Nick Wiley, who as executive director led the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission through both of its python round-ups as well as its controversial bear hunt, has announced he is resigning the post after eight years.
Wiley, 56, is leaving to take the newly created job of chief conservation officer of Ducks Unlimited, a non-profit group dating back to 1937 that advocates for wetlands preservation and habitat conservation.
It was not a step he took lightly, he said.
“I love Florida, I really do,” he said in an interview. “But I’m right at my 30 years” with the state. “I could stay here and continue to do good work, or I could go do something different with one of the top conservation organizations nationally.”
Wiley’s resignation comes less than a month after commission Chairman Brian Yablonski announced he was stepping down after 14 years on the board to move to Montana to run the Property and Environment Research Center, a national conservation research group that focuses on property rights and market-driven solutions. The commission will discuss replacing both of them at its next meeting, slated to run from Dec. 5-7 in Gainesville.
Wiley, who grew up in Georgia on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, is the rare agency head in Florida who worked his way up the ranks. He started in 1987 as a wildlife biologist at what was then known as the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. Over the years he headed up the alligator management program and the division of hunting, among others. He became executive director in 2009.
In his time leading the agency, he dealt with everything from the 2010 BP oil spill to the death of a toddler killed at Disney World by an alligator to a two-year sting operation that resulted in the arrest of nine men for poaching alligator eggs He oversaw the agency’s Python Challenges in 2013 and 2016, which resulted in fewer than 200 pythons being killed, and also its controversial bear hunt in 2015 that killed 304 bears. The bear hunt was supposed to last for a week, but Wiley shut it down after just two days because hunters had shot nearly the entire quota for the week. Wiley then convinced commissioners not to hold another hunt until at least 2019 by showing them an opinion poll that demonstrated a lack of public support for bear hunting.
Two years ago he unveiled a proposal for changing the way the agency manages the endangered Florida panther population that sparked such a public backlash that the commissioners shelved the discussion for three months. Records showed Wiley had put it together in consultation with one commissioner, Immokalee rancher Liesa Priddy, who has repeatedly lost calves to hungry panthers, and had not shown it to the agency’s panther experts until it was done. As a result of the uproar, Wiley then changed the proposed policy to take the focus off the loss of livestock.