LITTLE FALLS -- A scoop into a fish tank for minnows and a tall hunting tale told in a Fergus Falls bait shop hooked Gary Johnson on the outdoors.
That has been good for central Minnesota hunters who have benefited from the DNR Little Falls area wildlife manager's work for the past 35 years.
Johnson learned to appreciate the outdoors at his uncle's bait shop in Fergus Falls. The simple tasks of selling minnows and helping customers with purchases taught Johnson the value of wildlife and fishing. That knowledge is seen in his many contributions to the DNR.
"It was a pretty fabulous place to me. It wasn't much bigger than this place," Johnson said as he looked around his DNR office. "I spent the day listening to the people talk about catching fish and hunting pheasants. That was the kind of people I was exposed to as a child."
Johnson recently earned an achievement award from the DNR Wildlife Division for his contributions to conserving the state's wildlife habitat. Since becoming the Little Falls area wildlife manager in 1965, Johnson has helped purchase 55 wildlife management areas covering 18,000 acres. He's had a hand in the development of nearly every WMA in the area. He also helped establish the Crane Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and was the driving force behind many large wetland restoration projects, including the 1,500-acre Rice-Skunk WMA.
"I've been fortunate to complete a lot of acquisitions," Johnson said. "Acquisitions are important to wildlife, hunters and future generations because at least in this little spot we've changed the world."
WMAs provide wildlife with habitat and people with recreational areas, Johnson said. Farm fields are converted to prairie grasses, wetlands are restored and conifers are planted to provide winter cover for pheasants and deer. Parking lots and walking trails provide people with access to these areas.
Johnson used to get satisfaction from completing these projects, but today he finds more satisfaction in working with people from the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Pheasants Forever, local county and city boards and landowners, he said. "Thankfully, the local county and city boards in the area realize the value of these wildlife areas and have been partners in completing these projects," he added.
Johnson may be best remembered for his work in managing the annual Camp Ripley archery hunt, a task he took over in 1966. The hunt has become the largest and longest running controlled archery hunt in the nation. Johnson also helped establish the Camp Ripley hunt for disabled veterans, now sponsored each year by the St. Cloud Veterans Affairs Hospital.
"I enjoy the bow hunts," Johnson said. "I really enjoy seeing the families. There is a unique outdoor experience there that the families can enjoy."
One of the early pioneers in engaging local sports clubs in habitat projects, Johnson has been recognized by the Rice Area Sportsman's Club, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Minnesota Bowhunters, Inc. and Pheasants Forever.
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