Conservationists mourn passing of Roger Holmes

St. Paul – A man whose name became synonymous with wildlife
management during an era when Canada geese recovered, the turkey
population blossomed, and other species made significant strides,
died last week. Roger Holmes, whose 41 years at the DNR included a
decade as the director of the Fish and Wildlife Division, was 72
years old when he died Dec. 17 of complications from prostate
cancer.

Holmes retired from the DNR in 2000, but he remained active in
state and national conservation issues. Most recently, he advocated
for the Minnesota Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment on behalf
of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, where he served
on the MCEA board.

Former co-workers and friends said his dedication to state
wildlife and DNR constituents was exemplified by his words and
actions during his tenure with the agency.

“He brought a tremendous amount of credibility to the table,”
said the DNR’s current Fish and Wildlife director, Dave Schad, who
worked with Holmes for several years. “People trusted him when he
spoke; people listened. It was a combination of the way he dealt
with people – his communication skills and his dedication to the
resource.”

Holmes, a native of Cloquet, began his career with the DNR in
1958, when he conducted wildlife surveys on waterfowl lakes in
western Minnesota. From 1962-1965 he worked in the Alexandria area,
in part acquiring and managing wildlife management areas. In ’66 he
moved to St. Paul and became wildlife projects coordinator; a year
later he was named chief of the Section of Wildlife.

In 1972, Holmes was promoted to Wildlife chief, a position he
held until 1990, when he was named director of the Division of Fish
and Wildlife. He held that position until retirement in 2000.

Earlier this year, the Roger Holmes Wildlife Management Area in
Douglas County was named in his honor. It was an apt tribute;
Holmes, while he worked in Douglas County in the early stages of
his career, helped identify, establish, and manage 22 WMAs there –
as well as eight more in nearby Pope County.

Following his retirement, Holmes and his wife Barb lived in St.
Paul, but sailed in Florida. And Roger Holmes continued to hunt on
acreage he owned in western Minnesota’s Lac qui Parle County, and
fish the waters of Canada’s Lake of the Woods near his cabin.

During the past half century, from the time Holmes began his
career with the DNR, wildlife management in the state has been a
dynamic thing, with Holmes often at the forefront, said Tom
Landwehr, of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, another of
Holmes’ former co-workers.

Holmes played a role in the closure of the 1971 deer-hunting
season in the state, which eventually led to the state’s
restrictions on antlerless deer harvest.

But there were other species in various states of flux during
the point at which Holmes’ influence began to emerge in the 1980s.
There was no moose-hunting season in the state then; a fledgling
turkey population existed, and there was no dove or elk hunting,
Landwehr said. Further, the only place to find Canada geese was
near the Lac qui Parle refuge.

Pheasant numbers had plummeted with the loss of set-aside land,
and bear hunters had only recently been granted a hunting season of
their own (for years, deer hunters were allowed to shoot a bear, as
well).

“Roger’s opinion was, each of these species was a valuable game
species,” Landwehr said.

It was during the 1980s that the first federal farm bill came to
be, complete with its conservation programs. In fact, the
Conservation Reserve Program contained aspects of a project Holmes
had helped establish in western Minnesota, in which landowners were
paid to set aside land for conservation, Landwehr said. The U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service took part in the project.

When Holmes was appointed director of the fish and wildlife
division, good duck numbers had returned, the pheasant population
had rebounded, turkey numbers had doubled (from the ’80s), and deer
hunters were finding whitetails.

“It was a time of relative abundance,” Landwehr said.

Part of the reason for that, he said, was Holmes’ ability not to
budge when the welfare of wildlife was at stake. Holmes came to the
agency with an educational background in wildlife science, and he
surrounded himself with people whose knowledge was grounded in
science.

“When he knew it was the right way to go, that’s the only way he
was gonna go,” Landwehr said.

Not everything went according to plan, though. Landwehr said
during Holmes’ tenure as Fish and Wildlife director, the agency was
pursuing, via the state Legislature, a dove-hunting season. When
time for a legislative hearing arrived, a dove-hunting video from
another state had just arrived, and DNR officials took it to the
hearing to promote the hunt.

Needless to say, Landwehr said, it didn’t have the desired
effect.

“It was a slaughter,” Landwehr said of the video’s depiction of
the dove hunt.

The video was so bad, he said, that at a subsequent hearing,
dove hunt opponents used the same video.

The DNR’s Schad said Holmes taught him the value of establishing
relationships with employees. “A strength of Roger’s was that he
cared about the people he worked with,” he said. “That means a lot
from leadership.”

Further, Schad took from Holmes’ management style the importance
of being “plugged in” nationally.

“We’ve tried to carry that on,” he said, adding that Holmes also
had a good working relationship with key legislators in the
state.

Lance Ness, president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative
Alliance agrees.

“He knew the value of conservation through legislation,” Ness
wrote in an e-mail last week. “That thousands, if not millions, of
dollars directed toward conservation with the ink of a pen, and
that more was needed.”

That’s why Holmes, until its passage on Nov. 4, supported and
promoted dedicated funding (the amendment increased the state sales
tax 3/8 of 1 percent, to be used for wildlife habitat, clean water,
arts, and more in the state). He did so on behalf of the MCEA, but
also on the behalf of wildlife, his life’s passion.

Holmes preached consensus – the need for strength in solidarity.
In a 1999 column – “Roger’s View,” for Fish and Wildlife Today,
Holmes encouraged the conservation community to unite. He pointed
out the many conservation successes of the past, and he expressed
hope for the future:

For Landwehr, Holmes represented an ability to serve both the
sportsmen of the state, as well as its wildlife.

“For all the criticism the DNR sometimes gets, Roger was there
to serve its constituency,” he said. “He represented the best of
public service.”

Holmes is survived by his wife, Barbara, his father Ross (age
99); three children, Kristin Schroeder, of Roseville, Brad Holmes,
of Robbinsdale, and Greg Holmes, of Lino Lakes; a twin sister,
Marlene Craft; a younger sister, Karen Green Jung; five
grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.

A memorial service was held Monday in St. Paul.

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