Minnesota DNR Fish and Wildlife director to retire; new director named

Dave Olfelt, of Grand Rapids, is retiring in July. Kelly Straka, of Proctor, will replace him as division director.

By JOHN MYERS | jmyers@duluthnews.com | Forum News Service

PUBLISHED: June 9, 2024 at 5:05 a.m. | UPDATED: June 9, 2024 at 11:18 a.m.

One of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ top leadership positions is turning over in July when Dave Olfelt, the agency’s Fish and Wildlife Division director, will retire after 37 years of service.

Dave Olfelt,Minnesota

Olfelt started with DNR in 1987 in the agency’s Nongame and Natural Heritage Program and has worked as a field biologist, in state park programs and as regional wildlife official, among other positions. He’s been the leader of the Fish and Wildlife Division for the past five years.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt will retire in July 2024. (Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen on Monday said that Kelly Straka, who has headed the DNR’s wildlife section for the past four years, will take over Olfelt’s position heading the Fish and Wildlife Division.

The Fish and Wildlife Division’s budget is about $276 million annually and the division has 561 employees across the state dealing with every aspect of wildlife and fisheries management and research. That includes everything from wildlife diseases to invasive carp, from doe permits to trout stamps — and trying to keep hunters and anglers happy about walleyes, whitetails and waterfowl.

Strommen said in a letter to DNR employees Monday that under Olfelt’s leadership, “the division continued its aggressive approach to managing chronic wasting disease, employed a ground-breaking approach in updating Minnesota’s wolf management plan, formally changed the status of native rough fish and strengthened relationships with the bait industry and updated the management plans for four of the eight major units within the DNR’s wildlife management area system.”

Olfelt, 63, of Grand Rapids, officially retires July 3 but will continue in a part-time position to oversee the agency’s transition to an electronic licensing system in March 2025.

Olfelt on Monday told the News Tribune that he was humbled to be part of an organization “where people are working to make a difference. It’s been a great job, a great career.”

He said overriding issues like habitat loss and climate change, which can impact fish wildlife with more diseases, droughts, floods and increased insects and other pests, as problems that will need continued, constant attention by the agency.

Olfelt has helped oversee the state’s battle against chronic wasting disease and efforts to thwart invasive species like silver and bighead carp from invading the state’s waterways beyond the Mississippi River. He praised Minnesota’s progressive natural resource funding system, which includes a portion of the state’s sales tax as well as state lottery profits, aimed at environmental and conservation efforts.

“We live in a state that prioritizes the outdoors and natural resources, and that makes a tremendous difference in how we are able to do our jobs here,” Olfelt said, noting recent successes like the restoration of Marsh Lake as a waterfowl wetland in western Minnesota and the return of sturgeon spawning on the Ottertail River for the first time in over a century.

He’s also been part of a DNR leadership team that was criticized by conservation groups, and many of the DNR’s own wildlife managers he oversaw, for a plan aimed at increasing logging on forested state wildlife management areas. Critics said that effort is a nod to the state’s timber industry and not necessarily the best move for wildlife or the hunters who help pay to acquire and manage those areas.

Kelly Straka is moving up from wildlife section leader to become director of the Minnesota DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division in July 2024. (Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

Straka, 45, of Proctor, earned a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife management and began her conservation career in Minnesota DNR’s Shallow Lakes Program. Her career then took her across the ocean to work with wildlife on the big island of Hawaii.

Straka returned to Minnesota to pursue a dual-degree program, earning a master’s degree in public health and a doctorate in veterinary medicine, with a focus on wildlife health and interdisciplinary medicine. She served as the state wildlife veterinarian in Missouri and later as the wildlife health section supervisor for the state of Michigan.

Straka returned to Minnesota to become the DNR’s wildlife section manager in 2021.

“Kelly has a passion for public lands, mentoring people in the outdoors, supporting natural resource managers and building cross-disciplinary partnerships,” Strommen said in the letter. “These passions, combined with her commitment to the health of our fish and wildlife resources, make her a terrific fit for the Fish and Wildlife director position.”

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