ROTHSAY, Minn. — Brian Winter spent Thursday morning painting a prairie chicken replica in this small northwestern Minnesota city — "The Prairie Chicken Capital of Minnesota" — and smiling a lot. The latter probably had much to do with the former since Winter is a longtime cheerleader for this wonderfully unique bird, but it might also have been spurred by a recent change in career status.
After nearly 37 years working for The Nature Conservancy and being based at the Bluestem Prairie complex near Glyndon, the 62-year-old recently called it a career. His wife Sonia, several years his junior, continues to work for the Conservancy.
"I can still watch from the cheap seats," Winter said, laughing.
The prairie chicken Winter was helping paint with a friend was not the large bird that stands near Interstate 94, but a smaller, mobile version used by Rothsay in parades. Its plumage needed updating, and Winter was happy to help.
It was fitting, since Winter remains the president of the all-volunteer Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.
"Prairie chickens are kind of my thing," he said.
It was also fitting because much of Winter's work the past three-plus decades was critical in securing the native prairie the birds use as habitat. Winter helped the Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit based in Virginia, acquire thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie in northwestern Minnesota.
"When I first came here, the Bluestem Prairie and Margherita Preserve complex in Clay County was roughly 2,000 acres, and it wasn't connected. It was a piece of land here, a piece of land there," Winter said. "Today, it's 7,000 acres. You could walk from Buffalo River State Park (near Glyndon) to the Margherita Preserve (southwest of Hawley) and never leave public land. We've connected it all. That took a lot of willing sellers who agreed to sell the land to The Nature Conservancy. I'm proud of the work we did."
That work was made possible, Winter believes, because he lived in the area and was part of the community. After getting degrees in natural resources from the University of Minnesota-Crookston and South Dakota State and a master's in animal ecology from Iowa State, Winter took a job with the Conservancy in 1985. He was based in downtown Minneapolis.
"We had one office in Minnesota, and it was on Hennepin Avenue. We had five full-time employees," Winter said. "Could you imagine trying to acquire and manage land in rural Minnesota being based in Minneapolis? I wanted to be closer to the wild stuff and be able to live in the community where we were going to do our work. I'm glad there were people above me who agreed."
Winter moved to Glyndon in 1987, where he was the stewardship program director. The Nature Conservancy's Minnesota chapter has expanded to 10 offices across three states (North Dakota and South Dakota are now part of the footprint) and includes 85 full-time employees.
The highlights of nearly four decades in conservation come quickly.
The Bluestem Prairie.
The Conservancy's work in establishing the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in 2004, a 20,000-acre complex in Polk County said to be the largest prairie-wetlands restoration project in U.S. history.
The acquisition of 400 unbroken acres in Traverse County known as Miller Prairie.
Smaller chunks of prairie preserved with help from Minnesota's Outdoor Heritage Fund, made possible by a voter-approved amendment to the state constitution.
"We have our detractors, of course, who don't see the benefit to what we're doing," Winter said. "But there's enough people, neighbors in the community, who say, 'We like what you're doing.' That makes you feel good."
The lowlight is quick to mind, too.
"The worst part of my job has been dealing with water issues, I'll be honest. Mark Twain said, 'Whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting,' and he was right. There are people who like to blame The Nature Conservancy for their water problems, or get mad at us because we won't let them dig a ditch across a preserve, and that's no fun."
The good has far outweighed the bad. Winter is proud of the Conservancy's growth and the work the organization has done in preserving and restoring prairies. But it's the greater prairie chicken that is his passion.
The ground-nesting bird that once populated the Minnesota prairie by the millions was considered endangered by the 1980s, limited to small areas of remaining prairie along the glacial ridge of prehistoric Lake Agassiz. The work of The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations, like that implemented by Winter, helped boost the bird's numbers to the point Minnesota allows a limited hunting season.
Thousands of tourists representing each of the 50 states and several foreign countries have come to northwest Minnesota in the spring to sit in blinds erected on prairie chicken booming grounds and watch the birds go through their spectacular mating dance. They've sat through all sorts of weather, including raging April blizzards, to see the spectacle.
Winter has led the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society for 30 years. He'll continue to do so, at least for another year or two.
"Those birds are just such a great ambassador for the grasslands. They are so charismatic," Winter said. "Everybody who comes out of the blinds has a smile on their face. Many people consider seeing them a 'bucket list' item, and they are coming here to check it off. The chickens have been a lot of fun in my career."
The bird's resurgence can, in part, be attributed to Winter's good work. It's quite a legacy after a 37-year career.