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DNR holds hearing on landowner petition to abandon Chokio Wildlife Refuge

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly spelled the names of Greg Boldenow and Gary Dierks. We apologize for the error.

CHOKIO - Landowners who have land in the Chokio Waterfowl Refuge told representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at a public hearing Thursday that they would like to use the refuge land for personal hunting.

Residents opposed to the petition to abandon the refuge said it was a safe haven for geese in the area, and eliminating the space would adversely impact hunting in the region.

Landowners Dennis Wernsing and Lillian Ritter filed a petition six months ago to have the Chokio Waterfowl Refuge abandoned. Both Wernsing and Ritter own land that makes up much of the area of the refuge.

The refuge includes the south one-half of Section B and all of Section 17, Township 124 North, Range 44 West, in Stevens County, including Gravel Lake.

DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor Kevin Kotts said the refuge was originally established at the request of the landowners in August 1969. It was expanded to its current size in June 1986. Since 1969, the refuge has been closed to waterfowl hunting.

Kotts was joined at the hearing by Lori Dowling, director of the DNR regional headquarters in Bemidji, and Paul Telander, DNR regional wildlife manager.

At the hearing, Wernsing said since the land was put into the refuge voluntarily he would now like to take it out. Wernsing hopes to use the three parcels of land he owns in the refuge to hunt.

"I'm in my twilight years; if I can do some hunting like when I was a kid, I'd like to," he said.

Abandoning the refuge means that the DNR would remove its refuge signs and open the area to waterfowl hunting. All land within the existing refuge is privately owned and hunters would need to have landowner permission to hunt.

Clayton Ritter, who grew up on land in the refuge, said that he hoped to take his grandchildren hunting on the land. Both Ritter and Wernsing said they did not intend to open the land to public hunting, just private use.

Gary Dierks, who rents land to the north of the refuge, noted that geese in the area are smart enough to know where they're not being hunted and congregate there. He said he would like it if hunters could spread the geese out, and that abandoning the refuge would be a good thing.

Other landowners at the hearing and who sent in comments by e-mail were opposed to abandoning the refuge, arguing that it would hurt hunting in the area to abandon the refuge.

Greg Boldenow said he thought the refuge was good for the public interest and helps to keep geese around - "There are fewer and fewer spots for geese to go," he said.

In an e-mail, Ted Holland said the refuge is a "tremendous resource" for hunting and viewing wildlife.

No decision was made at Thursday's hearing. Residents who were unable to attend the hearing Thursday can still offer comments until Friday, June 22 via e-mail at or by calling (320) 634-0342.

After the comment period closes, a recommendation will be put together for the DNR Wildlife Operations Supervisor in St. Paul.