GRAND FORKS — When Dave Kjelstrup landed an internship with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in the mid-1960s as a University of North Dakota biology student, there wasn’t much for fish in Devils Lake.

As a student of John Owen, a renowned UND fisheries professor who retired in 1986, Kjelstrup spent three summers working out of the old University of North Dakota Biological Station on Creel Bay, where he learned the fisheries trade from veteran Game and Fish Department biologists such as Dale Henegar and Al Kreil.

Devils Lake in those days was more of a duck slough than a fishing destination, Kjelstrup says, but he and his Game and Fish mentors occasionally would trap perch out of reservoirs in northeastern North Dakota and stock them in Devils Lake.

“There was not even close to the amount of water in Devils Lake at the time,” he said. “It was good for duck hunting.”

Fishing on Devils Lake didn’t take off until an influx of water made the lake more habitable for fish, but the opportunity to work with professionals in the fisheries field provided an experience he never could have gotten in the classroom, Kjelstrup says.

“That was a good time in my life,” Kjelstrup, 72, of Underwood, N.D., recalls. “John Owen was a great mentor, and all those guys in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department were the neatest bunch of guys. Dale Henegar and Al Kreil — they thought I was their son, and I got to do all kinds of neat things.”

Golden era

Kjelstrup’s experience marked the beginning of a golden era of fisheries collaboration between UND and the Game and Fish Department. Kjelstrup’s career path led him away from fisheries and into the family banking business and farming, but numerous UND graduates went on to careers with Game and Fish, including current director Terry Steinwand and fisheries chief Greg Power.

“Until recently, just about every upper level position in the Game and Fish Department was one of our products,” said Robert Seabloom, a professor emeritus in the UND Department of Biology.

The fisheries collaborations between UND, Game and Fish and federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have waned in the past two decades, but considering the growth of fishing in North Dakota — the main driver in a $2.1 billion hunting and fishing industry, according to a 2019 North Dakota State University study commissioned by Game and Fish — the time is ripe for expanding research partnerships with UND and the Game and Fish Department, advocates say.

As UND explores how to fill a vacancy left by a retirement last spring in fisheries — a process still in its early stages — some see the opening as a chance to renew those collaborations and opportunities such as Kjelstrup and other UND students experienced more than 50 years ago.

Bolstered by the same wet cycle that affected Devils Lake, North Dakota today has some 440 fishing lakes, compared with 180 fishing lakes two decades ago, and fishing license sales today in North Dakota are at an all-time high. From 2004 to 2014, for example, statewide fishing license sales increased from 158,288 in 2004 to 222,118 in 2014, results from a study by Lucas Knowlton, then a UND biology student, showed.

“Who would have thought 30 years ago or 40 years ago that Minnesota people would flock here to fish in North Dakota?” Kjelstrup said.

The expanded fishing opportunities and more lakes have meant increased workloads for Game and Fish fisheries staff, often at the expense of research, said Power, the Game and Fish Department fisheries chief.

“When you didn’t have so many lakes, you had more time to sit down and look at a given lake and ask questions and then come up with some research needs,” Power said.

Research must be field-based and driven by managers’ needs, he said, and not just research for the sake of research.

No doubt the needs are there.

“Our guys are spending all their time just keeping their heads above water doing the mundane tasks,” Power said. “Because they have so much on their plate — going from 180 lakes to 440 — we just don’t have a lot of time for research here in the last 10 or 20 years.”

More important than ever

In that context, collaboration between state agencies and research universities such as UND is more important than ever, said Randy Kreil, Al Kreil’s son and a UND graduate who went on to become the Game and Fish Department’s wildlife chief before retiring in 2014.

History shows the right person in the right position — a go-getter with strong ties to fisheries and wildlife professionals — can make a difference, he says.

Tenure-track academic positions require Provost approval.

“It’s even more important now than it was in the past to have a strong fisheries presence at the university based on how important fishing and fishing economics are to the state of North Dakota,” Kreil said. “And it would be a sad thing to have to go to another state to try to find people to work on those fisheries resources when we have people within the state — born and raised here that believe in it and want to work in that field — but without a fisheries professor at UND, it’s a big void.”

That collaboration already is happening with UND wildlife students and faculty. Susan Felege, an associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management, was The Wildlife Society’s 2017 student adviser of the year, and UND wildlife students and faculty have earned renown for research on everything from ducks to drones to human dimensions of deer hunting.

Such collaborations are “broadly important” for the future of North Dakota and should be facilitated, said Ike Schlosser, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of biology and professor emeritus. Schlosser taught at UND for 36 years, including seven as chairman of the UND Biology Department, teaching classes such as aquatic ecology and fish ecology.

Invasive species, the impact of land use, climate change and the ongoing exploitation of fisheries resources all stand to affect the quality of fishing anglers in North Dakota now enjoy, Schlosser says, and to say otherwise would be shortsighted, at best.

“In light of the fact that hunting and fishing is a $2.1 billion industry in North Dakota, understanding how aquatic ecosystems function, the role of fish in these ecosystems and how humans impact those systems is fundamentally important on multiple levels, ranging from environmental to economic,” Schlosser said.

Looking ahead

Kreil and his wife, Karen, also a UND Fish and Wildlife program graduate, recently wrote a letter to Brad Rundquist, Dean of UND’s College of Arts and Sciences, in support of filling the fisheries faculty position. The Kreils also are Legacy Gift donors, establishing a scholarship fund for UND fish and wildlife students.

The Game and Fish Department wrote a similar letter of support.

“History shows some of the breakthroughs in understanding fisheries and aquatic systems have come from that collaborative research, with students — masters and doctoral students from UND — leading the way and doing the research,” Kreil said. “Because Game and Fish itself does not have a research division; it relies on partnerships with places like the University of North Dakota to do this kind of work.”

In an email, Rundquist on Thursday said he is working with Biology Department faculty to develop a request for the fisheries position, adding the Provost has not yet seen that request.

With the vacant fisheries position, Casey Williams, an assistant professor at Valley City State, is teaching a fisheries class via satellite link, and Felege, along with Jay Boulanger, an assistant professor of Wildlife Ecology and Human Dimensions at UND, and instructor Eric Linder, are picking up the remaining workload.

That will continue through spring semester, Felege said.

Historically, the relationships between UND and Game and Fish have ebbed and flowed, but wildlife collaboration currently is riding a high. The same can happen with fisheries, Felege says.

“We now are in a position where we see some really great opportunities for the fisheries side of it with UND’s Grand Challenges in Environmental Sustainability and Big Data,” Felege said, referring to a five-goal university initiative to promote modest investments in research to benefit the state. “We have this great natural resource, and it provides a lot of economic benefits to the state.”