Michael Sieve earned a college fine arts degree in the early 1970s, only to land a job on the kill floor of an Iowa beef slaughterhouse.

He had dreams as a high school kid in rural Nobles County in southwest Minnesota of someday winning the federal duck stamp contest — an ambition that still burns inside of him after a long, highly successful career of painting whitetail deer, other big game, upland birds and waterfowl.

Sieve’s depiction of a rooster and hen flushing into a snowstorm from a field of dried-out corn is this year’s Minnesota Pheasant Stamp. He still creates seven or eight new wildlife paintings a year and has made a name for himself around the state as a devoted bow hunter and land conservationist. At his dreamy homestead, gallery and art studio in the wooded hills east of Rushford, the Star Tribune caught up with him early this week for a rangy discussion of his outdoors life.

Painting

In the four years that he toiled as a meatpacker, Sieve hustled on the side to paint wildlife scenes and establish a reliable market for his artwork. Stripping cowhides off carcasses provided him a good living, he said, enough to buy a new pickup truck. But he quit his day job in 1979 and never looked back. 

At worst, he thought, he could commission himself to paint what others wanted. But he never resorted to that. Instead, he quickly established himself as an elite wildlife artist by winning the Oregon state duck stamp contest three years in a row. The first of those milestones in 1984 generated enough income from print sales to pay for his first house. He’s gone on to purchase hundreds of acres of wildlife-friendly lands in three locations across southern Minnesota.

Sieve’s paintings, including images of exotic big game he has viewed and hunted in Africa, have now been reproduced in more than 100 limited edition prints. He often is the featured artist at wildlife art shows and once a year in December hosts an annual Christmas art show with his wife, Juli, at their secluded home on a Driftless Area trout stream.

Sieve said he is once again competing to win the federal duck stamp after a long period of discontent over the judges’ leanings for slick, stripped down images. Sieve portrays his subjects in their natural settings in scenes that convey movement, vital habitat or other meaning.

“I walked away from it for 25 years. … Now the contest is asking for the kind of art I paint,’’ he explained. “I’m jumping back in and trying to win a few.’’

This year’s stamp was awarded to Minnesotan Scot Storm. Sieve’s entry was in the top 10.

Land conservation

In 2002, then-Minnesota Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum penned a resolution declaring Sieve the state’s forest stewardship landowner of the year. He was cited for his dedication to the preservation of wildlife and for frequently donating prints of his paintings to conservation organizations.

Sieve said the stewardship award is the biggest accolade he’s ever received for caring about the environment. He has enlisted big chunks of land in a smattering of programs funded by state and federal taxpayers. The contracts have included crop set-asides for the sake of clean water, pollinators, pheasants, grouse, wild turkeys and other wildlife.

He successfully planted a grove of walnut trees from seed with help from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But he takes just as much pleasure removing shoots from existing willow trees and simply planting them elsewhere to crowd out undesirable weeds, shrubs and trees.

“I’m doing it because I’m having fun,’’ Sieve said. “I get lots of satisfaction out of seeing it grow up and become a really good conservation piece.’’

Bluffland whitetails

Sieve, who grew up hunting foxes, became a hunter of ducks, pheasant and wild turkey. But, for him, archery hunts for deer are above all.

A vocal critic of the DNR’s management of the state’s whitetail herd, he helped found Bluffland Whitetails Association years ago to improve the age structure of deer in the Southeast region.

The group successfully fought for a youth deer hunt and venison donation program. It also favored the creation of a regional rule that bans hunters in the area from harvesting yearling bucks. Sieve said those antler point restrictions were well received and quickly put bigger bucks afield.

But trophy-sized bucks are still a rarity in the area unless they are hunted on large tracts of tightly controlled private land, he said. To prevent hunters from annually wiping out young bucks that meet the antler point restriction, the DNR needs to move the firearms season away from the mating season when animals are most vulnerable to hunters, Sieve said — a tradition the DNR has been loathe to change. 

“There’s too few quality bucks,’’ Sieve said. “We’re sitting here picking up crumbs compared to what it could be.’’

Sieve said he spent years tangling with DNR wildlife officials on the subject. He got nowhere.

“I feel bad I’m not in the fight anymore,’’ Sieve said. “I’m burned out.’’

Chronic wasting disease

Even in his prime as a DNR critic, Sieve said he wouldn’t be questioning the agency for its aggressive fight against chronic wasting disease (CWD). DNR wildlife officials are in their third year of thoroughly monitoring southeastern Minnesota’s wild deer herd with help from hunters.

The battle also has featured an extensive thinning of the herd with extra hunts and sharpshooting to reduce the spread of CWD from one deer to the next. Not all hunters in the area agree with the no-holds-barred approach, but Sieve said Wisconsin’s game managers did too little.

“It’s hard to be optimistic, but I think the DNR is doing the right thing,’’ he said.