The early years! A Nongame Wildlife Program staff photo from the early 1980s.
In the Beginning (1977-1981)
Section of Wildlife Chief Roger Holmes created the Nongame Wildlife Program in 1977. He felt that the Department of Natural Resources had a responsibility to manage and protect all wildlife, not just game species. Carrol Henderson was hired as the first Nongame Wildlife Program Supervisor and was given an annual budget of $25,000, which included his salary.
As the program began its crucial conservation work, it became clear that more funding was needed in order to accomplish the many goals of the Program. In 1980, state senator Collin Peterson saw that Colorado had enacted a voluntary tax checkoff law and was using the funds to help unhunted nongame wildlife. He introduced similar legislation in Minnesota and the Nongame Wildlife Tax Checkoff law was passed. Minnesotans could now donate to the Nongame Wildlife Program with a tax checkoff located on Line 22 of Minnesota income tax forms.
Minnesotans donated over $500,000 in 1981 via the tax checkoff. This generosity meant the visions of a diverse and protected wildlife population in Minnesota were about to be turned into reality.
With this new source of funding, the Nongame Wildlife Program was able to expand. Six wildlife specialists were hired; one for each of Minnesota’s regions at the time. With Henderson’s supervision, work began in earnest. A Plan for the Management of Nongame Wildlife in Minnesota was presented to Minnesota’s legislature in 1983. Surveys, population restoration, and monitoring of Minnesota’s wildlife continued for the next several decades.
The program was able to successfully restore several wildlife species, including Minnesota’s trumpeter swan, river otter, peregrine falcon, and bald eagle populations. We used our funding to preserve thousands of acres of crucial wildlife habitat throughout Minnesota. During this time, we also supported hundreds of research projects on Minnesota's nongame wildlife species. In 2004, the program began studying Minnesota’s osprey and worked with partners to restore the Twin Cities’ osprey population.
But our focus wasn’t solely on Minnesota’s wildlife: we also aided other states in their wildlife restoration initiatives. We provided the Iowa Nongame Wildlife Program with osprey chicks for many years. We also transferred bald eagle chicks to five other states and helped them restore their bald eagle populations.
As our program grew, we continued to expand our staff. Part-time technicians were hired to help regional specialists with their efforts. Project WET and Project WILD were brought into the Nongame Wildlife Program to provide resources for educators to use when teaching their students about Minnesota’s wildlife.
But we didn’t do all of this alone; Minnesotans joined the fight to help Minnesota’s wildlife populations. Along with donating via the Minnesota Nongame Wildlife tax checkoff, community members volunteered to help many of our projects. From building hack boxes for peregrine falcons, to giving us crucial wildlife population data by volunteering for the Minnesota Loon Monitoring Project and the Minnesota Frog and Toad Calling Survey, Minnesotans have played a vital role in the success of our preservation initiatives.
We were also instrumental in creating the Minnesota Wildlife Action Plan. The Minnesota Wildlife Action Plan is a partnership-based conservation plan focused on ensuring the long-term health and viability of Minnesota’s wildlife, specifically Species in Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). SGCNs are native animals whose populations are rare, declining, or vulnerable to decline, like mudpuppies, common terns, northern goshawks, and Dakota Skippers. The plan identifies 345 SGCNs and outlines specific conservation approaches to help these species, such as restoring habitats, conducting surveys to increase and improve data, and conducting research to understand reasons for decline. Federal State and Tribal Wildlife Grants help to fund these conservation efforts and help us support Minnesota’s most vulnerable species.
The Nongame Wildlife Program has grown incredibly in our 40+ year history. Our funding now reaches nearly $3 million per year thanks to donations, matching funds from the Reinvest in Minnesota Critical Habitat Matching Program, federal State Wildlife Grants, and the generosity that has made our tax checkoff the most successful wildlife tax checkoff in the country.
In the fall of 2018, Carrol Henderson retired from the MN DNR after many successful years and projects and Cynthia Osmundson was hired as the new Nongame Wildlife Program leader. Cynthia came to the Program with goals to collaborate with Minnesota’s many wildlife enthusiasts and to maintain and enhance the state’s diversity of wildlife.
And we’ve been doing just that! We survey and research new species of nongame wildlife, like dragonflies, butterflies, moths, snails, and native bees. We continue to enlist the help of community scientists. We’re studying Minnesota’s reptiles, running educational wildlife webcams, monitoring Minnesota’s golden eagle population, and so much more. We’re also working closely with biologists and land managers in related programs, like the Minnesota Biological Survey, the DNR’s Center for Aquatic Mollusk Program, and Scientific and Natural Areas programs.
The Nongame Wildlife Program protects and manages crucial habitats, conducts scientific research to better understand Minnesota’s wildlife species and the ecosystems they live within, and forges connections between Minnesotans and native wildlife through outreach and education. And thanks to your help and support, we will continue to preserve and protect Minnesota’s wildlife for years to come!