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Accepting Kenmare refuge jobs felt like coming home for Zorns

Chad Zorn arrived at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge June 1st to take over the role of refuge manager, only to discover the highest water levels ever recorded at the refuge had flooded roads and damaged water control structures.

8/31/11 (Wed)


Chad Zorn arrived at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge June 1st to take over the role of refuge manager, only to discover the highest water levels ever recorded at the refuge had flooded roads and damaged water control structures.


There was little or no access on the popular Scenic Lake Road both north and south of Kenmare, much less any other part of the water-logged refuge.


Heavy spring rains on top of already-saturated soils caused erosion at points under the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks on the refuge, with repairs started by the railroad resulting in destruction on refuge land.


Downstream property owners and communities battled overflows from the Des Lacs lakes and runoff from the coulees south of the refuge.


Despite the notes, phone calls and meetings clogging his schedule even as he moved into his office, Chad was delighted to be back in Kenmare and on the Des Lacs NWR.


Kenmare job keeps the

Zorns at home for a change

As a native of Minot, the Des Lacs refuge and the surrounding area has been an important part of Chad’s life since childhood. “This part of the state is the reason I’m in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the first place,” he said. “I grew up hunting this area. I grew up fishing this area. My first jobs were up here.”


He earned an associate’s degree from the college at Bottineau, where he also met his wife Jennifer, originally from Wisconsin. The couple transferred to South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD, where Chad earned his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 1999, with an emphasis on wildlife and fisheries management. Beginning the summer of 1998, he worked seasonal jobs at the Lostwood WMD. During the winters, his part-time jobs included positions with Ducks Unlimited.


He was first stationed at the Des Lacs NWR from 2002 to 2005 as the manager trainee, working under former project leader Fred Giese and refuge manager Dan Severson.


He moved to the Lostwood NWR office for the next two years and served as manager for the Lostwood Wetland Management District. In 2008, he accepted the same position for the Valley City Wetland Management District and relocated to Jamestown.


In the meantime, Jennifer completed her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at SDSU, with an emphasis in environmental management. She also earned a graduate certificate in GIS (geographic information systems) and worked with GIS for the Audubon and Arrowwood NWRs.


The Zorns’ jobs kept the two commuting for nearly 10 years, living in strategic locations to split the mileage difference. While Chad worked at the Des Lacs and Lostwood stations, the couple lived in Minot and Jennifer drove to her office at Audubon NWR. For the past three years, the Zorns lived in Jamestown, with Chad driving to Valley City and Jennifer to Pingree.


The opportunity at the refuge in Kenmare provided a way for the two to work and live close to home. While Chad applied for the Des Lacs refuge manager job, Jennifer accepted a position as the USFWS Region 6 GIS database manager, providing support for all the field stations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. She can do her work from anywhere, including an office at the Des Lacs NWR headquarters.


“My strong point has always been computer skills and GIS,” said Jennifer. “This was my dream job, and they offered it to me!”


She explained that a GIS database allows the biologists, managers and other personnel to combine and review all the data collected at a refuge, or group of refuges, offering a broad view of the changes and trends occurring. “It can be anything from amphibians to plants to inventorying our assets,” she said. “You can see the whole picture of a refuge, management-wise.”


Then she laughed. “But our program is so new, we’re even still figuring out what we’re doing,” she said.


The Zorns purchased a home in Kenmare and, even better, secured a daycare provider for their twin two-year-old sons, Jacob and Zachary. “When we were driving up [Baden] Hill the other day, I told Chad, ‘This just feels right,’” Jennifer said.


“When I took the position to come here, people assumed I was going back to live in Minot,” Chad said. “But then you never do buy into the community like a refuge manager should.”


Priorities include

relationship between

refuge and Kenmare

Chad said his supervisor at Valley City tried to talk him out of applying for the Des Lacs NWR job, but the opportunity was irresistible. “Both Jen and I felt like we were coming home,” he said, then grinned. “And this time, I was coming back as manager of the station. The other time around, I was several layers down!”


He views the position as a way to do some of the work he likes best. “The higher up you go in the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service, you get more detached from why you got into this work in the first place,” he explained. “I saw [the Des Lacs refuge] as a place I could get back and do a lot more land management, making a difference on the ground.”


He admitted he will need to learn more about managing the water in the refuge’s various units, and he wants to develop a sound management plan for the entire refuge. “We need to remember the reasons why this refuge was established in the first place,” he said, “and make sure we know what goal we’re heading toward.”


He is addressing several additional issues at the moment. A USFWS oil and gas coordinator will be moving into the Des Lacs NWR headquarters to assist with leasing and drilling operations on refuge lands and easements in western North Dakota. Approval has been given to build a new residence on the refuge, so Zorn will be overseeing that construction project in the coming months. And the high water of spring and summer 2011 has left several of the refuge’s water control structures in need of repair or replacement.


Then there are the discussions with CP Railway about track repairs and damages to the refuge at the four sites where hillside sloughing moved the lines and disrupted rail service. “We are working with them to reclaim those sites and minimize damages,” said Zorn. “We’re also working with them to get the Boat Dock road fixed and open that back up to the public. We want to get the refuge back into the shape it was before this all started.”


Chad also wants to prioritize the relationship between the Kenmare community and the Des Lacs refuge. “One of my immediate goals is to rebuild some of the community involvement that we had when I was here the first time,” he said.


As a manager trainee at the Des Lacs NWR from 2002 through 2005, Chad participated in popular events that forged ties between the refuge and Kenmare, including Greenwing Day for kids, the Haunted Hayride events for the public each fall, and the anniversary celebration that attracted more than 600 people to the refuge for a day of activities, food and an open house for the new refuge headquarters.


“That was a big part of coming back,” he said, “the way the staff gets involved with the community and the way the community gets involved with the refuge, the way it used to be. I know that was always important to the community.”


He has already received many warm greetings from Kenmare residents who remember his earlier time at the refuge. “It’s been surprising how many people have told us, ‘Welcome back to the area,’ or ‘Glad to have you here again,’” he said.


That sort of response from the people living in a place close to his heart is one of the reasons Chad was excited to return to the Des Lacs NWR. “Why wouldn’t I come back?” he said. “This is a beautiful refuge next to a great community with a great staff in a neat area of the state. Why wouldn’t anyone want to come back?”


Chad welcomes questions and inquiries about the refuge from area residents and visitors. He can be contacted at the Des Lacs NWR between 7:30 am and 4:30 pm by calling 701-385-4046 ext. 225.