Published September 23, 2012, 12:00 AM

BRAD DOKKEN COLUMN: Longtime U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager Roger Hollevoet retires

Earlier this month, Roger Hollevoet called it a career, retiring as project leader of the federal agency’s Devils Lake Wetland Management District, a position that had dominated his life since June 1986.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Roger Hollevoet was 11 years old the first time he tagged along with a neighbor kid and the friend’s dad to a North Dakota duck slough.

From that moment, Hollevoet recalls, he knew he wanted to pursue a career working with ducks and wetlands.

“That time spent just walking around wetlands and looking at ducks, it was mesmerizing for an 11-year-old kid,” Hollevoet recalls. “I fell in love with it.

“It was like a fish taking a big bait, and I was hooked.”

For the Grand Forks native, that long-ago encounter set the stage for a 36-year career in wildlife management that included positions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake and Kulm, N.D., Pierre, S.D., and Manhattan, Kan.

Hollevoet never was gone from North Dakota very long, though, and he returned to the state for good in December 1982.

Earlier this month, Hollevoet called it a career, retiring as project leader of the federal agency’s Devils Lake Wetland Management District, a position that had dominated his life since June 1986.

“I don’t know how to say it, but there’s a lot of tension yet,” Hollevoet, 58, said during a recent telephone interview. “I’m used to working yet. I’m not going to get my daily adrenalin shot anymore.”

It’s no coincidence that Hollevoet, who graduated from Central High School in 1972 and UND in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife management and biology, retired just before hunting season. He and his wife, Jackie, have purchased a home in Bismarck and are in the process of selling their house in Devils Lake.

“I’m in a new area so I’ve got no favorite places to hunt yet,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of scouting. Duck season is not far off, so I’m looking forward to that, getting the old shotgun out and putting some mallards in the pot.”

In his job as project leader of the Devils Lake district, Hollevoet oversaw Fish and Wildlife Service operations in eight northeast North Dakota counties, an area that includes more than 45,000 acres of wetlands on 201 federal Waterfowl Production Areas along with Lake Alice and Kellys Slough national wildlife refuges and Sullys Hill National Game Preserve near Fort Totten, N.D.

Where there’s water, there’s controversy and Hollevoet often found himself in the center of it, especially after Devils Lake began rising in the early ’90s and inundated vast areas of once-productive farmland.

“It weighed on you 24 hours a day a lot of times, especially with the real controversial stuff — getting calls at home, people calling you (names),” Hollevoet said. “Most of them would unload at you in your face. You’d get those things and the reason it did wear on you was as a wildlife manager, I wanted what was best for wildlife, but I was always looking at the landowner as the key to this thing. I wanted to find ways to work with landowners all the time.”

On that front, Hollevoet said he’s especially proud of an initiative called “Conservation Agriculture,” in which the Service worked with the North Dakota Wetlands Trust to apply conservation principles on five working farms.

“We found tillage went down and profits went up,” Hollevoet said. “In the Devils Lake Basin, there are a lot of issues between wildlife and agriculture, at times, so trying to solve some of them was rewarding. We did a lot of good pilot projects that delivered good results and found new ways to understand agriculture as well as agriculture understanding conservation and management of wildlife.

“I think that was really important.”

The rise in Devils Lake also affected operations at Lake Alice, where 20 control structures built to create wetland habitat now are submerged. But Kellys Slough northwest of Grand Forks was rejuvenated, Hollevoet said, with the construction of 10 water management pools and private wetland restorations. The refuge today attracts 35,000 shorebirds annual and provides nesting habitat for waterfowl.

Sullys Hill was transformed with the construction of a new Visitor and Education Center and amphitheater, improved hiking trails and a plan for Devils Lake fifth-graders to use the game preserve as an outdoor learning site.

“We made wonderful strides at Sullys Hill,” Hollevoet said. “We did some wonderful development on all three of our major refuges.”

Hollevoet leaves the job at a time when the “good, old days” for waterfowl and wildlife are in jeopardy from increased drainage, breaking up of native prairie and looming cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program and other federal initiatives.

Being an optimist, Hollevoet says, isn’t easy.

“I want to be, but it’s quite concerning,” he said. “With all the changes in modern agriculture and the prices they’re getting right now, they’re doing everything they can to farm road ditch to road ditch, and it’s going to be difficult.

“What worries me is we’re going to have continued flooding and flash floods because once you take all the water-holding capacity of the landscape, all it does is run, and it’s going to be scary, I think, sometimes.”

The Service hasn’t hired a replacement for Hollevoet, but the retired manager says he has two words of advice for the new person who comes on board:

Hang on.

“There are other places that have issues, too, but there are some unique issues in Devils Lake,” Hollevoet said. “I wish I could say I had solved them all.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send e-mail to