JT Romatzke is out as Northwest regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, months after an investigation earlier this year found that he acted inappropriately relative to the agency’s ongoing work to implement the voter-mandated introduction of wolves into the state.
Romatzke “will be transferring from the position of NW Regional Manager to a special assignment,” agency director Dan Prenzlow said in an email that was sent to agency staff Friday and obtained by The Daily Sentinel.
James Pribyl, a former chair of the Wildlife Commission, said Monday that Prenzlow also told him that Romatzke has been reassigned.
“I think that Dan Prenzlow and Dan Gibbs, the (state Department of Natural Resources) director, deserve great credit for making a personnel move that signals to the employees throughout the department, but most especially the Parks and Wildlife division, that they wish to restore the public trust and hold employees to the highest ethical standards,” said Pribyl, who has been involved in the campaign to get wolves returned to Colorado.
Prenzlow said in his email that Romatzke “will report directly to me,” but did not indicate the nature of Romatzke’s new job. He also said that Romatzke “is currently out on a personal leave of absence.”
Prenzlow wrote that Jacob Brey and Garett Watson will fulfill acting manager duties until Romatzke’s position is filled. Brey served in the acting role during Romatzke’s administrative leave, and Watson is deputy regional manager.
Romatzke returned to work after being put on paid administrative leave for three months earlier this year during a Parks and Wildlife investigation into a whistleblower complaint by Randy Hampton, at the time a public information official working for Romatzke.
Hampton said Romatzke worked to inhibit implementation of Proposition 114, including through efforts to cast some wildlife commission members in a negative light. The measure, which state voters passed last year, requires wolves to be reintroduced to western Colorado by the end of 2023.
An internal investigation didn’t find direct corroborating evidence to support allegations that Romatzke worked in his professional capacity in opposition to implementing wolf reintroduction in the state.
But it determined that Romatzke “acted inappropriately,” violated administrative direction, compromised trust between him, Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources, and took action that could be construed as questionable, helping third-party organizations mobilize opposition to Gov. Jared Polis, after Polis suggested that CPW accelerate wolf reintroduction so that it occurs earlier than the ballot measure's deadline of the end of 2023.
The investigation report said Romatzke forwarded unsolicited, incendiary, third-party emails about Polis to parties such as Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, the Colorado Woolgrowers Association, Club 20 and local counties, and engaged “staff and subordinates in conversations regarding pushing out information regarding Parks and Wildlife Commissioners, and communicating statements to staff suggesting collusion with outside groups against the proposition.”
Hampton has told agency officials that Romatzke asked him to find a video editor to review Parks and Wildlife meetings and other online sources to compile, and push out on social media, video that might make commissioners Jay Tutchton and Taishya Adams look poorly in the public’s eyes. Both are wolf reintroduction advocates.
Hampton later voiced his concern to Romatzke about the legality of using agency funds for such work, and Romatzke subsequently told staff that he instead had an outside group working on it, but they shouldn’t share that with anyone, according to the investigative report.
Hampton quit his job after the agency told him following the investigation’s completion that he had to return to work under Romatzke.
Hampton said that ran counter to an assurance he received from Gibbs that he would be taken care of when he came forward as a whistleblower.
Hampton declined to comment on Romatzke’s job change.
Pribyl said Romatzke’s actions, as reported in previous Daily Sentinel stories, “would suggest a significant breach of the public trust, and an open defiance of the law that was passed by the voters in 2020” and of the enthusiastic support of Polis, Gibbs and Prenzlow for fulfilling that law’s mandate.
Pribyl said Romatzke was trying to sabotage that law and the administration’s support of it.
He said of Prenzlow’s reassignment of Romatzke, “I think the message that this action sends is one that speaks for itself, just simply speaks for itself.”
A Parks and Wildlife spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment Monday on Romatzke’s job change. In Prenzlow’s email, in which he also announced the resignation of the agency’s Deputy Director Carlee Koutnik, he thanked her and Romatzke for their service in their prior positions and said he looks forward “to the contributions JT will make in his new role.”
Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project conservation group, said Romatzke’s actions were inexcusable, and his reassignment was the right decision “even if it took too long to make it.”
“When wildlife professionals collude with anti-wildlife interests to try and frustrate wildlife management, then they need to be moved out and make way for professionals who will do their job of conserving native wildlife.”
Gary Skiba, a biologist and wolf reintroduction advocate who is wildlife program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance and previously had a career with Parks and Wildlife, is happy to see Romatzke’s reassignment.
“As someone who worked for the agency, to me it’s really heartening to see the agency take what action it can to address the situation,” he said.
He said he doesn’t know all the details of what Romatzke did, and he thinks the situation is more complicated than it appears.
But he said Prenzlow is doing what he can to act in a way that helps restore some faith in the agency, which “was definitely damaged” by what has been reported about Romatzke’s actions.
Skiba said he always had assured wolf advocates who didn’t trust agency staff that agency personnel are professionals who could be trusted. With Romatzke’s actions running counter to that, he’s glad that Prenzlow took substantive action in response.
“I’m honestly surprised that didn’t happen at the start,” said Skiba, who said that he thinks the bigger issue wasn’t the wolves but Romatzke undercutting agency policymakers.
Skiba said he thinks there is reason for taxpayers to be concerned about whether Romatzke would be providing a valuable service to the agency in his new job, but added, “whatever he’s doing is something that presumably has some value.”
He said it is hard to fire someone under state personnel rules, and he recalls similar situations when he worked at the agency when people not performing as desired in a job were assigned to positions that were considered useful but were “not at the top of the priority list and that’s why nobody was doing them.”
Pribyl, who left the wildlife commission in 2017, said he didn’t get to know Romatzke that well while on the commission.
But he said, “Like all wildlife and parks ranger professionals, JT is a very capable and competent individual, and I presume that he can yet make a contribution to the agency in a role other than regional manager.”