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A lasting love of the great outdoors

EARL JOHNSON has managed wildlife for the DNR in three area counties since 1981. He has loved the outdoors since he was a boy. (Brian Basham/Tribune)

After nearly 40 years as a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Earl Johnson is hanging up his boots.

"It's somewhat bittersweet," he said of leaving a job he still enjoys doing. Johnson has been the DNR area wildlife manager in the Detroit Lakes region since 1981, where he managed about 45,000 acres in a three-county region.

Johnson's first day of work was May 24, 1971, when he went to work in the DNR's St. Paul office. He was truly surprised when he actually thought about how quickly that span of time had gone by.

"It seems like you're the young guy on the team forever," he said. "And then all of a sudden, someone snaps their fingers and you're the old fart. It seems like this dang near 40 years has gone in a heartbeat."

But when Johnson reflects back on his years of service, he attributes the pleasure he enjoyed to the people he worked with -- both in the office and in the public.

"It's all about the people you work with," he said. "Not only the people you work with, but the public you work with. The landowners you work with. The boards, the commissions, the watershed districts have all been a joy to work with."

Johnson said he chose to be a biologist when he was 10 or 11 years old, and was more than likely influenced by his father, who was a small business owner in Fertile.

"He took the time when I was old enough to start hunting, and he took the time to take me hunting," he said.

Johnson remembers always being able to identify birds and the critters he found in his childhood yard.

"I was always pulling insects in and fascinated by these critters that lived around us, and I suppose that's what drove me in this direction."

In 1971, Johnson started out as a laborer at the DNR's St. Paul office, then got into land acquisition issues as an engineering aide.

He moved to Slayton in southwest Minnesota in December of 1974, and became the area wildlife manager for Rock, Nobles, Murray and Pipestone counties.

He then moved to the Detroit Lakes DNR office in November of 1981, the office he will retire from Dec. 21.

That time may seem like a heartbeat, but Johnson has seen many changes over his career.

"My gosh! 1971 was the last closed deer season, when we had no deer hunting that November," he said. "Now in the last 10 years, we've had populations that each hunter can take five deer."

Johnson also saw the prairie chicken hunt re-opened in 2003.

"And that had been closed since 1942. You know, that's pretty cool," he said. "This year, we had our first sandhill crane season. We've watched them expand and increase in numbers."

But the change Johnson has had the most fun watching was in people's attitudes and actions towards the outdoors.

"People have become more attuned to our wildlife species," he said. "People thirst to know more about these things -- especially the things they can't see -- like bats. That has been probably the most enjoyable thing about working this profession."

Another big change in the DNR over the years is the attitude toward controlled burning. According to Johnson, not many wildlife managers in the mid-70s believed in prescribed burning.

"The older managers didn't like fire at all," he said. "And us guys starting out were saying, 'You know, Mother Nature burned this stuff and that's how it evolved. We need to start restoring the influences that caused this evolution.' So we started using fire."

Johnson remembers doing prescribed burns in the 1970s with one or two more people using only a garden rake and a small pump water can on his back and possibly only a deer trail as a fire-break to stop the burn.

"Today, you can't burn a 20 acre piece without 10 people and two or three pump trucks and two or three or four ATVs with pump rigs on them and manpower that makes it prohibitive to burn anything really small," he said.

According to Johnson, the DNR has now learned how to use and manage fire properly.

"Fire is a very important ecological influence on all of our North American plant communities," he said.

Burning a piece of land every four or five years helps improve the plant life, which in turn improves the insect life, which improves the bird life, which improves the wildlife, Johnson said.

One modern technology that escapes Johnson is email.

"My gosh! You get more stuff from every corner of the Earth that is irrelevant to what you're trying to accomplish today, and you waste so much time just looking at the stuff," he said.

But other modern innovations have greatly helped Johnson's job over the years.

"It's nice to look at last summer's aerial photographs and see the world and see the whole state, but there's bad sides to this stuff, too," he said.

As with every other job, along with the highs come the lows, but Johnson prefers to deal with upset people in a positive manner.

"There will always be those people that are just plain hard to live with, no matter who they associate with," he said. "And if you're an agency person, all you can do is say, 'I will try to always greet you with a smile. I will always try to treat you like another good human being.'"

But overall, Johnson enjoyed his working relationships.

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people I've had to work with are grand, great folks," he said.

When it comes to managing deer numbers, Johnson said, it's much easier to manage for a large population than it is to manage for a small population, and trying to manage for a small population was possibly the toughest job he's ever done with the DNR.

"It's been a privilege to work with Minnesota because we've been on the leading edge of experimental things for managing populations like deer," he said.

In his retirement, Johnson said he will continue his enjoyment of biology by volunteering for things like the DNR's woodcock banding and giving presentations. He also hopes to take some time for himself and his family.

"I'm really anxious to do some woodworking and woodcarving and antler carving projects," he said. "I haven't taken enough time to do as much of that as I would love to do."

Johnson enjoys hunting upland birds using his five English Setters, a breed he's owned and loved since 1974, and that's something he hopes to do more of in his retirement.

"I've trained other dogs, but I've not seen something that I like better than that particular breed," he said.

Each one of his dogs has its own individual personality, and Johnson likes working with the dogs to bring out the traits that each dog is good at. He also equates working with his team of dogs to working with his team at work.

"Everyone on the team at home there has got its faults as well as its strengths, and so we try to make use of them just like you do on a working team of people," he said. "One you start to understand the differences in personalities and try to accept those differences, that's when you become productive and become a team."

He also hopes to spend more time with his family and two grandsons after his retirement, and plans to stay in Detroit Lakes with his wife, Dotz, who is a librarian at the Detroit Lakes Public Library.

"I love the community and this is a great place to live," Johnson said. "It's got great geography and a diversity of ecosystems and seasons. We're so blessed in so many ways."

In the end, Johnson said he has no regrets about his working life and he wouldn't chart the course he took any other way.

"What can I say, except it's been a hell of a good ride," Johnson said.