If you’ve chased pheasants on public lands in western Minnesota, hunkered down in a goose blind at the Lac qui Parle refuge, or were startled by an otter bobbing in the water while fishing on the Minnesota River, you might want to know this.
One of the behind-the-scenes guys who helps make all of this possible has quietly retreated from his role. After a career that spans parts of 48 years, Brad Olson has decided it was time to retire from his position with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as assistant manager in the wildlife division office serving Big Stone, Lac qui Parle and Swift counties. “I think it is the right thing,’’ said Olson, 65, of his decision.
“When he told me he was going to be retiring it was almost like panic set in,’’ said his boss, wildlife manager Curt Vacek. “I have to pick his brain as much as I can.’’
He knew what he was losing with Olson’s departure. A sharp-minded organizer who is always on top of things, Olson is known by co-workers as someone who always keeps busy while treating them with home-baked goods he loves to make.
But most of all, Vacek understood that he was about to lose someone who appreciated and understood the people the office serves. “Everybody knows him and he knows everybody,’’ said Vacek.
Olson grew up on a farm five miles from the Lac qui Parle refuge and today his home is about four miles from it.
All this time, Olson has maintained a “good neighbor’’ approach to working with the landowners and residents of the area. His good rapport with the public has benefited the DNR immensely whenever it has sought the cooperation of landowners or gone before county boards to seek approval for public land acquisitions.
Through his career, Olson has been responsible for the acquisitions in the three counties. Working with partners including Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, Olson has protected habitat and acquired many of the public hunting areas that attract many to the region.
Acquiring habitat has probably been the most rewarding part of his career, according to Olson. It’s not just because of his passion for conservation. It’s the people. Those willing to sell land for public acquisition are people who are themselves conservation minded and know the importance of protecting this habitat, Olson explained. They’ve been willing to wade through the bureaucratic system and put up with the long timelines it takes to get the job done, he noted.
His work with the DNR started in the summer of 1968, when he landed a summer job at the Lac qui Parle refuge. His best friend’s father was the manager of the refuge at the time. Olson also came to the job by way of a love for the outdoors and conservation. He credits his father with instilling a conservation ethic at home.
Olson continued his summer employment with the DNR, and went off to college in Crookston for one year and then to South Dakota State University, Brookings, to obtain a degree in wildlife management. He worked first at the Madison wildlife office. His co-workers over the time there included Tom Landwehr, current commissioner of the DNR, and Steve Merchant, presently the DNR wildlife populations program manager.
“They left me in the dust,’’ laughed Olson, who added that he never had a desire to move to an office job in the Cities.
The Madison office was eventually merged with the Appleton office and subsequently, moved to its current location at the Lac qui Parle refuge. Olson took one year off from his outdoor career when his wife took a teaching job in Del Rapids, Iowa, and he found employment as a carpenter.
Change is the theme of what he witnessed over a span of 48 years, he said. “We went from thinking Nebraska 28 switchgrass was the answer to habitat back then to now, we’re planting 30 to 50 different species of grasses and flowers in those mixes,’’ he said.
Olson was among the DNR personnel who helped make the Lac qui Parle refuge a stopping point for the Eastern Prairie Population of geese now using it. They used to fly right over it on their spring and fall migrations.
He’s also been involved in the effort to re-introduce otters, prairie chickens and turkeys to the region.
The work has always been varied, and that’s part of its appeal, said Olson. “If you don’t like what you’re doing one day, do something else the next,’’ he said.
No matter the difficulty, he’s always understood the importance of conservation work. Asked if things are going the right way, he answered: “Yeah, I would say habitat wise as far as the state land base, yeah, we’re making a few small steps forward. The negative side, we’re losing it a whole lot faster on the CRP side.’’
There’s no overstating Olson’s passion for conservation, and he’s never hid it, either. He always signs every letter with the salutation “For the Resource.’’ Vacek said that motto is how he will always remember Olson for his work.
The DNR will be filling the assistant manager position made vacant with Olson’s official departure on Aug. 2, said Vacek. With a tight budget situation, it’s possible that a new hire will not be on board until sometime next year.