ALONG ANCHOR LAKE — We’d driven 100 yards or so past the yellow gate when a ruffed grouse flushed from in front of the pickup, flying out of a patch of clover on the trail and into a dense thicket of aspen and balsam fir.
Tom Rusch, the Tower area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for a few more days, denied that the agency planted the bird there for a newspaper reporter to see.
“But we did plant the clover,” Rusch said.
Planting clover, a favorite food of grouse, on a hunter walking trail in a state wildlife management area is only one of the tasks in the job description of a state wildlife manager, of course. But Rusch seems to especially like the part of his job that expands, improves and opens areas to more wildlife and more public access.
We were looking at a 40-acre parcel the DNR acquired, a former deer hunting camp where everyone who hunted there passed away. When no private parties stepped up to buy the land, the DNR did, adding the parcel to what is now the current 216-acre Anchor Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Eveleth. It offers more than 3 miles of hunter walking trails and access to waterfowl and white-tailed deer as well as grouse.
Rusch pointed out areas where logging had occurred in years past, targeting small spots to create a patchwork of habitat, old and young trees close together, conifers and hardwoods, some dense forest, some open meadow. It’s exactly the mix that grouse, deer, bear and other wildlife — and wildlife managers — love to see.
Rusch noted wildlife management area land is acquired and managed with federal taxes on hunting gear and state license fees that hunters pay. That funding is supposed to drive how the land is managed.
“We don’t manage forests in wildlife management areas for timber. We manage for wildlife … for bucks, not board feet,” Rusch said.
Rusch pointed to a big aspen tree that had a light-green lichen growing on its trunk.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but old man’s beard is an important winter food for deer,” Rusch said of the lichen. “But you don’t get it until the tree is older, past what maybe is the prime harvest age (for the timber industry). That’s why you need the diversity in the forest, the old with the young.”
More time for grouse, deer hunting
After 34 years working with wildlife for the DNR, Rusch officially retires Nov. 5. But don’t call him at the office that day. He’ll already be at his grouse and deer hunting shack in north-central Wisconsin, bow in hand, likely up a tree. He’s been part owner of the place for 35 years.
“It’s going to be interesting having so much more time just to be in the woods for fun,” Rusch said. “We had to build a bigger wood shed because we are getting up into retirement and we’re all going to be using the place more.”
Rusch grew up in eastern Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley, in Neenah and Menasha, then went on to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a popular school for wildlife management careers. He did field work in Wisconsin and Missouri.
“My dad didn’t hunt. I had to pick it up on my own. But I was always interested in the outdoors, in wildlife and hunting,” Rusch said.
He started with the DNR in Karlstad, in northwestern Minnesota, then moved on to become an assistant wildlife manager in Eveleth for 10 years and then three years in Orr. When the manager retired, area offices were combined and jobs shuffled, Rusch became the Tower area wildlife manager, a job he’s held for 18 years. He and his wife, Deb, planted roots in the Eveleth area, where they raised two now grown daughters.
Rusch’s district covers a huge area, 100 miles north to south, from Kelsey to Kabetogama, and 95 miles across — some 4,770-square miles, 3 million acres. A whopping 75% of the land is open to public hunting — county, state and federally managed — that Rusch and his staff are supposed to keep a hand in managing.
Wildlife managers have a dual role, both to help manage, preserve and expand habitat so wildlife can thrive — officially called sustaining healthy ecosystems — and also to provide quality opportunities for people to see and hunt wildlife.
Losing moose, sharp-tailed grouse
Rusch oversees wildlife in nine wildlife management areas, seven state forests, three county forests and six state scientific and natural areas. He also works with wildlife management in parts of the Superior National Forest. That’s the part of his area that is among the last holdouts for Minnesota's beleaguered moose population, and Rusch has been part of the state’s annual survey that has tracked the demise of the moose herd.
“I was in Karlstad before the last moose vanished up in that northwest area. … And now I’ve been in the Northeast long enough to see it happening here,” Rusch said.
Northeastern Minnesota’s moose numbers crashed rapidly, from a modern high of 8,840 estimated in 2006 to just 2,700 in 2013. There were about 3,150 moose in 2020, when the last survey was conducted.
“It's good to see their population stabilize some lately, but I’m not comfortable at all with where it’s at,” Rusch said. “Our climate is changing. For the boreal species like moose, at the southern edge of their range, it’s just a matter of time.”
Rusch called his time spent on moose “bittersweet,” noting northern Minnesota is one of only a handful of places in the continental U.S. that has any moose at all.
“I’m so lucky to have worked so long in such an interesting area for wildlife, on the edge of the boreal forest, and with so many good people along the way,’’ he said.
Rusch has also worked in the region long enough to see the demise of sharp-tailed grouse, a thriving, abundant species a century ago — and fairly common even 25 years ago — that needs vast areas of open land to flourish. That open land needs to be burned or mowed often to keep it prime for sharptails. But cuts in DNR budget and staffing, and less willingness by some land managers to allow intentional fires, have allowed thousands of acres of sharptail habitat to grow back into forest. That’s not a bad thing for most people, Rusch notes, but it’s bad for a species which will soon be functionally extinct in eastern Minnesota.
But there have been successes, too, like new, permanently designated waterfowl refuges at Little Rice Lake near Tower, Butterball Lake near Hoyt Lakes and Gold Mine Lake near Crane Lake. Rusch also instigated annual aerial surveys of waterfowl producing lakes in the region, monitoring wild rice production to check up on each lake’s health.
"Tom has done a lot for us. … These long-serving people have so much invaluable knowledge of the people and the resource base and the projects in their areas,'' said Dave Olfelt, director of the DNR's Fish and Wildlife Division. Olfelt said Rusch's position will be filled in Tower as soon as possible.
Who pays for wildlife?
Mark Spoden, the Grand Rapids area wildlife manager for the DNR, joined the agency at about the same time as Rusch. They not only work geographically close to each other but have maintained a close working relationship. He said Rusch has helped mentor another crop of wildlife managing professionals who worked under him as technicians, students or assistant wildlife managers over the years.
“Tom will be missed. He is very dedicated to our natural resources. … You just can’t replace the long term experience and knowledge he has,” Spoden said, noting Rusch has been especially good at the people part of the job.
It may have been Rusch’s people skills that most helped him navigate the politics of wildlife management, across county, state and federal lines on the map.
“He is a very skilled communicator, especially when talking with hunters. He knows the pulse of hunters, being an avid hunter himself,” Spoden said of Rusch.
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Rusch says he’s hopeful for most wildlife in the region. Wild turkey — newcomers — are doing great. The region’s deer are probably fine in the long run, with ups and downs in population depending on how much snow falls each winter. Still, Rusch wonders if north woods deer will have enough older, dense conifer forest to find winter shelter.
“There’s always a limiting factor for wildlife, usually either food or cover habitat… Our biggest challenge is to maintain good habitat for all these diverse species while at the same time meeting the needs of the people and the industries that are up here making a living,’’ Rusch said. “It won’t be easy.”
Nor will it be cheap.
Rusch says wildlife may be the biggest losers in the national trend of fewer hunters going afield. It’s the taxes and license fees paid by hunters that pay for wildlife projects. Minnesota lost half its waterfowl hunters and half its grouse hunters over the last 50 years and has been more recently losing deer hunters fast.
While hunting has been declining, bird watching, biking and other non-consumptive outdoor recreation has flourished. But Rusch said they don’t all contribute to wildlife. He said he’s hopeful DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen will be successful in her recently announced effort to find new ways to fund wildlife and other natural resource management even as hunting license sales decline.
“People say they buy a state park pass, or a snowmobile pass, or a bike sticker. Well, that pays for your campground, or your groomed snowmobile trail, or your bike trail. But it doesn’t help wildlife,” Rusch said, noting, for example, that much of the popular Sax-Zim Bog birding area is on a state wildlife management area — land paid for by hunters.
“We’re getting more bird people and butterfly people and now even bee people on our state wildlife lands," he said. "That’s great. But they aren’t all footing their share of the bill yet.”
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and environment for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.