Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Inside the Outdoors: Minnesota bids farewell to a wildlife management legend

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

081121-inside-the-outdoors.jpg
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
We are part of The Trust Project.

If there was a Hall of Fame for the most influential and respected figures in Minnesota conservation and wildlife management, Bob Jessen would enter on the first ballot. Jessen, for decades the undisputed guiding force behind waterfowl management in Minnesota, died last week at the age of 91 . Natural resource professionals do not enjoy the visibility or fan appreciation—not to mention the financial reward—of Hall of Fame athletes. But among performers in the conservation arena, Jessen would be the equivalent of baseball’s Harmon Killebrew or football’s Fran Tarkenton in Minnesota legend and lore.

robert-bob-jessen.jpg
Robert "Bob" Jessen
Contributed.

Jessen was a big-leaguer in his field, a scientist as much as a practical resource manager, respected not only here in Minnesota, but nationally and even beyond U.S. borders. He retired in 1987 after more than a quarter century as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ leading figure in duck and goose management, and more than three decades overall as a DNR employee.

Bob Jessen was “old school” in a manner that especially resonates with waterfowl hunters who have some gray in their hair, and an abundance of dings and scratches on the walnut stocks of their favorite shotguns. His regulatory philosophy was to err on the side of harvesting too few ducks, rather than too many.

Current state waterfowl management seems to be trending in another direction, with such changes as more liberal shooting hours, more generous bag limits on some species and special early seasons. Some waterfowl managers justify this by noting that Minnesota has only out half the number of waterfowl hunters that we had when Jessen was at the helm, and therefore the harvest impact is of less consequence. In other words, ‘Why not give the remaining waterfowl hunters more harvest opportunities, and in the process perhaps recruit new hunters or at least retain those we now have?” I’m not convinced that Bob Jessen would completely agree, yet I’m not aware that he ever publicly challenged the recent liberalizing regulation changes. In retrospect, it would be nice if we could go back in time and ask.

As a young novice writer, I had the privilege of interviewing Bob Jessen in 1980, for the now-shuttered Fins & Feathers Magazine. I traveled to his home in rural Bemidji where he lived and hunted throughout his tenure as our top waterfowl biologist, rather than being stationed in an ivory tower in St. Paul. As others have described him in numerous posthumous tributes, he was personable and genuine, thoughtful and unpretentious.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Jessen was not shy about expressing his beliefs on the principles of waterfowl management he considered most important. One such principle was the importance of balancing hunting opportunity with maintaining local breeding populations, and maintaining migratory traditions that govern the routes by which waterfowl make their way from breeding grounds in the north to wintering grounds far to the south, and where they stop along the way. He believed that this, in the end, determines the harvest opportunities hunters will—or will not—have.

Read more of 'Inside the Outdoors
Members Only
And for those of us who have a lot of miles on our boots ...
Members Only
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn
Members Only
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn
Members Only
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn
Members Only
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn
Members Only
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn
Members Only
Outdoors writer Mike Rahn shares a harrowing incident while duck hunting on Leech Lake one year
Members Only
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

Jessen recognized that ducks and geese are not only creatures of inborn instinct, but also of habit. They do not stop to rest and feed on a particular lake or slough because it is permanently programmed into them at birth. They do so by having successfully made the migratory trip with others of their kind, and develop the habit of stopping in certain places by having found rest and food there.

One of the rules found in Minnesota waterfowl hunting regulations for many years, now eliminated, was a 4 p.m. end to hunting hours during the early weeks of the hunting season. This was in place primarily to protect locally-breeding ducks, those that raise their young here. Especially mallards, which are inclined to remain where they are born and raised until forced by weather to migrate. He was certain that these ducks—more than pass-through migrants—were susceptible to over-harvest by dawn-to-dusk hunting hours.

More broadly, Jessen believed that maintaining season-long hunting opportunities required giving migrating birds, too, an opportunity to rest and feed on our Minnesota waters. He believed that waterfowl that are denied this opportunity by unrelieved disturbance will eventually lose the tradition of stopping here, and hunters will be the losers in the long run.

Jessen cited the fact that the hunting pressure that was once restricted mostly to weekends, has—over time—expanded to week-long hunting on the most popular waters. Other recreational activities have an impact, too, he believed. On some waters that are both popular with anglers and stopover areas for migrating waterfowl—some of the deeper lakes that are particularly attractive to diving duck species—an increased angler and recreational boater presence during the fall months adds to the disturbance factor, and could influence whether migrating ducks remain here long enough to build and maintain this stopover tradition.

In that 1980 interview, Jessen also cited some hunting practices used elsewhere to maintain season-long and long-term hunting opportunity, but admittedly run counter to Minnesota traditions. He noted that—at the time—shooting hours on Louisiana waterfowl management areas ended at 2 p.m., in order to give waterfowl a rest, to not “burn them out” prematurely. Jessen cited practices in parts of Canada—some cultural, some enforced by law—that limited waterfowl hunting to mornings only. He pointed out that way back in 1906, on the famed waterfowl hunting mecca of Heron Lake in southern Minnesota, guides and hunters agreed to a 2 p.m. end to shooting for the same reason. Private waterfowl hunting clubs employ similar time-limiting practices. Today, on some National Wildlife refuges that are open to waterfowl hunting, there are areas that are open to shooting, and sanctuary areas where no shooting is allowed, to the same beneficial effect.

Bob Jessen believed, wrongly it turns out, that Minnesota hunters and our waterfowl management philosophy would eventually embrace rules that provide some sanctuary periods for migratory waterfowl in the form of limits on shooting hours. “I think,” he said in that 1980 interview, “that as hunters begin to more fully appreciate that instead of being penalized, they’re gaining … in the long run, you’ll see the mood turn the other way.”

Jessen may have been wrong in predicting some directions Minnesota’s waterfowl management would take, but may be right in directions that should have been taken. All that notwithstanding, he was a keen student of his scientific discipline and had the best interests of both waterfowl and hunters at heart. More than a few believe that his ideas were the right ideas.

ADVERTISEMENT

Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

Related Topics: INSIDE THE OUTDOORSNORTHLAND OUTDOORSMEMBERS-ONLY
Opinion by Mike Rahn
What To Read Next
The legislation would be the most sweeping anti-CWD measure in the state to date.
Area MnDNR Conservation Officer Weekly Reports - February 7, 2023
The bear had been denned up in a culvert that started to flow during the recent warmup and became stuck when he attempted to seek drier cover, said a DNR bear project leader.
The camera goes live in November each year. Eagles generally lay eggs in February and the adults incubate those eggs for about 35 days.