Kevin Kotts got the opportunity to work a job in wildlife management that he wanted to do since high school, but after 31 years in that role with the Minnesota DNR, Kotts is ready to let someone else take over the reins.

Kotts worked as the Glenwood DNR’s area supervisor for its wildlife division for many of those three decades. Now at age 62, he will retire from that role, with his last day coming on Sept. 7.

“I felt very fortunate in having the job I always wanted and being able to acquire land and plant grass, burn grass, manage wetlands,” Kotts said. “That’s the stuff I kind of dreamed about.”

Kotts said it felt like the right time now to move into retirement while he still has the energy to do things he wants to do in his personal life. He will spend a lot more time with family at his retirement home in Park Rapids.

Kotts started his career as a wildlife manager based out of Morris in 1990 before the Morris and Glenwood areas merged into the Glenwood work area that includes Pope, Douglas, Grant, Stevens and Traverse counties. He oversaw wildlife research projects and the conversion of thousands of acres to native grasses and forbs.

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Kotts was part of four shallow lake basins that were designated as wildlife lakes so they could be specifically managed for wildlife purposes. He worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many other state and local outdoor and environmental groups in land acquisition projects. Once ongoing acquisitions are complete, he will have overseen the addition of more than 5,000 acres of public land through wildlife management areas in the Glenwood work area.

His career recognition includes being honored with the first-ever Beyond the Call Award given by Ducks Unlimited to an individual who shows conservation leadership and dedication.

“I’m hopeful. Things change, and I think it’s probably just fine to have a new manager,” Kotts said. “I’ve had my chance to try to do things. I think we did get some things accomplished, but it’s OK to change people every now and then and let somebody else take the reins.”

Fergus Falls’ Mike Oehler takes over management of huge area

Mike Oehler, the wildlife supervisor for the Fergus Falls wildlife division, will add the Glenwood work area to the region he already oversees.

Oehler’s current work area includes Clay, Wilkin and Otter Tail counties. That’s 2.6 million acres of public and private land and includes 64 state wildlife management areas totaling 29,827 acres. Absorbing the Glenwood area into his workload will add an additional 2 million acres of public and private land through five counties that includes 115 wildlife management areas totaling more than 18,000 acres.

Mike Oehler, the wildlife supervisor for the Fergus Falls Area DNR, will add the Glenwood area of Pope, Douglas, Grant, Stevens and Traverse to the list of counties he oversees for wildlife management.  (Contributed photo)
Mike Oehler, the wildlife supervisor for the Fergus Falls Area DNR, will add the Glenwood area of Pope, Douglas, Grant, Stevens and Traverse to the list of counties he oversees for wildlife management. (Contributed photo)

Oehler was able to shift Clay County from his work area to the Detroit Lakes work area under wildlife supervisor Rob Baden. That is seven counties Oehler is now tasked with overseeing.

“I think in terms of square miles of counties, it’s going to be one of the biggest work areas in the state,” Oehler said. “We recently completed a staffing plan in 2019 statewide for the DNR fish and wildlife section. Part of that laid out the staffing that we’d have at these merged offices, so right now we’re looking at about 3.4 (full time employees) for our work area.”

Jason Strege will continue in his role as the assistant manager from Glenwood, but he’s the lone full-time wildlife management employee there now after Kotts’ retirement. John Maile is a partial assistant in Glenwood who also works in a statewide position as a shallow wetland program coordinator.

“At one time we had Kevin and two assistants,” Oehler said. “Then we also had a laborer, so we’re down from four to 1.4. Fergus’ office is kind of the same deal. We’re down to two full time employees here. I have a full-time technician and then myself. We used to have three here. It’s a much bigger work area now. Travel time when you’re trying to address a stakeholder’s issue is going to be substantial, and it’s certainly going to hamper your efficiency.”

Smaller staffs are part of the financial crunch that the DNR finds itself in throughout many parts of the state.

The Glenwood area fisheries department also lost longtime supervisor Dean Beck to retirement in 2020. His replacement was just recently hired and is scheduled to start in late September. Glenwood assistant area supervisor Bill McKibbin has been the acting supervisor since Beck’s retirement.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a pretty drastic staff reduction as well,” McKibbin said. “When I showed up in Glenwood in 2002, we had pretty much the same complement of supervisors, assistant area supervisors, specialists, but we also had three technicians and now we’re down to one.”

In Glenwood, the fishery division’s core duties are lake survey work, hatchery work in the spring and fingerling harvest and stocking in the fall. That’s been consistent over McKibbin’s time there, but changing lake systems have also added more to the table.

“Now we have a lot of extra work that wasn’t present 20 years ago whether it’s aquatic management, fish disease testing that we do now,” McKibbin said. “We have a reduced staff and we keep being asked to do more with less. At some point, that has to stop. You can’t keep doing more with less without something being impacted.”

Searching for a new funding source

The Minnesota DNR announced in August a “transformational effort” to find new, long-term sources of money to pay for the agency’s conservation and outdoor recreation efforts, saying current funding isn’t keeping up with Minnesotans' basic outdoor needs or expectations.

Traditional means of funding natural resources are slowly drying up as revenue from hunting and fishing license sales declines with an aging population, and as inflation eats away at the fees campers pay at state parks and boaters pay for their licenses.

“We had a license sales cost increase a few years ago,” Oehler said. “Those aren’t easy to get through the legislature, and the fact of the matter is a lot of our funds come through license sales. When those go down, revenue goes down as well. I think 60-some percent of what we spend in the division is salary, so salaries are one thing that’s impacted, which means positions. So it’s what funding model can you figure out that will provide the services?”

Oehler said the staff will prioritize projects throughout the Glenwood and Fergus Falls areas as they try to accomplish as much as they can. He will lean on Strege a lot in the immediate transition as Oehler works to get to know more people in the Glenwood area over the next year.

The DNR will also work closely with a roving crew based out of Elbow Lake that is still in the process of getting fully staffed after the pandemic delayed that process. Roving crews in Minnesota are funded through the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Because of that funding source, their work centers specifically on habitat development and management work.

“They’re a force multiplier for area offices,” Oehler said. “They will be our service provider if you will for a lot of this additional habitat work. Then also into the Todd County, Wadena County. They’ll be doing a lot of habitat work, a lot of prescribed burning. Things that we as a small group on our wildlife team now, we can’t do it totally organic. A lot of times burns require 7-10 people. We just don’t have the staff, so we’ll draw from those folks.”

Oehler said any potential land acquisition and management of public lands are greatly impacted as funding dries up and local management staffs get smaller.

“When we buy land a lot of times, it’s not in the condition we want it to be in for habitat for producing ducks, producing pheasants, producing deer, pollinators or whatever wildlife,” he said. “It takes people power and money to do it. We’re going to try to do as much as we can while we can. But we’re not going to be able to be in as many places as we’d like to be to address stakeholders’ needs. We’re going to have to prioritize and keep things going.”