate the year with four digits rather than two.

As it turned out, we were ahead of the game. According to our calendar (aka the Gregorian calendar) December 31, 1999 was not the end of a millennium at all.  The Gregorian calendar jumps from 1 BC (or BCE) to 1 AD (or CE) with no “zero” year in between.  The millennium actually ended a year later, on December 31, 2000. Why no zero year you ask?  The Gregorian calendar, while introduced in 1582, was based on a Roman calendar developed by Dionysius in the 6th century CE.  Ancient Romans (as well as ancient Greeks and Egyptians) simply did not have a symbol for “zero” in their numbering system, which explains the calendar jump.

At the risk of oversimplifying, these ancient cultures had fundamental philosophical difficulty with the concept of “nothingness” and got along just fine building pyramids and temples and conquering civilizations without worrying about it. Turns out they were generally not too comfortable with the concept of infinity either. Although the Mayans had developed a concept of (and symbol for) zero as early as 36 BCE, this fact was lost until relatively recently.  The numbering system we use today is based on an Indian system promoted and popularized via Arab influence that was not widely adopted in Europe till the sixteenth century CE.

Ok, so that’s at least moderately interesting, but what does that have to do with us? As FWC scientists, we spend an inordinate amount of time meticulously documenting nothingness.  We are completely comfortable with this concept and realize how important it is to conducting good science.  We spend countless hours setting nets, electrofishing, hiking to remote GPS points, flying aerial surveys and conducting other activities knowing full well that a good portion of the work is going to result in some flavor of “nothingness”.  These null values are documented with the same care and precision that we use for all similar events based on the type of work we are conducting.  In many cases, it is the “nothingness” that puts everything else into context and allows us to draw important meaning from our work.

When discussing the nature of the work we do, I am sometimes asked by members of the public questions similar to: “Why don’t we save money by going to “hotspots” where we know a particular species will occur”.  I have also been asked why our saltwater recreational angler survey folks spend hours in the middle of the night at a boat ramp or dock when very little activity occurs.  Occasionally a fishing guide will ask why we are setting nets on mucky bottom not likely to hold much of anything worth catching.  The next time I think I will answer these questions simply:  we make something from nothing.

Taking Time to Be Thankful

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

There are times when the deck seems stacked against us. We are continually asked to do more with less, bureaucratic processes make it difficult to get anything done, and salary increases are a distant memory for an increasing number of staff.  These concerns are real, and without diminishing their validity or the necessity to continually address them, I think it is worth our time to reflect on a number of things we should be thankful for.

As FWC/FWRI employees, we are agents of government and we are exceptionally fortunate in this country to have a government of the people. Our form of government is intentionally messy and shifting perspectives and disparate views are part of its inherent self-correcting mechanisms.  Regardless of these shifting views, in our role as public servants we have a duty and a responsibility to provide a public service and with that role comes accountability.  Simply put, we are spending other people’s money every single minute of every day.  In many cases, Floridians have chosen to support us through their purchase of specialty license plates or endorse the validity of our mission by purchasing hunting and fishing licenses.  In dealing with the sometimes labyrinthine processes that underlay the necessity for us to be accountable with other people’s money, we sometimes forget how fortunate we are to work for an agency like FWC.

Unlike many government agencies which are established by Executive or Legislative fiat, FWC was created by a vote of the people through a constitutional amendment approved by over 72% of voters. In addition, nearly all of us are doing or supporting work that we love to do.  Rather than spending our work day focused on making money for someone else, perhaps producing products that few people want (let alone need), we have the tremendous privilege of doing the people’s work in conserving our precious natural resources.  While our work can be frustrating at times, there is no denying that collectively we are on the frontlines of making the world a better place.  I don’t know how many workplaces can claim that more than 20,000 people are willing to show up on a Saturday just to learn more about what their organization does.

Within FWC/FWRI, we take pride in our staff-centered approach to conducting our mission by respecting work/life balance and providing flexible working arrangements. Despite the millions of dollars invested in facilities and equipment statewide, there is no question that our people are by far our most valuable asset.  We ask a lot of you.  Our scientists are expected to perform at an elite academic level without the protection of the university ivory tower.  Our administrative, technical and facility staff are asked to be as effective and efficient as their counterparts in private industry with a fraction of the resources and processes that often seem to work more against them than for them.  It takes a special person to work in this context and we are all bolstered by an army of talented, committed staff who believe in what they do.

We also value and promote open and honest communication, which is easy to take for granted until you experience an environment where that is not the case. Over the years, I have met with hundreds of new hires as part of their orientation process.  One point I emphasize in these discussions is that your coworkers will be your best teachers and potentially your greatest asset but open communication is the key to making the most of your opportunity.  In our organization, no one needs permission to talk to anyone else, and constructive criticism and debate make us all better.  Open communication can get messy, much like the government we operate within, but a whole lot of good comes out of this messiness.

I am writing this on a Tuesday morning and it has been one of those days. I have been faced with six different annoying and complicated issues since I made the mistake of checking my email over my morning coffee.  On the drive in, I made two calls to partners having to explain why plans had to be changed and why expectations may have to be scaled back.  When I arrived at work, I sat down with two different groups trying to sort out why poor communication among staff resulted in a failure to meet a deadline or deliver a service.  I fielded concerns from other groups who were certain that the success of their projects was in jeopardy if they could not find a way to give salary increases to key staff.  A construction project we have nearly complete is short $17,000 and we need to find the money to complete it.  The legislature has sent out another reminder that next year is going to be an extremely tight budget year and that we need to be prepared for cuts.  An anonymous message in our online suggestion box reminded me that staff morale was at an all-time low and they wanted to know what I was going to do about it.

There is no place I would rather be.

Thoughts on Leadership

by Gil McRae, FWRI Director

We all have our own concept of what it means to be a leader. If you ask people to name a great leader, they will often list political or social figures who led large groups of people pushing for fundamental change.  What we often overlook is that great leaders are all around us and it has very little to do with professional stature or one’s position in an organization.  Leadership is more a state of mind than a title tied to number of staff supervised or total budget dollars for which one has responsibility. This is particularly true in organizations like FWC and FWRI where our mode of operation is typically collaborative, rather than strictly hierarchal.

In organizations like ours, our success depends on every staff member exploring their capacity to be creative leaders. In this way, we collectively create a culture of leadership by fostering and encouraging the development and recognition of creative leadership attributes at all levels of our organization. While the work we do varies widely, from a leadership perspective there are some key concepts, attitudes and behaviors that define successful employees at every level:

  1. Ownership. When we take ownership in something, we have a personal stake in ensuring that a problem is dealt with, a task is completed, or a conflict is resolved. We all have a sense of ownership relative to our individual work responsibilities or projects. But taking ownership in a leadership sense is more than that. Often during our work day, we are approached with issues or questions for which we do not have an answer or that may not be directly related to our line of work. The inquiry may come from the public, a coworker, or a colleague from another agency. It is very easy to dismiss the question with responses like “You are asking the wrong person”, or “that is not my job”. These types of answers reflect a localized sense of ownership. Truly successful organizations have taken the sense of ownership at the task or project level and translated it to a larger level in which all staff feel that they are important contributors to the organization’s mission. In these organizations, “I don’t know but I will find out” or “Let me help you find your answer” replace the responses listed above.
  2. Self – awareness. There are two aspects to this quality that contribute to one’s leadership potential. First, good leaders have an ability to step outside the constraints of their own perspective and see themselves and their organization from other’s perspective. I think all of us have periodically re-adjusted our thinking on an issue after re-examining it from someone else’s perspective. It sounds simple, I know, but too often we are unaware of our personal and organizational biases that form our perspective on an issue. Good leaders have a knack for knowing when to step back, drop these biases, and approach an issue or problem from a different standpoint. For example, nearly every time I make a large request for funding or other resources at the agency or legislative level, I make sure I “buy my own argument”. In other words, I critically evaluate my request from the standpoint of those to whom I am addressing the request. This step can greatly enhance your success rate and help refine requests that are not well thought out. Secondly, good leaders are keenly aware of the context within which they and their coworkers operate. A leader cannot succeed remaining uninformed about the structure or workings of the business or agency they work within. Remaining continually up to date and informed is not extra work for those operating within a culture of leadership, it is part of their day-to-day workload and ingrained in their thinking. Much like we tend to be isolated in our thinking due to our own biased perspective, organizations often become islands unto themselves because the people that sustain the organization develop biases borne out of a tendency to look inward rather than outward.
  3. Optimism. – Good leaders set the tone for those around them. The ability to remain positive and upbeat even in the face of multiple challenges is often the difference between an effective response and a knee-jerk reaction which only compounds the problem. There is a strong connection between optimism and self-confidence. People with strong leadership skills tend to be more secure and self-confident in their abilities. This does not mean they are arrogant, rather they are aware of their strengths and limitations and carry with them a self-assurance that not only tells them what skills they need to bring to bear to address an issue, but (often more importantly) also when to seek outside help on a problem.Successful organizations build these leadership qualities at every level – you do not have to run a large group to be a leader among your co-workers. I know that I often struggle with these competencies myself, but I continually remind myself that the key to successful leadership has little to do with authority bestowed on a position from above and much more to do with an individual’s behavior. By cultivating leadership behaviors and promoting a “culture of leadership” we can leverage the influence of leaders at all levels to build a stronger, more effective organization.

FWC and Bear Management

by Gil McRae

As many of you know, our Commission recently chose to postpone a bear hunt for 2016 (see the news release here: Throughout the discussion of this controversial issue, with thousands of online survey submittals and more than five hours of public comment, FWC did an exceptional job providing state-of-the-art scientific advice to our Commissioners.  FWRI, led by Walt McCown, Brian Scheick, Don Hardeman and a host of other FWC staff from HSC, HGM and elsewhere completed a statewide abundance survey in only two years.  This first of its kind survey was a phenomenal undertaking and combined with the analytical support of Dr. Joe Clark and his students at the University of Tennessee represents what many consider to be the most rigorous assessment of a statewide bear population anywhere in the country. FWC also convened an expert panel made of up some of the nation’s top bear biologists.  Their input helped frame the staff recommendation for a modified hunt in 2016.

However, it is important to realize that bear management is complex, and that the number of bears in the state is only one factor that needs to be considered.  Among other things, the Commission has made tremendous strides in working with local governments and waste management companies to increase the use of bear-proof trash cans which is the surest way to reduce human/bear conflict.  I realize and appreciate the fact that there are many views on this subject, even among our own staff, but this issue emphasized the fact that as scientists our role is provide our Commission with the highest quality information to base their decisions on.  Those decisions must ultimately take into account a number of other things such as public safety, the status of related conservation actions, and the desires of all of our stakeholders (non-hunters and hunters alike).

I wanted to share a letter that our Chairman, Brian Yablonski recently sent to our partners at Bass Pro Shops which lays out the issue well.

Dear Conservation Partners at Florida’s Bass Pro Shops,

I understand questions continue to arise regarding FWC’s recent decision to postpone bear hunting this year. We greatly appreciate the leadership role Bass Pro Shops plays in conservation efforts across the nation. We also value our strong partnership with Bass Pro Shops on important conservation efforts in Florida. In fact, we see your customers as our customers, particularly within our hunting community, and we want to make certain you and your great team in Florida have full background and context on the bear hunting decision. Please feel free to share the following message to help folks better understand how we arrived at this decision and how we see the path forward.

FWC commissioners understand that many hunters are disappointed that we are not having a bear hunt this year. We want hunters to know that we are doing our best to work through a complicated issue that has implications for hunting into the future and certainly beyond bears. We take such implications very seriously. Myself, my fellow commissioners, and FWC staff have firmly and consistently supported hunting as an essential element in the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. On a personal note, I have publicly spoken and written extensively in defense of hunting and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. The vote to postpone bear hunting does nothing to diminish this position, and we plan to move toward a hunt in 2017.

The decision to pause bear hunting is simply a timing and a policy call. The science is sound. Our biologists are the best in the nation. They have full support and appreciation from every Commissioner, and they know this. And we are aware that those who oppose hunting on principle will not likely change their views. They will always protest regardless of how well we demonstrate the importance of hunting for responsibly managing bear populations. I don’t believe, however, these views were a significant factor in the decision.

What is a major concern, however, is the view of the vast majority of Floridians who are non hunters but are not “anti hunting”. They don’t hunt, but I believe they understand and appreciate hunting deer, turkey, alligators, waterfowl, etc. And then there are more than a few Floridians who do hunt birds or deer, but who have concerns about bear hunting. At this point, we need to do a better job making our case to all of these people. We need to take some time to listen and then work to foster understanding and support. We need to bring people together and in the words of one of our bear biologists, build off an excellent bear conservation foundation. We need to continue and expand work with communities on conflict bears and trash management and have that effort catch up with hunting. We need to build on our strong scientific basis for bear hunting in the year ahead, taking it from a gold standard to a platinum standard to help reassure a broader segment of the public.

We then need to translate broader understanding and acceptance into momentum for hunting as responsible management method. These efforts are not intended for those who will always oppose hunting in any shape or form, but for ordinary Floridians who are trying to sort this all out. This is something good we can do for hunting lest we forget that we are a tenuous minority in the state. Unlike other issues we deal with (and trust me on this as a commissioner who hears it from everybody), this is not just hunters versus anti hunters. A lot of folks in the middle need to catch up on this, and we have a responsibility to get them there.

Our scientists made a recommendation to hunt, but they also understand and appreciate these points. Our wildlife managers need time; a gift in this case. And those who follow our Commission meetings know there are plenty of times where we have been more conservative in our management decisions relative to the recommendations from our scientific staff. Taking a pause for a year doesn’t create a crisis or violate science. Each commissioner made it clear in their remarks that they support hunting as a tool for bear population management. On behalf of FWC commissioners and staff, I am hoping we can think about the big picture and the longer term as we work together through this complex conservation challenge.


Brian Yablonski


Florida Fish and Wildlife

Conservation Commission

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