Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit Tuesday, Aug. 17, that seeks to remove the chair of the Natural Resources Board, who has refused to leave after his term expired months ago.

Kaul wants a Dane County Circuit Court judge to remove Dr. Fred Prehn from the board because he is no longer a member after his six-year term expired May 1. The chair has rejected calls for him to step down.

"Dr. Prehn’s term is over. His attempt to remain on the Natural Resources Board indefinitely, in defiance of the will of the voters, is fundamentally undemocratic," said Kaul in a statement.

Prehn has pointed to a state Supreme Court ruling that allows him to remain in his seat until the state Senate confirms a new appointment. The Republican-controlled Senate has yet to hold a confirmation hearing on Gov. Tony Evers’ nominees.

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Prehn could remain on the board for years if Republican lawmakers fail to hold a hearing. The Senate has refused or delayed confirmation of Evers’ appointees, including former Health Secretary Andrea Palm and Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson. At times, Republicans have waited as long as two years before holding a confirmation hearing.

Evers appointed conservationist Sandra Dee Naas and Milwaukee real estate developer Sharon Adams on April 30 "to fill vacancies created by the expiring terms" of Prehn and Board Secretary Julie Anderson. Only Anderson stepped down. Both were appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The Humane Society of the United States and Center for Biological Diversity filed a complaint with Kaul last month that argued Prehn’s position is not one that allows for him to serve past the end of his term. Kaul echoed that stance in the complaint.

"Unlike some other public offices, the term for Board members does not include a holdover period," the complaint states.

Prehn declined to comment to WPR on Wednesday, Aug. 18. He told the Associated Press that he thinks the lawsuit is politically motivated, adding that the Evers administration views him as a roadblock to their agenda.

Prehn has said there are a lot of issues that require him to remain in his seat and allow the process to play out. In May, he told Wisconsin Public Radio his decision to remain in his seat wasn’t political.

"There's so many things happening on the Natural Resources Board right now," he said. "There's a lot of topics that I think the board can use my leadership until a replacement is confirmed."

Prehn pointed to proposed regulations regarding nitrate, water and wolf management. Animal rights groups cited the state's February wolf hunt among reasons to remove Prehn. State-licensed hunters blew past their 119-wolf quota and killed 218 wolves in less than 72 hours. They fear a high wolf quota for this fall's wolf hunt will draw the population down to unsustainable levels.

Multiple conservation and environmental groups applauded Kaul's decision to take legal action to remove Prehn, including the Humane Society, Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club.

"As demonstrated by last week’s disastrous decision to force through an excessive wolf hunting quota with total disregard for the recommendation of the state’s own expert biologists, the role of the Natural Resources Board is simply too important for Prehn to be playing politics," said Nicholas Arrivo, Humane Society attorney in a statement.

Laura Lane, chair of the Wisconsin Sierra Club, said Prehn's decision to remain on the board thwarts the democratic will of the people who elected Evers and taints the board's decisions on natural resources policy. She said they would like the court to remove Prehn and allow Naas to take her seat. They also want the board to hold another vote on the fall wolf quota.

"We feel that vote on the wolf quota should happen again in September with the rightful appointees at the meeting," said Lane. "That's one example of how we feel that Prehn's holding over on the board, his staying in his seat once his term limit has already expired, has unduly and wrongfully influenced a very important vote that was taken by the Natural Resources Board in August."

On Wednesday, the board voted 5-2 to approve a quota of 300 wolves for the fall wolf hunt. That quota is more than double what was recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The state’s wildlife managers urged a conservative quota due to uncertainty over the population's response to the February wolf hunt.

It remains to be seen whether a court's ruling may impact any decisions under Prehn's tenure on the board.

"He has now cast votes in really important situations on issues that people care a lot about, including the wolf quota setting," said Evan Feinauer, staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin. "And, there's a little bit of not putting the genie back in the bottle on that. So, we'll see how the case that was just filed proceeds."

Since last week's vote, Adams has clarified she didn’t intend to support the wolf quota, saying she thought she was voting on an amendment. That means the board’s Walker appointees and Evers’ nominees were split 4-3 over the fall harvest level.

"You get a sense as to why the chair chose to stay," said DNR Secretary Preston Cole after the vote Wednesday. "I wonder what the vote would've been with Sandy Naas sitting in that chair."

On Wednesday, Naas indicated she would not have supported the board's decision on the wolf quota.

"The reality is we don't really know how February's hunt affected the population. So in situations like this, to me, it's best to listen to the experts and that was not done last week," Naas told WPR.

Naas has more than three decades of conservation experience. She oversaw wildlife damage abatement stemming from wolves, deer and bears during her time as a county conservationist for Douglas, Ashland, Bayfield and Iron counties. She has also served as a volunteer for radio collaring wolves and will teach agriculture and natural resources to high school students at the Drummond School District this fall.

The Evers' appointee said she's ready to represent northern Wisconsin on the Natural Resources Board when the opportunity comes.

"Right now, it's up to the courts to decide and hopefully sooner rather than later," she said.

The state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, has said the business community applauds Prehn's continued public service, calling him an independent voice who does not serve as a "rubberstamp" for the DNR's policy proposals. The business group said Prehn should remain on the board until the Senate confirms Evers' nominations, noting others have done so in the past.

Staff with Wisconsin Legislative Council have said Prehn’s decision to remain on the board is legal, but it’s unusual for members to remain past the end of their terms. Only two other board members — Steve Willett and Jim Tiefenthaler Jr. — decided to retain their seat on the board over the past two decades.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard locally on 91.3 KUWS-FM and at wpr.org.

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