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Conservation pioneer Vesall dies at age 87

Former F&W director led WMA charge

By Tim Spielman

Associate Editor

Stillwater, Minn. Those who knew and worked with Dave Vesall,
former director of the Minnesota DNR’s Division of Fish and
Wildlife, on Monday remembered the conservationist who spent four
decades with the state natural resources agency.

David B. Vesall died Nov. 24 at his home in Stillwater at the
age of 87.

Those who recalled his dedication to the conservation as well as
the optimistic approach he took to projects and challenges included
current DNR deputy director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife,
Larry Nelson, and retired division director Roger Holmes.

For both of them, two issues that defined Vesall stand out the
“Save the Wetlands” program, which marked the beginning of the WMA
system in the state, and Vesall’s fight to keep the airport from
moving to Ham Lake, something that “would’ve been disastrous for
the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area,” according to

Vesall’s 41-year stint with the Minnesota DNR began in 1939,
when he was first employed at Carlos Avery as a laborer. Part of
his duties included cleaning the quail pen, Holmes said. From
there, Vesall began to climb the DNR ladder, as game research
biologist, area game manager, federal aid game project coordinator,
supervisor in the Bureau of Wildlife Development, supervisor in the
Bureau of Game, supervisor of the Section of Wildlife, deputy
director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, and finally,
director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife.

At various steps along the way, Holmes worked for Vesall.

“I became assistant chief (deputy director) of Fish and Wildlife
and Dave was my boss,” Holmes said this week. Then, with a laugh,
“After I became chief and he retired, he was still my boss. He kept
track of what was happening and remained active.”

Vesall retired from the DNR in 1979. But not before leaving his
mark. Conservation was a relatively new concept when Vesall
graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Forestry in
1939. But just a decade later, he and other forward-thinking
conservationists founded the Save the Wetlands program in
Minnesota, which eventually led to the development of the more than
1,400 WMAs that dot the state, covering more than 1.2 million

“When that program started, saving wetlands (primarily from
drainage) was on everyone’s minds,” Nelson said. “In those days,
there were plenty of uplands.” Today, WMAs are known as much for
the upland habitat they protect as for the wetlands that are

A few years down the road, an effort in the metro area was
undertaken to move the international airport to the more rural area
of Ham Lake, something that would’ve threatened the sanctity of
Carlos Avery WMA. Former coworkers say Vesall fought that effort in
a manner that gained him a nickname.

“After that, we said the B’ in his name was for Bulldog,” Nelson
said. The coworkers took the bulldog emblem from a Mack truck and
made a trophy for Vesall.

“He kept it in his office until he retired,” Holmes said.

“Dave put a lot of effort into that and was quite proud of it,”
Holmes added. “He just about single-handedly stopped that.”

Perhaps Vesall’s greatest leadership attribute, though, was his
optimism, according to both Holmes and Nelson.

“He was a great guy and a terrific boss,” Holmes said. “He was
always upbeat, all the time.”

Nelson agreed. “He was well known for his optimism. He was
always positive about the things he did.”

That’s how he met his wife, Betty, during World War II, Nelson
said. While Betty wrote letters to soldiers to boost morale, many
wrote back with glum tales of war. Vesall instead told her of the
beauties of the countryside.

Aside from his work with the DNR, Vesall aided in the formation
of Pheasants Forever. He also was involved in the Wildlife Heritage
Foundation, Turn In Poachers, the National Waterbank Advisory, the
Wildlife Society, the North Central Section of the Wildlife
Society, Ducks Unlimited, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, the
Minnesota Conservation Federation, The Nature Conservancy, the
International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the
National Audubon Society, and has served on the Wildlife Committee
for the Northwest Sportsmen’s Show.

Until just a few years ago, Holmes said Vesall and wife Betty
would tour Minnesota in the fall, “talking to DNR personnel to see
what was going on.”

Vesall is survived by his wife Betty; daughter, Sherry (Scott)
Mauschbaugh; two grandchildren and one great-grandson.

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