Longtime manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota embraces retirement
In late April, Gretchen Mehmel retired as manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp after more than 30 years at the helm.
RED LAKE WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA, Minn. – As a grade 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 a career in wildlife management would be a better route for helping 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 “off and on” 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 renowned grouse research biologist Gordon Gullion, who died in 1991, and another summer helping with a roadside pheasant study in southern Minnesota.
She even spent some time inoculating chickens.
“An interest in hunting came later, and that further cemented my interest in a career working with wildlife,” she said.
In late April, Mehmel retired as manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minnesota, after more than 30 years at the helm. During a recent interview – which took a few weeks to line up as she plunged into retirement, first with a turkey hunt – Mehmel talked about her years at Norris Camp, the highs and lows of the job and aspects of the DNR she couldn’t talk about publicly as a manager.
The move from Norris Camp wasn’t far as Mehmel and her husband, Jeff Birchem, a retired DNR 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 her way up the career ladder, working for the DNR as a nongame wildlife technician in Brainerd and a wildlife technician at Carlos Avery and Thief Lake wildlife management areas before becoming assistant area wildlife manager for the DNR in Thief River Falls.
“It took me taking a lot of seasonal jobs to get on permanently, and I am happy about that because I got so much varied experience,” she said.
In 1991, Mehmel became the manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp. She was familiar with the WMA and staff from her positions at Thief Lake and Thief River Falls, working on prescribed burns and deer pellet counts, an outdated method of estimating deer populations that has been replaced with hunter harvest numbers and aerial surveys.
There weren’t many female wildlife managers in those days. Mehmel recalls having to repeatedly prove herself until earning a reputation as a hard worker who “knew my stuff.”
“It was very challenging, at times,” she said. “Rather than starting from a place of privilege, 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 a man’s domain. Mehmel in 2019 was honored with the Minnesota Award, the Minnesota Chapter of The Wildlife Society’s highest honor, presented 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 much has changed for the better,” she said. “Women, in general, are no longer thought of as ‘women wildlife managers’ but just wildlife managers. It is a huge step forward. The effort now is to hire more people of color and of diverse cultures in natural resources careers.”
Mehmel is already missed, said Blane Klemek, acting Northwest Region wildlife manager for the DNR in Bemidji. Whether hosting school groups or tackling a complex management issue, Mehmel never lost her passion or enthusiasm for the job, Klemek says, even after more than three decades.
“Gretchen was always a joy to work with,” he said. “She wasn’t the type of person who would just sit there at a region wildlife meeting and not say anything. Anytime 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 on forestry and wildlife management, no one topped her as far as I was concerned, up there in that country.”
Mehmel also encouraged others, whether they were 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 says.
“She would facilitate interest,” he said. “She might not necessarily have been the one doing the actual research, but she was opening the door to all kinds of research.
“We’re going to miss her – we already miss her.”
Ups and downs
The low point of her years at Norris Camp, Mehmel says, occurred 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 while looking 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 goes with having a couple of deaths occur on your watch.”
“It was heartbreaking,” she said.
A few years earlier, higher-ups in the DNR decided Red Lake WMA headquarters should be moved from Norris Camp to Warroad, Minnesota. While still relatively new to the manager’s position, Mehmel’s efforts ultimately convinced DNR administrators that headquarters should remain at Norris Camp.
Saving Norris Camp stands among her proudest accomplishments, Mehmel says.
“I am also quite proud of the groundbreaking moose research that the DNR collaborated on in (northwest Minnesota) with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” she said. “It was this research that first showed how detrimental internal parasites can be not just to individual animals, but to whole populations and how this was linked to climate change.”
Forest management critic
The techniques of wildlife management – 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, Mehmel says.
By comparison, forest management has changed for the worse. Mehmel was among 28 area wildlife managers to sign a letter to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen in 2019 protesting new logging quotas on WMA lands.
In the past, Mehmel says, wildlife managers selected forest stands for harvest based on habitat goals for wildlife. Now, it’s based on a one-size-fits-all computer model designed to maximize timber harvest goals, while values such as managing for wildlife and rare plant species are seen as constraints, Mehmel says.
“It is so important for wildlife that this stop,” she said. “Instead, a plan with wildlife habitat as the goal should be used for figuring out which stands to harvest at which age, and which stands to leave to transition naturally to the next forest type.
“The state should once again have field wildlife managers, who know the land the best, make the decisions on what timber to harvest for wildlife habitat. This direction is not just bad for wildlife, it is bad for the professionals that manage these lands because their recommendations are being disregarded. This has seriously affected morale and left little faith in (DNR Fish and Wildlife Division) leadership by disregarding field level professional opinions.”
Retirement, Mehmel says, is “much busier” than anticipated. She’s keeping involved with conservation as a DNR volunteer helping with a research project on woodpeckers and surveying terns and plovers on Lake of the Woods if historic high water levels don’t prevent nesting.
Retirement plans, she says, also include high school career counseling and reading to grade schoolers 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 never hunted,” she said. “That must change.”