John Weiss: Cole saw plenty of changes in 30 years at Whitewater

ELBA — Change tends to come slowly in the 28,000-acre Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. It took eons for the Whitewater River and tributaries to sculpt the dazzling bluffs, and for nature to turn it into a fish and wildlife Eden.

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Jon Cole has seen some big changes in how the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area is managed in about 30 years as its manager. He will retire at the end of the month.

ELBA — Change tends to come slowly in the 28,000-acre Whitewater Wildlife Management Area.

It took eons for the Whitewater River and tributaries to sculpt the dazzling bluffs, and for nature to turn it into a fish and wildlife Eden. It took decades for European settlers to use plow, ax and ignorance to turn the valley into an environmental basket case of erosion-scarred bluffs. It took decades for nature to heal that damage after the Department of Natural Resource bought much of the land, planted trees and waited for the recovery to happen.

And now, another big change is happening — Jon Cole is retiring as the manager. He's on a very short list of people who've overseen one of Minnesota's most precious natural jewels.

The predecessor of the DNR began buying land in the Whitewater Valley in 1931, and George Lemke soon took over as its manager. In 1948, George Meyer began his tenure as manager, one that would make him a legend in the region.

He retired in 1983. A few years later, Cole, who was Meyer's protege, took over as manager.


He's had a good run, but May 2 will be his last day on the job.

Cole said he grew up in the Twin Cities — and despite that drawback, he still learned to love the outdoors. His dad had a cabin along a river northwest of the cities and he and his siblings, relatives and friends would spend their summers swimming and fishing in that water. He was hooked on fishing — not so much wildlife, though he did hunt some ducks.

When in college, Cole learned you could get a degree in wildlife management. He began with the DNR part-time and worked his way up to full-time, eventually moving down to the southeast to work with Meyer. He later took a job in northwest Minnesota, but when Meyer's position became open, Cole took over in 1984.

Like many others, Cole said he found the valley's bluffs, streams and wildlife irresistible. It has more kinds of reptiles and amphibians than any other place in the state, and virtually no mosquitoes.

Unlike Meyer, who was just about ready to turn around and run away when he first saw a valley that was barely recovering, Cole said he saw an area that was in great shape. Ruffed grouse were still pretty common, through they were beginning their downward population trend. Turkeys were beginning to rise to stardom, and deer, reptiles and amphibians were common. The trout streams were excellent, the hiking was fine and there were ducks to hunt along the Mississippi River backwaters.

"It's hard to believe, it went pretty fast," Cole said of his career. He said he wants to spend more time with his wife, Kathleen, their children and grandchildren while his health is still good. "I can do whatever I want," he said. He hopes to do some part-time work with conservation groups, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, overseeing habitat projects or some other conservation work.

Some of those projects are funded with money from the state's Legacy Amendment that has been a huge benefit to the valley, he said. He has had a lot more money to do controlled burns, cut down old woods and plant new timber better suited for wildlife.

As part of that, the DNR is also managing for Karner blue butterflies and other non-game species. For too many years, the DNR only had time and money for "the big-ticket items" like deer and turkeys.


Of course, managing one area for a butterfly means not managing for some of the big-ticket species. "I have always wrestled with that," he said. The DNR is seeking more of a balance, "and it's not always cut-and-dried," he said. He decided that it's worth it to have a wider variety of habitats, not just everything for deer, turkeys or grouse.

The next change will come when he steps down.

That's also good, he said. There's a benefit in having new, younger managers with new ideas and enthusiasm. Several other well-known baby-boomer legends in the bluffland region have also stepped down in the past few years.

In looking back at his 30 years, Cole said he hopes he will be known as a good steward. He will, for sure, be known as part of the valley's history that is so rich in fish, wildlife and beauty.

In those years, has the valley improved?

"It has changed," Cole said.

To read more about the history of the Whitewater Valley, go online to .

Reporter John Weiss has covered the outdoors for the Post-Bulletin for more than 38 years. If you have a comment or story idea, call John at 507-285-7749.

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