Trumpeter swans were reintroduced to the Northern Great Plains in 1960 at Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge in south-central South Dakota.

Sixteen years later, the birds attracted Jim Leach, a young master’s degree student at the University of South Dakota. Intrigued by prairie wildlife and the largest of North American waterfowl, he chose to study swans over a competing University of Minnesota program that highlighted eagles.

Leach took a fork in the road that led directly to a successful career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And now, at age 62, he will leave the federal agency to take one of the most powerful positions at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as director of the 575-person fish and wildlife division.

“The DNR is getting a good one,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Project Leader Scott Glup. “He thinks big.”

Glup said Leach easily ranks as the best boss he’s had in 31 years. He described the St. Paul native as a gifted collaborator who has an infectious enthusiasm for conservation work and an unflinching devotion to field staff.

“Jim always says, ‘If you’re not catching flak, you’re not under the target,’ ” Glup said. “He has a very strong passion for the resource, and that just comes across all the time.”

Starting April 18, Leach will step into the DNR job previously held by Ed Boggess, who retired in February. Glup said various conservation groups had tried to recruit Leach over the years, so his departure was a surprise on just one level: “The DNR?”

In an interview this week, Leach said his decision boiled down to wanting to participate in a surge of positive momentum brought about by Minnesota’s unique, constitutionally dedicated funding for the environment and Gov. Mark Dayton’s leadership on clean water, prairie restoration and revitalizing pheasant populations.

“That’s a message for action,” Leach said. “I really think we can move the needle in the way of natural resource conservation.”

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr praised Leach for broad experience ranging from “on-the-ground” wetland restorations to “working the hallways of Congress” for funding. The two men know each other from conservation partnerships, including when Landwehr was assistant state director at The Nature Conservancy.

Eran Sandquist, Minnesota state coordinator for Pheasants Forever, said Leach’s vast network of professional relationships is the result of his persistent prodding. “He’s always asking, ‘How can we do more to benefit wildlife and habitat?’ ” Sandquist said.

Laborer at heart

A hunter and angler who shares those pursuits with his son and three daughters, Leach earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from St. Cloud State. During his postgraduate summers in South Dakota, he landed a laborer’s job in 1977 at Lacreek. Soon after, the Fish and Wildlife Service hired him as a biologist at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge near Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Leach came up the ranks and won a strategic position in 1993 that put him in charge of building breeding habitat for ducks and geese across the Upper Mississippi River basin. The assignment put him in collaboration with the DNR and many other organizations. Since 2008, he’s also partnered on various habitat projects funded by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

“Jim’s a roll-up-your-sleeves type of guy,” Sandquist said.

Leach, married 31 years to Patty, still clings to his roots in the St. Paul area’s Lebanese community. He co-owns a car wash with his brother in Inver Grove Heights, and he spent years coaching his kids’ athletic teams. A good vacation for Leach is driving 36 hours with family and friends to the Northwest Territories for camping and fishing on the Mackenzie River and Great Slave Lake.

“I’ve never been one to sit on my hands,’ ’’ he said.

Glup said Leach doesn’t shy away from conflict if he believes in the cause. At Minnesota’s Pope Waterfowl Production Area, for instance, Glup fought seven years for the full restoration of a bordering wetland that had been improperly drained.

“I had political folks contacting me, pressure from the county level,’’ Glup said. “He always had my back.’’

At the DNR, Leach said he’ll be a strong backer of the agency’s controversial push for banning lead shot on wildlife management areas. Spent lead ammunition can harm wildlife, he said.

On the topic of recruiting young people into a shrinking base of hunters and anglers, he said it’s crucial to appeal to families in all ethnic and racial groups, not just whites. Conservation leaders also need to stress how fish and wildlife habitat projects are vital for clean water, pollinators, nongame species, flood control, erosion control, carbon sequestration and groundwater recharge.

“We need to be relevant to a wider band of people,” he said.