July–August 2022


A Life Outdoors

The DNR’s Margaret Dexter on working and playing outside. 

From working to restore trumpeter swans to tracking and monitoring radio-collared moose, Margaret Dexter has spent a career up close and personal with wildlife. Dexter, a natural resource specialist in the wildlife health program at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is now part of a team that tracks and monitors animal disease, such as the fatal chronic wasting disease that has been found in wild and farmed deer in eight areas across Minnesota.

She helps plan and organize chronic wasting disease deer season sampling projects in the fall and collects hunter and trapper data for the hunting seasons. About half of her time is spent in the field, where she prefers to be. 

Dexter’s love of the outdoors was nurtured by her grandfather as she grew up in west-central Illinois. They went fishing, hiking, and foraging in all seasons, and she helped raise chickens and tended a large garden. In school she enjoyed science and graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. 

We caught up with Dexter to talk about her life outdoors. 

Q | With the recent finding of CWD in wild deer in Grand Rapids, it sounds like the DNR's management response is evolving. Do you think this disease will ever be eradicated from the state?

Right now we’re still at a very, very low prevalence. Just in the southeast, where we have found most cases, we have only about 1 percent of deer infected with the disease. If you look at other states, they have a much higher incidence. In Minnesota, while keeping the numbers of infected deer still very low, we have not been able to prevent it from being discovered in new areas of the state. The wildlife health program has been aggressive in its approach in trying to stop it or contain it and keep it from moving around the state, but as we can see, that’s hard to do. 

Q |  When did chronic wasting disease first become a part of your job?

We first started monitoring for CWD in the early 2000s because it had appeared in other states and it appeared in some captive herds in Minnesota. In 2009 we found our first wild positive down by Rochester in the Pine Island area, so we started focusing more attention down there. We did three years of hard testing in the Pine Island area and we didn’t find another positive, so we thought, phew, that’s great. Then in 2016 we got another wild positive in the southeast part of the state in the Preston area. It has been going kind of full-tilt since then. 

Q | You have been at chronic disease sampling stations during fall deer hunting seasons, where deer lymph nodes are extracted so they can be tested for the disease. How often are you at the stations?
Since 2016 I have been helping with lymph node extraction at one station or another in the fall. We remove two lymph nodes and collect data from the hunter. The results go back to the hunter through our website. 

Q | Does it seem like everything is CWD now for you?
We used to get a break, but now it seems like as soon as we finish the season we’re already starting to plan for the next season. There’s not the break anymore that we used to have to think about other things or go ice fishing or maple syruping. 

Q | Are you a deer hunter?
Yes, when a friend of mine retired a few years ago, we both took up bow hunting; we took the DNR’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman archery series. I’ve attempted turkey and deer hunting. I especially like turkey hunting because in the spring there is just so much happening. You’re sitting in your blind and hearing the world wake up and the birds singing. I’ve had hummingbirds right outside the blind at the honeysuckle I’m sitting next to.

Q | Tell me about your wild ricing adventures. 
We have a little group here at the DNR that goes out together to wild rice at the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. I get out at least once every year in late August to early September. The leaves are changing, there is lots of bird activity in the rice beds, and you’re on the water. You use a canoe and a push pole and some flailing sticks, called knockers. My first ricing adventure was with some fellow DNR folks. Since then I have also attended a workshop at Fond du Lac Reservation. They offered a multiday workshop on wild ricing taught by the tribal elders.