After nearly 41 years as a Department of Natural Resources employee, Tim Bremicker hung it up.
This happened a week or so ago, when, with a coffee party at the agency’s St. Paul headquarters, followed by a social gathering among co-workers and friends at a nearby pub and restaurant, Bremicker, 64, walked away from the only workplace he has known as an adult.
Ten or 20 years ago, the departure of a wildlife manager of Bremicker’s considerable credentials and dirt-beneath-the-fingernails experience might not have signaled anything beyond what it was: a man’s worthwhile work life come and gone.
But Bremicker’s retirement, along with those of others in the DNR who recently have ended their careers, particularly within its Fish and Wildlife Division — along with the now-aging DNR managers who soon will retire — are part of a subtle, gradual shift away from resource professionals who came to their craft first as hunters and anglers, in favor of those who, in some instances, became resource managers for altogether different reasons.
And with different life experiences.
In fact, according to at least one study, perhaps fewer young natural resources professionals than ever have grown up hunting or fishing. And some still don’t hunt or fish.
Instead, broadly speaking, their interests might lie in such “non-consumptive” outdoor pastimes as canoe paddling, hiking and rock climbing.
And instead of studying fish and wildlife management in college, they might major in “environmental science” or “conservation biology.”
The implications, over time, for the environment, for fish and wildlife management, and perhaps especially for single-species management (think ducks, pheasants, deer), are many, according to a study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin as long ago as 2000.
“The proportion of the U.S. population who hunts has declined in recent decades, and the stakeholder base of wildlife management agencies has been broadening,” said researchers John Organ and Eric Fritzell, “causing agencies and professionals to become more responsive to non-consumptive societal wildlife interests.”
By now, in fact, the trend toward “ecology based” resource conservation, rather than management that emphasizes, for example, the well-being primarily of “fish and game,” is well established — with such states as Minnesota and Wisconsin (and others) perhaps being among outliers that still emphasize (though not exclusively) the more traditional model.
New York’s resource agency, for instance, isn’t called the Department of Natural Resources but the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Driving the changes are many interrelated factors, among them a decline nationally in the percent of Americans who hunt and fish, a “greening” of college natural-resource course offerings and a movement in many states toward a greater reliance on general funds for resource management, rather than only those ponied up by hunters and anglers.
“The perception of senior faculty at seven of 12 programs” that Organ and Fritzell studied “are that numbers of students who hunted had decreased in the range of 10 to 30 percent during the last decade.”
Courses that students studied, and their majors, changed as well, with “more rare-species conservation, more emphasis on conflict resolution, more multidisciplinary management and more human dimensions being folded into courses,” the researchers found.
None of which is necessarily bad. In fact, broad-based ecosystem approaches to resource management — at least in theory — hearken more to the holistic approach advocated a century ago by Aldo Leopold, the father of modern conservation, than do programs that might advocate only for a single game species.
But problems loom.
One is money.
Since before Leopold’s time, and continuing today, hunters and anglers have paid the lion’s share of the nation’s natural resource management.
And willingly so: Many times, they’ve agreed to tax themselves and their equipment purchases to provide funds at the state and national levels to manage fish, game and wildlife, while providing — not incidentally — broader societal conservation benefits such as clean water and clean air.
In Minnesota, for instance, a trout seeker need not only purchase a fishing license to angle but also a trout stamp, with funds from the latter dedicated to stream habitat.
Ditto pheasant hunters and duck hunters, the latter also paying for national wildlife refuges and other conservation lands through purchases of required federal duck stamps.
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During Bremicker’s DNR career alone — he started with the agency in 1972 — Minnesota waterfowlers rose up to establish the state duck stamp, while pheasant hunters also gained their special stamp.
More recently, Minnesota hunters and anglers, to Bremicker’s delight, led the charge for passage in 2008 of the Legacy Act, which — a rarity nationally — provides broad-based taxpayer funding not only for fish, game and wildlife habitat but for the arts, cultural heritage and parks and trails.
All of which suggests Minnesota is a special place whose citizenry will continue to support the outdoors for generations, both in traditional and new ways.
Yet it remains a fact that society is changing, and as it does — perhaps more quickly than we can foresee — resource management also will change.
Today, a relatively small percentage of American kids hunt and fish. More of them than ever grow up in cities. And colleges and universities are changing the way they educate those who become resource professionals.
Thus two questions loom:
Where will the passion come from for future conservation? And who will pay for it?
Traditionally, hunters and anglers — whose hunger for the well-being of game and fish has been nurtured “in the field” — have anchored and paid for the nation’s proven, science-based conservation model.
Will citizens with a more generalized “interest” in conservation step up to fill any future financial void?
As important, will tomorrow’s resource professionals muster the same enthusiasm for their work that pros like Bremicker have?
“I grew up duck hunting, was a fanatic grouse hunter, and still am,” he said the other day. “I started out with the DNR as a laborer, doing duck banding and, later, stomach analysis of coyotes. Then I spent three winters on snowshoes trapping coyotes and wolves, as we tried to get a handle on the population, distribution and behavior of these animals.”
Years later, Bremicker would be appointed DNR wildlife division (now fish and wildlife division) director.
“I’ll take a few months off, then get back into it,” Bremicker said a few days after retiring. “I’ve already talked to a couple of conservation groups about volunteering.”
That’s passion, a critical component of effective conservation.
And it’s more often learned out of school than in.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org