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Fergus Falls wetland to be named in Mann's honor

Grady Mann lived the last 22 years of his life in a small red cabin in Knife River. Windows in that home offered a sweeping panorama of Lake Superior.

"Here we had his 30-mile view," said his wife, Lois. "It was the closest thing we could get to a prairie for him."

Mann, who died in March at age 90, devoted his career to preserving prairie wetlands in western Minnesota. From a tiny office in Fergus Falls, he pioneered the Small Wetland Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during a 28-year career with the agency.

On Saturday, a 614-acre prairie wetland near Fergus Falls will be renamed and dedicated as the Grady Mann Waterfowl Production Area, a tribute to Mann's pioneering career in wetlands.

"He's the father of the Small Wetlands Program," said Kevin Brennan, who now supervises the Fish and Wildlife Service refuge office in Fergus Falls.

In the mid-1950s, when wholesale wetland draining was going on in Minnesota's farmlands, Mann was charged with acquiring small wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region of Minnesota for waterfowl production.

"To suggest you shouldn't drain was pretty counter-culture at that time," Brennan said.

But with a master's degree in wildlife management from the University of Minnesota, Mann began extolling the benefits of small wetlands to farm families in 19 counties.

"Grady had great people skills," said Brennan, 56. "He had great diplomacy."

He also had a bachelor's degree in agronomy, so he knew crops and livestock.

"That really put him in good stead when he was talking to the farmers," Lois Mann added.

He knew how to use his diplomatic skills within government circles as well as with the public. He was instrumental in getting the federal Duck Stamp act amended in 1958 so its funds could be used to buy small wetlands.

Through the efforts of Mann and, later, his staff, tens of thousands of acres of small wetlands were purchased and easements secured guaranteeing that wetlands would be preserved in Minnesota's portion of the Prairie Pothole Region.

"(Mann) was a very respected waterfowl/wetlands pioneer and professional -- part of the (Art) Hawkins, (Frank) Bellrose, (Bob) Jensen generation of absolutely highly motivated and very idealistic public servants," said Duluth conservationist and waterfowl champion Dave Zentner. "By idealistic, I mean, they were truly on a great conservation mission."

Mann often carried a camera with him, photographing ducks and wetlands. He used those photos in public meetings.

"Armed with a working colored slide series on conservation aspects of prairie wetlands, I forged forth into untold scores of nighttime meetings in rural schools -- schools still active in 1954," Mann wrote in a 2003 reflection on his early days at Fergus Falls. "Our audience was varied -- young kids, babes-in-arms, parents, grandparents -- all of whom lived on farms where the prairie wetlands were located."

Television was just getting its legs, and he often appeared on WDAY-TV in Fargo, N.D. That exposure helped.

"In the field, folks would say, 'We know him,'" Lois said.

Mann was passionate about his work.

"Time and time again, he'd say, 'How could I be so lucky to get into the perfect job for me?'" Lois said. "He really fell in love with the prairies."

His decision to pursue work as a wildlife biologist was driven in part, Lois said, by an afternoon Grady spent in 1945 with Aldo Leopold, the University of Wisconsin professor considered the founder of wildlife management. Like Leopold, who stressed the importance of biodiversity, Mann understood the complexity of the prairies and wetlands.

"A lot of the fellows were saying it was just for the ducks, but he didn't see it that way," Lois said. "He appreciated the whole environment of the prairie."

Sam Cook is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. The Duluth News Tribune and Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications Co.