Gary Drotts credited his rural, northern Minnesota roots with sparking a passion for the outdoors and pointing him toward a 39-year career in wildlife management with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Brainerd.
Growing up outside of Deer River in the pre-video game era, where television reception was spotty at best, Drotts spent time in the great outdoors that surrounded his country home.
“I had to entertain myself outside,” he said Thursday at his DNR office on the banks of the Mississippi River.
And much of his DNR career, which comes to a conclusion with his retirement on Tuesday, was spent outside amid the woods and lakes of Crow Wing, Aitkin and southern Cass County.
Drotts, 62, was hired by longtime Regional Wildlife Manager Henry Wulff and also worked with Forester Cliff Carlson. In his tenure he worked as a laborer, as a deer habitat specialist and in a variety of other roles. In 1996 he was promoted to area wildlife manager, a job that tied him to the desk to a greater extent than his previous positions. Describing himself as a “raw talent” when he first joined DNR, he worked his way up to wildlife manager, a position in which he’s responsible for personnel, budgets and making sure projects are completed.
“It’s my job to keep the paperwork off the guys in the field,” he said.
The DNR manager’s aim has been to run his office in an efficient and effective manner but sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t make it easy to achieve the results that he would like to regarding wildlife population. Hard winters, droughts and other natural events play a role in wildlife survival rates.
“As our population grows those people (who have moved into the Brainerd area) have certain expectations,” he said.
The Brainerd Wildlife Area includes about 700,000 acres of public land, 1,000 lakes and 50 State Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) totaling more than 70,000 acres. It offers visitors numerous opportunities for hunting, trapping and wildlife observation. It’s a huge geographic area, stretching diagonally from Motley to Floodwood. Drotts’ years of service in one location pays dividends in the form of his familiarity with the area.
“There’s not much in that whole work area that my staff or I do not have some good knowledge of,” he said. “We’ve been to virtually every nook and cranny.
His office’s responsibilities include responding to hundreds of nuisance animal calls; mowing/maintaining about 80 miles of hunter walking trails; assessing all WMAs for noxious weeds, collecting harvest information and monitoring population levels for deer, bears and other wildlife; and surveying shallow/wild rice lakes. He also collaborates with Camp Ripley’s Army Compatible Use Buffer program and other duties.
Drotts joined the Brainerd DNR office not long after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1974. He’s seen the Brainerd area’s population grow considerably in his 39 years here and with growth has come more interactions between the wildlife and people who built homes in what was once the animals’ habitat.
“We spend a ton of time on nuisance animal management,” he said.
Drotts sees himself as the manager, the politicians as the board of directors and the people as the stakeholders when it comes to natural resources.
“It’s actually their resources,” he said of the state’s citizens.
Drotts said he’s been blessed with an excellent staff. And while he has always been mindful that he works for the public, there were times when people have been less than pleasant to him and other DNR employees.
“I’ve been called names,” he said. “I’ve been threatened over the phone. It’s hard for us.”
The preservation of nearly 2,000 acres of prime land along the Mississippi River near the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport — Mississippi River Northwoods — was one of the great accomplishments of area conservationists during his career, he said.
He said the state, Crow Wing County and conservation groups had been trying to secure that property from Potlatch for about 15 years and it never would have happened without funding from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment which the voters approved in 2008.
Although he couldn’t advocate for the amendment question as a state employee, Drotts said he was personally a big supporter of the measure.
“It’s made my last four years (at work) a dream,” he said.
Turning his attention to the state of various wildlife in the Crow Wing-Aitkin-Cass County area, Drotts said the area has a healthy turkey population that was trapped and transplanted to the area when turkey hunting was permitted some years back. On display, just a few steps from Drotts’ office, is the third turkey shot in Crow Wing County. Drotts bagged that particular bird and plans to donate it to the DNR office when he retires.
Also notable, he recalled, was the all-time high record deer harvest in 2003.
“We really clobbered a lot of deer,” he said. “It was great hunting. People were shooting deer galore.”
Drotts said the combination of a lot of deer and a lot of public land make this area the heart of deer country in Minnesota. During that record-breaking 2003 deer hunting season, Drotts said hunters killed 15 deer per square mile in the Emily-Outing area that year. That was a rate that could not be sustained for long, he said, but deer remain plentiful in the Brainerd area.
“It’s as good as any area in the state,” Drotts said.
Drotts was a strong advocate of the opening of a wolf season. He said he knows of the location of five packs of wolves within 20 miles of Brainerd.
The trumpeter swan population in the Brainerd area has been exploding recently, Drotts said while the number of ruffed grouse has been down the past 15 years because of poor hatches.
Collaboration with a wide variety of volunteers who work with conservation and hunting groups has been the key to much of the success that’s been seen in the area, he said. Among the groups that have worked with the DNR are Ducks Unlimited, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Pheasants Forever, Delta Waterfowl, the National Wild Turkey Federation and others, he said.
He also credited the Brainerd Dispatch for helping to bring about awareness on wildlife issues. He said Mike Rahn, Tony Sailer, Vince Meyer and Brian Peterson were among the outdoor writers he’s worked with over the years.
Drotts said he’s proud of the DNR’s efforts to protect vulnerable shallow lakes, that provide needed waterfowl habitat
With retirement nearing Drotts plans to enjoy the outdoors, volunteer for the DNR and other organizations perhaps do some consulting work and project administration for conservation groups. He also a home in Merrifield that would benefit from a few projects, he said and there’s always fire wood that needs to be cut.
A bachelor, Drotts should have plenty of time to pursue his interests. “I just have to ask the dog what to do,” he said. “I’ll say ‘Duke, do you want to go hunting?’”
An avid deer hunter, Drotts also hunts ruffed grouse and in the winter ice fishes. He said he’d like to do more spearing in the coming years. His outdoor activities also include picking blueberries and harvesting wild rice.
While he admits to a little apprehension about how he’ll adjust to his new schedule after 39 years of work, Drotts is looking forward to the next chapter of his life.
“This has been, for me, a dream job,” Drotts said. “It’s hard to believe it’s gone by so quick.”