By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Jerry Gray of Winsted first began restoring wetlands in 1964, using dynamite.
That first project was as a young college student at Delta Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Station on the south shore of Lake Manitoba in south central Manitoba, Canada.
“I could blow a pothole that had specific configurations and different water depths by the amount of the charge,” Gray said. “It’s not rocket science, just common sense.”
Times have changed, Gray, now 70, admits. He doesn’t use dynamite anymore, but he still loves to restore wetlands, woodlands, and prairies to their natural state, and will continue to do so for as long as he is able, he said.
“My niche in life has been wetlands because I have always been drawn to them. I guess maybe growing up in North Dakota did that,” Gray said.
Besides Gray enjoying what he is doing, his work is also a benefit to the environment. By restoring wetlands, he improves water quality, and provides a habitat for fish and other wildlife, and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, wetland restoration is essential to ensure the health of America’s watersheds.
“We have lost, I don’t know the exact figure, but we have lost about 54 percent of the wetlands in Minnesota. They have been drained, or filled, or no longer remain a wetland,” Gray said.
“At one time, Carver County had the highest nesting population for Redheads and Canvasback ducks and now, there is not a one,” Gray added.
Gray has a bachelor of science degree in wildlife management from the University of Minnesota, but said his real education came on a sponsorship he received from James Ford Bell Jr. for two summers as a graduate assistant at the Delta Waterfowl and Wetlands in Manitoba.
“When I was in college, I had a job as a tree trimmer on the Ford Bell estate and I didn’t even know that Delta existed, but when Bell found out I was in wildlife management, he said, ‘we are going to have to get you up to Delta,’” Gray said.
Delta’s primary mission, according to its website, is to help conserve North American waterfowl and wetland resources by assisting in the graduate education of future resource professionals. In the process, Delta achieves its secondary goal of discovering basic and applied information about waterfowl and wetlands.
“That was the best experience, and it was invaluable because it led to other contracts with Delta as my career progressed,” Gray said.
While most people had to pay to spend their summers at Delta doing research to get their master’s degree, Bell would pay Gray to sit on top of a haystack to watch migrating teal (ducks) or to go out and shoot a couple of pintail (ducks) for a plumage study.
“I had the opportunity to work on all of the major studies in Delta because I wasn’t locked in,” Gray said.
Gray’s first position as a biologist after graduation was at Hennepin County Park Reserve, which is now known as Three Rivers Parks. He worked there for 14 years, from 1968 to 1981.
We (Hennepin County Parks) grew so fast,” Gray said. “I was the fifth staff person hired and, when I left, there were 160. All of a sudden, we shifted gears. I wasn’t a biologist, I was in park management, and the bureaucracy. What we used to do in a month, would take a couple of years to accomplish.”
When he first started working at Hennepin County, he took over the Canada goose restoration program, which began in the mid-’60s. The county had captured several flocks of Canada geese which were clipped so they couldn’t fly; only the young goslings were allowed to fly.
“Now, the goose population has exploded. They harvest 8,000 or 9,000 in the city every year and give them to the food shelf because there are too many Canadian geese,” Gray said.
Another program he started at Hennepin County was for trumpeter swan restoration. Gray went to Red Rock Lake in Montana two years in a row and brought back 10 trumpeter swans each year.
“With an airboat and a net, I went looking for an adult pair (Trumpeter swans) that might have three signets. I kind of felt bad doing it, but it was managed by Fish and Wildlife and we had made arrangements. We kept the swans at Rebecca Park Reserve and now, there are several hundred birds that fly,” Gray said.
In 1981, he left Hennepin County, becoming a biological consultant, mainly doing wetland restoration. Today, he considers himself an ecological consultant.
“That better explains what I do,” Gray said.
One of the bigger wetland projects Gray has done was for Albion Ridges Golf Course, north of Howard Lake, where he delineated (established boundaries between wetland and upland), designed, and created more than 25 acres of wetland. The owner of the golf course was able to bank wetland credits to sell to other property owners who were interested in removing wetland from their properties.
For every acre of wetland removed, property owners must replace two acres of wetland, unless it’s agricultural land. For agricultural land, it’s one acre of wetland for every acre of upland.
Another wetland project Gray is proud of was done on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter in about 2001. He designed three constructive wetlands which took all of the runoff from the campus into a pond where the solids filtered out. Then, it flowed over a sill into a wetland to clean it up.
“They raised $400,000 from alumni for the design and the construction, which took about two years,” Gray said.
Currently, Gray spends a great deal of time providing “expert witness testimony” in wetland cases as a wetland restoration expert.
“If someone does something detrimental to the resource, I won’t work with them or for the attorney that represents them,” Gray said. “But if I feel what they have done is a benefit to the wetland resource, I will try to negotiate to keep it out of the court. It might require the land-owner to do some additional restoration.”
His most recent case, lasting a total of two years, was in Kittson County, where the county had done some ditching and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was concerned about the project destroying Juneberry Fen, a rare wetland which is groundwater fed.
“My opinion was, the work they had done was a benefit to the rare wetland by getting rid of some flood waters faster so it’s not carrying suspended solids, and the case was settled out of court,” Gray said.
While he was in Kittson County, he documented two species of orchids that are found in other places in Minnesota, but have not been documented on Juneberry Fen; the fringed orchid and the nodding trestle orchid.
“That was exciting for me,” Gray said.
Gray recently volunteered to share his wetland expertise with the Winsted Lake Watershed Association this spring.
A soon as the snow melts, Gary Lenz, a lake association member, will give Gray a tour of the Winsted Lake watershed.
“There is a lot of opportunity to do things to make improvements to the lake,” Gray said.
Gray is suggesting possibly creating a constructed wetland on the north side of the lake into which the ditch could drain.
When the water from the ditch would run into the wetland, the wetland would take nutrients out of the water before it enters the lake.
More about Jerry Gray
It’s hard to believe that Gray has time for hobbies, since this story just briefly touches on his many accomplishments.
But Gray is a pilot, he skydives (249 jumps to-date), and he once kayaked down the mainland of Mexico which took him three years.
He likes to snowshoe, is a downhill skier who was a certified ski instructor, cross country skis, and he likes to do wood carvings of waterfowl and Native American flutes.
Fifteen years ago, Gray and his wife, Judy, moved to a 40-acre parcel, south of Winsted on McLeod County Road 9.
They had been living between Victoria and Waconia in Laketown Township, but as the housing projects developed around him, Gray decided he wanted to move.
“I like the privacy,” Gray said, “That’s probably why I bought the back 40. No one will ever build behind me because it’s all marsh and cattails.”
Gray has plans to put five wetlands on his land, and has already designed them. He has been waiting since November for the excavator to begin the work.
Jerry and Judy have three children.
Their son David is married to Lynn, and they live in Minneapolis with their son, Noah, 7.
Daughter Jill is married to Bill Gundlach, and they live in Burnsville with their daughter, Lucy, 5, and son, Josh, 16. Daughter Kelly lives in Oakland CA with her husband, Jim McIntyre.