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Friends & Neighbors - Hamden refuge manager announces retirement

Mike Murphy, refuge manager at Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge, has decided to retire after almost 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"I figured it was a good time (to retire)," he said, referring to the recent announcement by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of a 20 percent reduction in staffing, and the consolidation of several offices.

The work force plan developed by the service included "de-staffing" the Hamden Slough office and re-assigning the staff to the Detroit Lakes Wetland Management Office.

"After 34 years of government service (including four years with the U.S. Navy), Murphy said, "it's time to try something else."

But as he took a drive around the Hamden refuge with this reporter on Thursday, it was clear that there was much he would miss about his work.

Since first coming to Hamden Slough 17 years ago, "I've loved coming to work every day," he said. And he is clearly proud of the work that he and the staff at the Refuge have done to restore its wetlands to their natural state. When he first came to the property, it was pretty much all farmland, Murphy noted.

In the intervening years, Murphy has worked on everything from upland and wetland restorations to building public support and developing recreational opportunities. He noted that he and the refuge staff worked many intense years to restore parts of the area's prairie wetland complex. This included Bisson Lake, and the 130 wetlands and uplands around the lake, which rapidly became a birding "hot spot."

This historic waterfowl and wildlife area is near Audubon, which was named for John James Audubon, commonly considered America's first ornithologist.

In recalling his career at Hamden Slough, Murphy said it was an exceptional opportunity for a federal employee to build a National Wildlife Refuge at such a remarkable site. The refuge is on the extreme boundary of the Tall Grass Prairie. Adjacent to the refuge, a glacial ridge marks the western edge of North American's Broadleaf Forest, which extends to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In the Bisson Lake area, on the north end of the refuge, visitors can also see the western edge of the Great Lake's Pineland Forest near White Earth.

Murphy noted that this convergence of prairie, broadleaf forest and pineland creates a transition zone, which has resulted in an unusually great variety of bird species from all three ecosystems being sighted on the Refuge -- making it a favorite haunt of birding enthusiasts.

Currently, a little more than half of the 6,000-acre refuge has been acquired and restored, Murphy added. This includes 235 wetlands -- most notably, Homstad and Bisson Lakes -- and over 1,500 acres of native prairie.

But while his work at Hamden Slough has spanned more than half of his career with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Murphy has fond memories of his earlier career as well.

A Fargo native, he earned a degree in history and psychology from North Dakota State University before joining the Navy. It was during those long, dark nights at sea that he first began thinking about what he really wanted to do with his life when he got out of the military, Murphy said.

"When I left the Navy, I got a degree in wildlife management from the University of Idaho, and a master's degree in botany from NDSU," he said. "Then, I joined the Fish & Wildlife Service -- and they sent me down to Arkansas to trap beavers.

"So much for all that education," he said with a laugh. But that initial two-year stint at the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas proved to be an education in itself, Murphy noted.

"I really did learn a lot, about cultures and value systems very different from what I grew up with in North Dakota," he said.

It was at Big Lake that Murphy first came into contact with a unique group of people who truly earned their living from the land.

These people, who made their homes in the "no man's land" on the levee between federal and state property -- where they did not have to pay taxes to either entity -- lived in such extreme poverty that they literally fed themselves from what they could catch or grow themselves.

Thus, when they would arrest a man for trapping or hunting on government property, they would have to do so with the knowledge that it might leave the man's family without food.

"That was a good cultural shock for me," he admitted.

From there, Murphy would go on to work at the Hobe Sound NWR in southern Florida, which he described as "a wonderful experience."

It was there that his three sons would discover their love of nature, Murphy noted.

"There were miles and miles of undeveloped beach," he said. "My kids just thrived there."

Murphy's work at Hobe Sound involved protecting the nests of sea turtles (an endangered species) from roving raccoons and persuading local sun worshippers that they needed to be wearing at least a minimal amount of clothing to enjoy the public beaches there.

"We frequently had to make arrests for indecent exposure or lewd behavior (for nude sunbathing)," Murphy recalled. But eventually, local residents learned that such behavior was inappropriate for public beaches, and such arrests became less frequent.

After four years in Florida, Murphy and his family returned to Arkansas for another two-year stint, this time at a refuge that was right on the boundary with Louisiana. His next stint was at the Kulm Wetland Management District in Kulm, N.D., which was so steeped in German culture that when he first moved there, the local newspaper was still being published in German.

Four years later, Murphy and his family moved to Detroit Lakes, and he started his work at Hamden.

The original goal of Hamden Slough refuge was to provide a nesting and migratory resting area for 145 species of birds, Murphy noted. As refuge restoration activity took place, local and regional birders were delighted with an influx of rare and uncommon birds, which re-nested or were recorded for the first time in Becker County. Bird species numbers and diversity became so high that the Minnesota Audubon Society designated the refuge as an IBA (Important Bird Area) site in 2004, one of only eight in the state. As of 2006, over 225 species of birds had been observed on the refuge. Murphy commented that visitors can begin an exciting morning on the refuge by bringing a thermos of coffee, and watching Bald eagles hunt American coots for breakfast.

In addition, Murphy also takes pride in the wildflower-seeding program at Hamden, which attracted insects that, in turn, serve as a food source for young birds in the spring. Many of the rare bird species nesting on the refuge are in or near the wildflower plantings.

When asked what he will miss most, Murphy said he was blessed with a remarkable team of "refuge builders," which was committed to restoring the local resources. In refuge reports to the Regional and Washington offices, employees were not given job titles. Instead, all employees were called "refuge builders." He also noted that 25 years as a federal game warden and wildland fire fighter were sometimes "darn exciting."

Though he does not yet have any definite post-retirement career plans, Murphy said he hopes to spend the coming summer learning to wind-surf and teaching local children how to sail on his sailboat on Eagle Lake.

He and his wife of 35 years, Lynn -- who met when they were both students at Shanley High School in Fargo -- have no plans to leave their home in Detroit Lakes. Their two younger sons, Dana and Ryan, still live in the area.

Dana and wife Ashley make their home in Moorhead, where they welcomed the birth of Mike's granddaughter, Rylie Ann, in March. Dana is a computer programmer. Ryan lives with wife Amber in Fargo and recently graduated from NDSU with a degree in history.

Oldest son Tom and his wife Sally make their home in Great Falls, Mont., where Tom works as a biology teacher.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454