LITTLE FALLS -- It's hard to imagine when you observe the 19-person DNR operation in Little Falls that it all began in 1966 in a small office above Bank Square.
That office was manned by Gary Johnson, the first DNR wildlife manager to be assigned to work in Morrison County.
"I stored beaver traps, signs, posts and tools upstairs," Johnson said. "There wasn't any off-street parking. But it worked."
There also was no support staff. If the phone rang Johnson answered it. All the duties required of the position were handled by Johnson, who last week retired after 36 years on the job. His retirement was celebrated by a party of 110 people last weekend in Randall.
Johnson's interest in the outdoors began at his uncle's bait shop in Fergus Falls, where he was born and raised.
"I would go down there and sweep the floors, sell minnow and fishing equipment," Johnson recalls. "I would hear the people talk about hunting and fishing. My dad hunted and he would take me with him."
When Johnson left Fergus Falls for the University of Minnesota he intended to study architecture, but switched to civil engineering because he wanted to be outdoors and then to wildlife management because he wanted to be outdoors even more.
Among his career accomplishments is the creation of the first waterfowl enhancement project paid for by Minnesota state duck stamp funds. That took place on a 100-acre marsh near Sartell in 1977. He was also instrumental in the development of a 700-acre wetland impoundment near Staples, a project completed with MnDOT money. It's the largest wetland mitigation project in Minnesota and one of the five largest in the nation.
Recently, Johnson organized the golden anniversary celebration of Minnesota's wildlife management areas. Over his career he spent about $1.6 million on 35 WMAs encompassing 39,000 acres. Statewide, WMAs cover 1.3 million acres.
"Where would we be if we hadn't made those acquisitions?" Johnson asks. "What would be the state of hunting and the wildlife populations that exist on those lands? We would have a lower quality of life in Minnesota."
Perhaps Johnson's most visible role in the field has been as manager of the Camp Ripley Archery Deer Hunt, which each year draws about 4,000 archers from 34 states for a pair of two-day hunts. Johnson has seen his share of bizarre happenings during those hunts.
"Once a hunter shot a deer and went to get his friends to help him drag it out. When they got back they found a bear had claimed the deer. It wouldn't leave and they couldn't scare it off. They came back to the check station for help. I went up there with a gun and fired a shot in the air and it left.
"We've had our share of lost people," Johnson said. "When the hunt was in November and December it was critical to find them because of the weather. It was quite difficult sometimes. A lot of people get turned around and lost because the roads aren't marked real well. Sometimes we've had to bring a plane down from Brainerd to help someone find his vehicle."
But there's been only one death in the history of the hunt. That happened in the camping area after hours about five years ago, Johnson said.
Has the DNR changed over the past 36 years? "Tremendously," Johnson said. "We still have specialists like myself working on management, but now we have so many more people who are in planning and figuring out how to fund long-term programs. There is less emphasis on state-owned property and more emphasis on working with private landowners. We have a lot more inter-agency relationships with the Fish and Wildlife Service, Soil and Water Conservation District, and Extension Service. There's also been a tremendous expansion in special interest groups like the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever and the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. They've all become major supporters of the DNR. We don't see the old general sportsman's clubs anymore. Everybody has specialized."
The abundance of fish and game also has changed over 36 years.
"When I came here there were no Canada geese, black bears, wolves or wild turkeys. The deer herd has grown tremendously. Pheasants and ducks seem to be a yearly struggle depending on habitat conditions."
Johnson said his most difficult work was handling wildlife depredation complaints.
"Some of them were fairly catastrophic. But by the time we could do anything it was after the fact. We couldn't help the landowners recoup their losses. All we could do was help them prevent it from happening again."
Johnson and his wife Barbara, who also retired from the DNR, have lived on 40 acres near Randall since 1967. Johnson describes it as "a great place to raise kids, dogs, and occasionally get away from the public when I needed to."
The couple doesn't have any specific retirement plans but would like to visit several state parks this fall. And now that he's retired from the DNR Johnson said he finally might have time to hunt and fish.
Regrets? Johnson, who has two daughters, said he has only one.
"I probably should have balanced my work with my family a little better. It was pretty strong to the work side for a lot of years. There are things I missed out with my wife and children."
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