Dave Olfelt, 58, was named Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fish and Wildlife Division director last month by commissioner Sarah Strommen, replacing Jim Leach, 65, who retired in April.
Olfelt has worked for the DNR 31 years, most recently as a regional wildlife manager stationed in Grand Rapids. He’s also held management positions in the agency’s Parks and Trails Division.
Growing up in south Minneapolis, the son of a state of Minnesota attorney who worked closely with the DNR, Olfelt learned at a young age around his family’s dinner table of important conservation issues, such as the establishment of Voyageurs National Park and the conflict over Reserve Mining’s dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior.
A graduate of North Park University in Chicago and the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he earned a master’s degree in zoology, Olfelt’s first job in state government was at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
He and his wife, Sonja, are parents of an adult son, Andy, who lives in Fargo, and Anna, a college student.
In the interview below, Olfelt discusses his outdoor interests and management of the Fish and Wildlife Division.
Q Did you ever think you would be named Fish and Wildlife Division director, managing 600 people and a budget of some $200 million?
A I never aspired to the job. But when Jim [Leach] retired, a number of people encouraged me to apply. With that nudging I put my name in the hat. I’m honored and excited by the opportunity.
Q Are you more hunter than angler, or do you enjoy both?
A I enjoy pheasant hunting very much. My brother-in-law and my son, Andy, and I take an annual trip to South Dakota. I fish as well. I have a collection of paddling-type vessels, and I like traveling in the Boundary Waters. The kind of fishing I do most now is with my daughter.
Q What strengths do you bring to your new job?
A The division’s responsibilities are very broad. I know I’m in the driver’s seat. But we have 600 people here who know a lot about the specifics of what we do. I wasn’t chosen because I know more about hunting and fishing than other people. More important, I think, was how I approach decisionmaking.
Q Fish management has its challenges, but generally is in pretty good shape in Minnesota. Ducks, pheasant, ruffed grouse and songbird populations, meanwhile, have declined. Can these trends be reversed?
A Certainly there’s hope. We have, as just one example, some $100 million in Legacy Act money that each year is combined with other resources and funds and energy to improve habitat. That said, especially with grassland-dependent species, we can’t buy our way out of the problem working only on public lands. Our private landowner partnerships must be strong.
I’m not naive. We have challenges. But we can make improvements working together as hunters and anglers, and by talking more broadly to others who don’t hunt or fish but who care about habitat and clean water and who are willing to talk to their legislators so these issues are a higher priority.
Q You’ve traveled a lot in recent weeks visiting staff and conservation volunteers. Impressions?
A It’s been an eye-opener. A lot of people are working really hard to ensure hunting and fishing and other recreational opportunities continue to be available to Minnesotans. To hear and see the passion and dedication of these people, who are mostly volunteers, such as members of Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, local sportsman’s groups and others, is very energizing. To see the great work they do motivates me.
Q Minnesota has been largely, but not completely, immune to hunting and fishing participation declines seen elsewhere. Yet urbanization and other societal changes threaten these legacy pastimes.
A We do have a solid hunting and angling base here, thanks in part to the tremendous natural resources and large amount of public lands we have. Yet we can’t be complacent. Our conservation funding model depends on license sales and federal reimbursement of funds based largely on participation. As are many others in the conservation community, we’re working on this issue through support of programs such as R3 — recruitment, retention and reactivation — and others.
Q How big of a threat is CWD to deer, deer hunters and the state’s deer-hunting tradition?
A Very big. We have a half-million people in this state for whom hunting deer is a recreational highlight. Harvesting an animal and using it is a really important tradition. Deer hunting is also hugely important to the state economy. CWD threatens all of this and we’re taking it very seriously, attempting to limit its spread as best we can.
Q The state’s conservation challenges can seem overwhelming, not least because so many people are indifferent even to the basics, such as the continued availability of clean surface and subsurface water.
A True. But progress is possible. We need to talk more about our shared values, including clean water and the land stewardship that makes clean water possible. That’s where I want to focus my energy. If there’s one reason I took this job, it’s because I want to be part of solutions involving broader coalitions. I’ve had a lot of experience on smaller scales bringing people together, and if it can work in those settings, I believe it can work in this job, too.