Longtime director of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota retires – Grand Forks Herald

RED LAKE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA, Minnesota – As an elementary school student in western Minnesota, Gretchen Mehmel says she wanted to become a veterinarian until she heard about the plight of whooping cranes and decided that a career in wildlife management would be a better path to help species in need.

The Willmar, Minnesota native did just that, earning a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management in 1983 from the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus. Mehmel then worked “on and off” for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, “with a few other jobs in between,” including a summer conducting ruffed grouse research in Cloquet, Minnesota, with famed research biologist on grouse Gordon Gullion, who died in 1991. , and another summer helping with a study of roadside pheasants in southern Minnesota.

She even spent time inoculating chickens.

“An interest in hunting came later, and that further solidified my interest in a career in wildlife,” she said.

In late April, Mehmel retired as director of the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minnesota, after more than 30 years at the helm. In a recent interview – which took a few weeks to line up as she plunged into retirement, first with a turkey hunt – Mehmel spoke about her years at Norris Camp, the ups and downs of the work and aspects of the DNR that she could not speak about publicly as a manager.

Norris Camp’s move was not far off as Mehmel and her husband, Jeff Birchem, a retired MNR conservation officer, have a home on the Rapid River.

“My family and I love this area,” said Mehmel, whose daughter, Johanna, graduated Friday from Lake of the Woods High School in Baudette, Minnesota. “Great people and great country – so many hunting and fishing opportunities.”

Like any aspiring wildlife manager, Mehmel had to work his way up the career ladder, working for the DNR as a non-game wildlife technician at Brainerd and a wildlife technician at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Areas and Thief Lake before becoming assistant director of wildlife for the region for the DNR. at Thief River Falls.

In 2019, Gretchen Mehmel received the Minnesota Award from the Minnesota Chapter of the Wildlife Society, for “outstanding contributions to the state’s wildlife and natural resources.”

Contribution / Gretchen Mehmel

“I had to take a lot of seasonal jobs to get a permanent job, and I’m happy about that because I got such a varied experience,” she said.

In 1991 Mehmel became the director of the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp. She was familiar with the WMA and the staff from her posts at Thief Lake and Thief River Falls, working on prescribed burns and deer pellet counts, an outdated method of estimating deer populations that was replaced by deer counts. fighter catches and aerial surveys.

There weren’t many female wildlife managers at that time. Mehmel remembers having to prove herself repeatedly until she earned a reputation as a hard worker who “knew my stuff”.

“It was very difficult at times,” she said. “Rather than starting from a privileged place, where people assumed I was at least qualified for my job until I proved otherwise, it was often the opposite.”

Wildlife management is no longer the domain of humans. Mehmel in 2019 received the Minnesota Award, the highest honor from the Minnesota Chapter of the Wildlife Society, given for “outstanding contributions to the state’s wildlife and natural resources.”

In the process, Mehmel joined an esteemed group of wildlife biologists, many of whom are women.

“So many things have changed for the better,” she said. “Women, in general, are no longer seen as ‘women wildlife managers’ but simply as wildlife managers. It’s a huge step forward. The effort now is to hire more people of color and diverse cultures in natural resource careers.

We miss Mehmel already, said Blane Klemek, acting director of wildlife for the North West region for the DNR in Bemidji. Whether hosting school groups or tackling a complex management problem, Mehmel has never lost his passion or enthusiasm for the job, Klemek says, even after more than three decades.

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Recently retired Red Lake Wildlife Management Area manager Gretchen Mehmel talks to a group of elementary school students in this undated photo.

Contribution / Gretchen Mehmel

“It was always a pleasure to work with Gretchen,” he said. “She wasn’t the kind of person who just sat there at a regional wildlife meeting and said nothing. Whenever Gretchen spoke, she spoke with authority, she spoke with conviction. You could always tell there was a deep dedication to the resource.

“And her knowledge of forestry and wildlife management, no one has surpassed her as far as I’m concerned, up there in this country.”

Mehmel also encouraged others, whether ecologists, botanists or entomologists, to do their research at Red Lake WMA. There was always “something exciting and interesting” coming out of Norris Camp under Mehmel’s watch, Klemek said.

“She would facilitate interest,” he said. “She may not necessarily have been the one doing the actual research, but she opened the door to all kinds of research.

“We will miss her – we miss her already.”

The low point of his years at Norris Camp, Mehmel says, came in June 1999, when DNR pilot Grant Coyour and Eric Cox, a doctoral student conducting moose research in northwest Minnesota , died in a plane crash in the remote Red Lake bog as they watched. for moose calves.

On parental leave at the time, Mehmel says she suddenly found herself organizing a memorial for someone else’s sons and doing “all the work that comes with a few deaths happening under your surveillance”.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said.

A few years earlier, the DNR’s top brass had decided that Red Lake WMA’s headquarters should be moved from Norris Camp to Warroad, Minnesota. Although still relatively new to the post of director, Mehmel’s efforts eventually convinced the DNR administrators that the head office should remain at Norris Camp.

Saving Norris Camp is among his proudest accomplishments, Mehmel says.

“I’m also very proud of the groundbreaking moose research that DNR has collaborated on in (northwest Minnesota) with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” she said. “It was this research that showed for the first time how detrimental internal parasites can be not just to individual animals, but to entire populations and how this is linked to climate change.”

Wildlife management techniques — creating open habitat for deer, moose, sharp-tailed grouse, and sandhill cranes through winter shearing, mowing, and prescribed burns, for example — haven’t changed much. over the years, says Mehmel.

By comparison, forest management has changed for the worse. Mehmel was among 28 wildlife managers in the region to sign a letter to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen in 2019 protesting new logging quotas on WMA land.

In the past, Mehmel says, wildlife managers selected which forest stands to harvest based on habitat goals for wildlife. Now it’s based on a unique computer model designed to maximize timber harvesting goals, while values ​​such as managing wildlife and rare plant species are seen as constraints, Mehmel says.

“It’s so important for wildlife to stop it,” she said. “Instead, a plan with wildlife habitat as the objective should be used to determine which stands to harvest at which age and which stands to leave to transition naturally to the next forest type.

“The state should again have wildlife managers on the ground, who know the land best, to make the decisions about what timber to harvest for wildlife habitat. This orientation is not only bad for wildlife, it is bad for the professionals who manage these lands because their recommendations are ignored. This has seriously affected morale and left little confidence in leadership (MNR Fish and Wildlife Division) by disregarding professional opinions in the field.

The retreat, Mehmel says, is “much busier” than expected. She continues to be involved in conservation as an MNR volunteer by participating in a woodpecker research project and monitoring terns and plovers on Lake of the Woods if historic high water levels do not prevent nesting.

Retirement plans, she says, also include career counseling in high school and reading to elementary students at Lake of the Woods School.

And, of course, hunting, fishing and traveling.

“There are walking trails on Red Lake WMA that I’ve worked on, but I’ve never hunted,” she said. “That has to change.”

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