Wildlife Department director steps down with $169,000 severance: JD Strong leaves department ‘immediately’ after seven years

by KELLY BOSTIAN - Oklahoma Ecology Project
Oklahoma Wildlife Department Director JD Strong with a pair of black bear cubs. Photo issued with story about Strong's sudden resignation from his position. Oklahoma Wildlife Department Director JD Strong with a pair of black bear cubs. Photo issued with story about Strong's sudden resignation from his position.

Oklahoma’s top wildlife official resigned this week and departed with severance pay of $169,341 from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Lifetime License Trust Fund.

The immediate departure of Director JD Strong surprised many, but officials and staff pointed to public statements indicating an amicable departure. Wade Free, former Assistant Director of Operations, was appointed Interim Director.

Commissioners cited State Statute Title 74 in approving the severance pay, usually offered only to employees dismissed or forced out as part of a reduction in force. One section of the statute does note agencies may pay severance to employees not covered by the Civil Service and Human Capital Modernization Act.

Officials referred further questions to the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, but a call was not immediately returned.

The department reported the director’s position annual salary is $162,266.

Citing an inability to comment on personnel matters, officials did not address the reasons behind the departure or why a severance was paid. Strong declined to comment beyond his issued statement.

The Lifetime License Trust Fund consists of revenue from lifetime licenses sold since 1969. The principal cannot by spent, but interest investment income is used for department operations.

A first hint of Strong’s departure appeared on Monday's regular commission meeting agenda with a vote to enter an executive season to discuss “the employment, hiring, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation” of the Director.” The group re-emerged without the director, set a special Wednesday meeting, and adjourned.

The commission again retired into executive session Wednesday to discuss the appointment of the interim director and approve Strong’s resignation. Commissioners approved the severance pay in an open meeting, and a department press release made the resignation public Wednesday evening.

Commission chairwoman Leigh Gaddis indicated that only official business directed by statute required executive sessions. She added that commission members wish Strong well in his future endeavors.

Gaddis said that, traditionally, a commission sub-committee searches for a new commissioner, whom a vote of the entire body will appoint. She said a committee and replacement timeline still needs to be set.

In his statement, Strong mentions “new and exciting opportunities in the works.”

“After much prayer and after more than 31 years of state service, I have decided to step down as Director of the ODWC, effective immediately,” Strong said.

Strong, an Oklahoma State University graduate and a career civil servant, started as an environmental scientist with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board in 1993. He was appointed special assistant to the Secretary of Environment in 1996 and took the lead role as Secretary in 2003 under Gov. Brad Henry. He was appointed director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board in 2010 and served until his appointment with the Wildlife Department in 2016.

Under his tenure, the department modernized physically and digitally. The $15 million rebuild of the department headquarters was completed in 2019, the same year the department launched its GoOutdoorsOklahoma licensing and information app. Other highlights include creating the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Foundation, a private non-profit fundraising organization, creating the Oklahoma Land Access Program to work with landowners to increase hunting and fishing opportunities on private lands, expanding the department’s close-to-home fishing programs for communities, and cooperating with the Tourism Department to create the Oklahoma Fishing Trail.

Legislatively, the director saw more significant challenges to the department than his predecessors. Most recently, the department retained oversight of Chronic Wasting Disease in wildlife in the last session in a hard-fought battle against relinquishing its oversight to the Department of Agriculture.

Strong was frustrated for three years trying to pass various proposals to modernize hunting and fishing license rules to allow the department to adjust rates and streamline licensing. With no license fee increases in two decades, at least one commission member has publicly described the licensing change failures as leaving the department in an “unsustainable” funding situation.

“This decision is bittersweet. I have loved every minute of working alongside the wonderful people that comprise the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, watching them passionately and skillfully nurture a better environment for our fish and wildlife and for the Oklahomans who get to enjoy them. Our state is unquestionably better because of ODWC's dedicated team of professionals, and I thank them for the privilege of working alongside them for these past seven years,” Strong said in his statement.

“The Commission has every confidence in our amazing team at the ODWC that we will continue the important work on behalf of the great citizens of Oklahoma in our successful stewardship of responsible management of our wildlife and fish resources and public lands/waters within our state as we move into this next chapter,” Gaddis said.

**The Oklahoma Ecology Project is a nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting on Oklahoma’s conservation and environmental issues. Learn more at okecology.org

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