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Kentucky hires fish and wildlife commissioner

BY BRUCE SCHREINER Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Gregory Johnson, who had a long career as a federal agriculture official focusing on conservation issues, was selected Friday to lead Kentucky's wildlife agency in the aftermath of an ethics scandal involving its former commissioner.

Johnson, 58, was the unanimous choice of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Commission at a special meeting at Frankfort. The avid hunter and angler becomes only the eighth commissioner in the department's 70-year history.

Johnson's credentials were highlighted by decades of work on conservation efforts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This is not just work or a job for me," he said. "Fish and wildlife conservation is what I have been committed to my whole life."

In the days before his selection, Johnson was fishing for crappie at a couple of Kentucky lakes. He's been a regular hunter and spoke fondly of his experiences in the woods - both the fellowship with fellow hunters and the thrill of bagging his prey.

He spoke of the department's responsibilities in maintaining those traditions for future hunters and anglers.

"This agency's wildlife and fisheries successes are well recognized among professionals everywhere, and I am looking forward to continuing and building upon those traditions," Johnson said.

His selection capped a six-month-long, nationwide search.

Jonathan Gassett resigned as the agency's commissioner last September during an ethics investigation.

The state Executive Branch Ethics Commission recently fined Gassett $7,500 for nine counts of ethics violations, including ordering state workers to pump out the flooded basement of his house and using the state's shipping contract to ship the skin of an alligator he had killed to a taxidermist in Georgia.

Gassett's attorney, Luke Morgan, has said any mistakes Gassett made were "unintentional and minor in scope."

Johnson will begin work May 16 in overseeing an agency with an approximately $52 million annual budget and about 500 full-time employees.

The agency regulates and promotes hunting and fishing in a state where both activities are cherished traditions.

There are about 560,000 fishing licenses and about 275,000 hunting licenses issued in the state. The department's operating revenue comes from license sales and a share of money generated from federal taxes mostly on hunting- and fishing-related equipment.

Johnson, who grew up in Illinois, graduated from Eastern Kentucky University in 1979 with a bachelor of science degree in wildlife management and minors in fisheries biology and chemistry.

He retired in 2011 after more than 30 years with the USDA, mostly with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

NRCS assists farmers and other land owners in maintaining healthy and productive working landscapes.

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