Speaking for Wildlife
Bobcats, coyotes, fishers, sharp-tailed grouse–you name it–critters in northern Minnesota are better known because Bill Berg has been studying them and talking about them for decades.
By Margaret A. Haapoja
When my husband, Don, and I walked into Bill Berg's basement workshop, we found him holding a deer jawbone in each hand. "These are both yearlings with almost identical racks," he said, explaining how he ages deer by examining the teeth. "At 17 or 18 months, deer replace their three-cusped fourth pre-molars with two-cusped ones." This is quintessential Berg wearing his teacher's hat.
Bearded and balding with bushy eyebrows and eyes that twinkle, Berg is Kris Kringle in a plaid shirt. The burly wildlife biologist is modest and unassuming, a fellow who invites camaraderie and shines at conversation. With a lifetime of field research behind him, Berg knows more about wolves, bobcats, and sharp-tailed grouse than most. But, unlike many scientists and woodsmen, he is a gregarious guy who loves to share his expertise with anyone who asks. Talking to journalists every week for the past quarter century, he became the voice of the Department of Natural Resources in northern Minnesota and the unofficial spokesman for north woods critters.
Retired after 30 years of fieldwork with the DNR in the Grand Rapids area, Berg continues to speak out on behalf of the creatures he loves. He turns up at meetings, in college classrooms, and on the radio.
"He's one of the best talkers I know," says Minnesota Public Radio reporter Chris Julin, who has interviewed him on the air. "He's able to explain biological concepts in a way that anybody who's listening can understand."
ON THE RADIO. In retirement Berg is a frequent guest on KAXE Northern Community Radio's "A Talk on the Wild Side," a morning show that focuses on the natural world.
"Bill doesn't come off as a stuffy scientist," says Scott Hall, producer and host of the morning show. "He's immersed in the wildlife rather than aloof from it, and that comes through."
Longtime DNR volunteer Wayne Hoshal worked with Berg on scent surveys in the early 1990s. To study wildlife across the state, the DNR sets up several thousand 3-foot-diameter circles of raked earth every September. Each contains a scent tab that smells like coyote urine and rotten eggs. Animals come to sniff, and researchers study and count the tracks as an indication of predator populations.
"Bill doesn't just answer a question with one or two words," Hoshal says. "He goes into detail. For instance, at a scent post, we saw these little tracks, but they were kind of deep. Bill explained that skunks have small feet relative to their bodies, so they'll sink in that soft sand."
AT HOME. Living on the edge of the U.S. Forest Service's Trout Lake Semiprimitive Nonmotorized Area near Grand Rapids, Berg and his wife, Terry, have plenty of space to roam. But evenings he sometimes holes up in his office, where his computer is crowded in between bookshelves that hold every issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer dating back to the early 1940s.
A history buff, Berg has decorated his porch walls with logging chains, log-stamp hammers, and oxen shoes. After retiring in 2001, he volunteered on a U.S. Forest Service project to help refurbish log buildings on the historic Joyce Estate, an elaborate hunting camp built on Trout Lake by a Chicago lumber baron in the 1920s.
The whole Berg clan (including four grown children and 10 grandchildren) gathers often at the Bergs' home, and the grandkids follow their granddad around like the Pied Piper, absorbing his appreciation for nature.
"I think a lot about kids and how they're going to view natural resources," says Berg. "I'd like to teach them to grow up respecting nature and the woods."
IN THE FIELD. Ever since he was a child in south Minneapolis, Berg has loved the outdoors. His father and two uncles introduced him to hunting and fishing. "When school would let out early for a ball game, I'd go down and buy minnows and go fishing on the Mississippi," he remembers.
Berg recalls his dad parking him on a -fence-post during his first pheasant hunt because at age 8 he was too small to walk through the cornstalks. At age 12 he shot his first duck while hunting with his uncle Harry.
Berg earned his bachelor's degree in wildlife management from the University of Minnesota in 1968. Although he didn't plan to go to graduate school, he couldn't resist when he was offered a chance to study moose in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. That research gave the DNR and USFWS a better understanding of moose biology in northwestern Minnesota and provided a more scientific basis for managing the herd.
Berg took a job as DNR wildlife research biologist at Red Lake Wildlife Management Area in 1971. He accepted a similar position at Grand Rapids in 1974. "I took over a coyote study and ruffed grouse drumming counts," Berg says, "but I kept on expanding it, and it turned into a coyote, timber wolf, bobcat, fisher, fox, badger study. Gradually the grouse stuff evolved into not just ruffed grouse, but sharptails, spruce grouse, and prairie chickens."
Berg says the sharptail project became a crusade. "The sharptail was at such a brink of going over the edge that we could easily have lost it as a hunted species," he says. "That work was, without a doubt, the most satisfying."
He's proud of his part in bringing back the bird, and he still works with the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, which he and Roche Lally founded in 1985. Berg and volunteers like Hoshal worked with landowners to set up observation blinds people could reserve to watch sharp-tailed grouse dancing.
In 1980 Berg completed a DNR study on Red Lake WMA to evaluate the effects of prescribed burning on vegetation and wildlife. He became an advocate of brushland management and prescribed burning, which replaces wildfires in creating habitat for sharptails and other bird species.
Berg also forged strong bonds with the Minnesota Trappers Association. He has studied the remains of trapped furbearer species, and understands the way regulated harvest can keep furbearer populations healthy.
BEHIND THE DESK. "People think a wildlife biologist spends most of his time outdoors," Berg says. "I wish it were that way, but only 10 to 20 percent of my time was outdoors." But he enjoyed his job 99 percent of the time, he says, because no two days were ever the same.
On a fall work day, he might have enlisted people to help conduct scent surveys, run many survey routes himself, and analyzed and recorded survey data. On a winter day, Berg might have collected and analyzed furbearer carcasses, recording sex, age, weight, body condition, and stomach contents.
In winter, as in summer, he also fielded phone calls and wrote survey summaries. He formulated recommendations for seasons and management of each species. In spring he was often afield at 4 a.m. counting sharptails or listening to ruffed grouse drumming.
"Nearly every day there were just a lot of numbers to crunch," he says. "Sometimes I felt like an accountant rather than a biologist."
His winter wolf-track and -population surveys documented the unprecedented recovery of wolves Minnesota, paving the way for proposals to remove the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list.
Berg also spent a lot of time up in the air, tracking and counting radio-collared coyotes, moose, and other critters. "I built up more than 5,500 hours in the air," he recalls, "and even got my pilot's license."
GREAT COMMUNICATOR. Perhaps more than anything, Berg is known as a great communicator. Plagued by a stuttering problem in his youth, he became an accomplished speaker during his tenure with the DNR.
C.B. Bylander, DNR Outreach Section chief, was a DNR information officer when he first met Berg. "We hit it off immediately," says Bylander, "because Bill is quotable, credible, and understandable-the latter a trait I much appreciated."
Outdoor writer Sam Cook says he got more story ideas from Berg than from any other single source. "When you called Bill to ask one or two questions," says Cook, "he'd answer your questions, and then he'd say, 'And you know another interesting thing' . . . and he'd drift off onto another tangent, which I always found wonderful and helpful and which broadened my knowledge of the area and the people."
Berg's "Coyote Man" educational presentations were enormously popular with 4-H and scout groups as well as adult audiences. Berg patterned his character after Critter Man, portrayed by Dennis Olson of the Audubon Center of the North Woods at Sandstone in the late 1970s. From offstage, Berg howled like a coyote and screeched like a wounded rabbit. Then, dressed in gray coveralls and covered by a coyote pelt, he crept into the crowd pretending to search for the rabbit. Suddenly startled, he stopped and stared at a youngster. "What's that smell?" he asked. "Humans!" He then talked about having ticks, eating his first fawn, and moving to a new den because a farmer built a barn over the old one.
"It was fun," Berg says, "and it is a really neat way to teach kids and adults, make them laugh and make them understand all about the life and death of a coyote."
Berg's success as a communicator is a funny thing. In a news release, Berg once said ruffed grouse would be so thick "you'd have to beat them back with flyswatters." That exaggeration prompted much good-natured teasing from colleagues. In response to the ribbing, Berg had a photo taken of himself in hunting duds hunkered down with his eyes cast suspiciously skyward, a flyswatter taped to the barrel of his shotgun.
STRONG DEDICATION. Berg's retirement is really an extension of his career. He still rises at the crack of dawn because "the neatest things happen then." One morning he watched a bobcat and a coyote stalking two sandhill cranes. Another he saw six or seven wolves sitting like dogs on a hillside, watching cows across the road.
From the first of May until the end of September, his daily ritual includes a sunrise dip in the lake.
Berg volunteered 600 hours last year-writing grants and developing habitat for the Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, serving on the Izaak Walton League board, and doing DNR loon counts.
"I've still got such a strong dedication to this work," he says. "Every little bit we can do to work with natural resources, from better forestry practices to better wildlife management practices to stewardship of the land and the water-when you put all these pieces together, that gets to be almost a whole pie."
Even now, Berg's phone rings often because reporters still consider him the local wildlife authority.
"When Bill retired, they replaced him with two biologists, so that tells you something," says Cook. "To think he was a civil servant-we were all paying his salary-we got a tremendous bargain in Bill Berg."
Margaret A. Haapoja, freelance writer and frequent contributor to Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, lives on Little Sand Lake, south of Calumet.