WILLMAR, Minn. -- If you’re looking where to find some hunting success this fall, ask Jeff Miller.
“When you spend your career learning all the habitat in the area, you have a pretty good idea what’s happening where,’’ said LeRoy Dahlke while speaking about Miller’s success as a hunter.
Miller will have more time this autumn for hunting and fishing, both of which are his lifelong passions. Miller, 66, retired this past week after a career with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife office in the Willmar area that began in 1978. He’d just earned degrees in biology and environmental studies at Mankato State when he took a part time position with the local wildlife office, led at the time by Rob Naplin. A few years later, Miller had a full time position. He never looked back. He turned down other opportunities to stay on the landscape that has always been his home.
“I just never wanted to leave, I guess,” said Miller, who has served as assistant manager. This area’s mix of lakes and wetlands, prairie and woodlands suit him right. “You don’t find that everywhere,’’ he said.
You can enjoy a lot more of it thanks to Miller. Dahlke, who served as manager of the local wildlife office from 1984 until just over six years ago, and Cory Netland, who has led the office since, both know. Miller has been an instrumental player in many of the area’s successful wetland and habitat restorations in the past four decades.
Netland is willing to venture that during Miller’s tenure the acres in wildlife management areas in the three counties managed by the office has doubled or possibly tripled. The office is responsible for Kandiyohi, Meeker and Chippewa counties. Miller worked with landowners, other agencies and organizations such as Pheasants Forever to make new acquisitions possible. At the same time, he had a big role in developing and protecting the habitat they hold.
This is especially true for his role in wetland restorations in the area, from the well-known Timber Lake project early in his career to more recent improvements, such as the 100-acre complex of wetlands located roughly half-way between Kandiyohi and Atwater. He often worked in tandem with Steve Erickson, now retired from a career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Litchfield.
Erickson said Miller had passion for his work, and was always so good about working with others to make projects happen.
Habitat is what it’s all about, according to Miller. Nothing means more to him, he said, than restoring the natural landscape and watching wildlife make it home once again. “Build it and they will come. It works that way,’’ he said.
And work he did, as he came on board during challenging times. Federal policy under U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz encouraged fence row-to-fence row farming at the time. It meant habitat was disappearing fast when Miller began his career.
He helped find ways to restore habitat, and wildlife. He helped re-introduce wild turkeys to the area, and found the locations with the best habitat to support the new birds. He watched the first nesting pair of eagles return to Kandiyohi County. Today, he keeps an eye out as sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans make comebacks here too.
Miller said there were times in the late 1970’s when he ran survey routes to count pheasants and could come back from a 100-mile run without having spotted a single one in Kandiyohi County.
Numbers are much better today, thanks to habitat improvements, he pointed out.
His early career knew controversy too. His early assignments included identifying wetlands as part of the public waters inventory. The work was critical in protecting the state’s remaining wetlands. It was sometimes challenged in court and at contentious public hearings by landowners.
His job came with many other challenges. There were many autumns he’d be up at 3 a.m. to begin the drive over to Lac qui Parle to help with the goose hunt conducted at the refuge there in the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Despite the red eye drives, these were exciting times, and Miller said he very much enjoyed his work there.
Today, goose hunting is enjoyed throughout much of Minnesota, and Lac qui Parle is relatively quiet. He’s seen other changes too. He once was very active in establishing food plots on both public and private lands. At one point, he probably managed no fewer than 130 active food plots, said Netland.
By Miller’s own accounting, some of his work has been anything but glamorous. He remembers donning a full body suit, and rubber gloves, boots and protective goggles to walk under a 90-degree sun collecting the rotting carcesses of diseased cormorants and pelicans.
He is also the guy who inevitably took many of the calls from the public about nuisance animals and other problems, responding to complaints about everything from beavers to woodchucks. He’s followed up on reported sightings of cougars. He once assisted other DNR staff in sedating and taking blood samples from a bear that had denned up in a brush pile at the former state wayside near Blomkest on Highway 7.
Netland can laughingly point to the moose that once spent the better part of a summer and autumn in northern Kandiyohi County as evidence of Miller’s prowess at developing food plots and habitat.
He remembers too Miller’s calm demeanor when he took a phone call at the office during the height of the avian influenza crisis in the area. The caller was very much in alarm about what to do about the bird poop on her car. You could bleach the whole car, Miller said while keeping a straight face, but suggested instead that she run it through a car wash, said Netland, laughing at the memory.
Miller said his best memories are those of the time he spent in the field, tromping through grasslands and wetlands. Being outside and improving the landscape he loves and calls home is what it’s always been about.
Some things won’t change. Retirement means he’ll have more time for his family, and he said, more time for fishing and hunting and enjoying the landscape he loves.