Harvey Nelson, Minnesota conservation giant, dies

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2010 - 7:38 AM

One of the nation's most astute wetlands and wildlife managers died at age 85 of heart failure.

Harvey Nelson

Born in 1925 on a farm near tiny Barrett, Minn., and raised in nearby Evansville -- the heart, at the time, of the state's best duck country -- Harvey Nelson nurtured a boyhood fascination with waterfowl to become one of the nation's most powerful wetlands and wildlife managers over a 42-year career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Nelson, 85, died Friday of heart failure, ending a star-studded professional and volunteer tenure during which he remained ever humble despite being showered with accolades, including induction this month into the Minnesota Waterfowl Association Hall of Fame.

"There's a hole in my heart right now,'' John Schroers, president of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, said Saturday. "Harvey was a guy who could hobnob with the high and mighty in Washington, D.C., getting things done for wildlife, yet could fit in easily with the average guy.''

A graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he studied wildlife management, Nelson held a master's degree from Michigan State University in natural resources conservation and an honorary doctorate from North Dakota State University.

His work with the Fish and Wildlife Service spanned a critical half-century in which waterfowl management grew ever more sophisticated and science-based, increasingly dependent on complex aerial population surveys along exacting U.S. and Canadian routes in spring, and computer modeling to develop hunting seasons and limits in fall.

Originally intending to be a veterinarian, Nelson switched majors when he learned he would have to leave Minnesota for Iowa to attend vet school. He joined the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1950.

"Because I was interested in the wetlands program, and migratory birds, waterfowl particularly, I decided that, by golly, if I could get a job at the Fish and Wildlife Service, that was what I was going to do, and so I did,'' Nelson recalled in an audio biography he recorded in 2002.

Nelson's first posting was at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. He served at other national wildlife refuges in the Midwest, and was promoted to key research and management positions until 1974, when he was appointed associate director of the service in Washington, overseeing the national wildlife refuge system, national fish hatcheries, wildlife law enforcement, migratory bird management and animal damage control.

He returned to Minnesota in 1980 to manage Fish and Wildlife programs in eight states, and in 1987 was named executive director of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, an ambitious state, federal and private conservation initiative.

"Harvey was a doer,'' said Bob Jessen, 78, of Bemidji, who retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as state waterfowl biologist in 1987. "He had some get-up-and-go."

Until Friday, when he suffered chest pains and died en route to a hospital, Nelson remained active in conservation.

A board member of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, he set up and attended the group's annual banquet Wednesday.

A busy retirement

The consummate volunteer, Nelson organized the recent statewide waterfowl symposium held in Bloomington and was a key figure in passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008.

"Even now, in retirement, every time I talked to him he was either going to or coming from a meeting or symposium,'' said Ray Norrgard, DNR wetland wildlife program leader.

A 600-acre wetland complex was bought in his name near Evansville in 1996, and in 2000 he was named Man of the Year by the Outdoor News.

Not bad for someone who as a kid wanted only to set a few traps and hunt canvasback ducks near his home on Lake Christina.

"The future poses some difficult challenges,'' Nelson said in his autobiography. "Constant vigilance is required to maintain habitat quality and quantity, as well as populations of birds desired not just by the hunting public, but the public at large. When you put all this together, it's equally critical to other species, ground nesting birds, other resident mammals, a whole host of wildlife species and fish species that come together, supported by habitat.''

Nelson is survived by his wife of 62 years, Gene; four children, Steve Nelson, Beth Nelson, Pam Lassonde and Patti Nelson, and three grandchildren. Visitation will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Washburn McReavy's Werness Brothers Chapel in Bloomington. Services will be held at 11 a.m. at St. Edward's Catholic Church in Bloomington.

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