SLAYTON — Bill Schuna, area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, was recognized earlier this month as Minnesota Conservation Partner of the Year by Ducks Unlimited.

Schuna is based in Slayton and Talcot Lake in Murray County, but his area spans Nobles, Rock and Pipestone counties as well.

“Over the last 20 years, Bill has provided great local leadership and collaborative conservation partnerships to help us complete many Ducks Unlimited-MDNR projects in southwest Minnesota,” said Jon Schneider, director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited’s Living Lakes Initiative in Minnesota.

Schuna was completely surprised by the award, which was presented to him during Ducks Unlimited’s state convention Feb. 8 in Willmar.

“I was speechless — very honored,” Schuna said. “This has been a dream job for anybody that’s into wildlife or hunting or habitat.”

In his nearly 20-year stint with the DNR, Schuna has worked in partnership with Ducks Unlimited since the beginning. However, it's the work he’s done since taking over as area wildlife manager that resulted in the recognition.

Schneider noted that with Schuna’s guidance, Ducks Unlimited and the DNR completed nine public prairie and wetland acquisition or restoration projects, totaling 1,550 acres, since passage of the state’s Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment in 2008. Schuna helped with Ducks Unlimited’s largest public land acquisition project in the state to date, a 644-acre tract which became the Swessinger Wildlife Management Area in Nobles County.

As of August 2019, Schuna’s work area in the four counties has grown to 21,409 acres of public lands. His office manages the parcels with three other full-time staff — Kevin Schaap (based in Slayton) and Judy Markl and Dennis Opdahl (based at Talcot) — and seven seasonal employees.

“Partnerships are everything to us,” Schuna said. “We get more work done with our partnerships. Ducks Unlimited are awesome partners, and other partners include Pheasants Forever and our local game and fish clubs.”

Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever generally take the lead on land acquisitions, turning the property over to the Minnesota DNR once a purchase is finalized. During the process, Schuna said the organizations may help with site cleanup, such as pulling fences and clearing away trash.

This helps the DNR further its goal, which is to strategically acquire properties to provide outdoor recreation, clean water and wildlife habitat, Schuna said.

“What we’re really focusing on are wetland or grassland complexes that provide multiple benefits to wildlife and the public,” he added. “We’re not buying every acre that’s offered — we turn down a lot. Most of what we’ve been acquiring lately have been attached to existing easements or have a special ecological benefit.”

Development and maintenance of public lands takes up a large portion of staff time, whether it's seeding prairie grass or restoring a wetland.

With nearly two decades of service to the DNR, Schuna looks to a busy future filled with ideas for the DNR to pursue in this part of the state.

“We’re going to continue to look at strategic parcels,” he said. “As to what that number would be for acres, that isn’t for me to decide or even think about.”

Schuna has worked as this area’s wildlife manager since April 2013, and before that he served as an assistant wildlife manager for the DNR in Marshall. His first job with the state agency was as a technician for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) in Lyon County. He spent nine months in that role before moving into wildlife management.

A native of East St. Paul, he worked as a barber for 17 years in the Maplewood Mall to put himself through college. He earned his degree in wildlife management from the University of Minnesota.

Today, he says he has the best job in the world, and no two days are ever the same.

“I get to spend a lot of time outdoors,” Schuna said. “I can’t believe I come to work to work and get paid to do this.”

Schuna said the old adage “Build it and they will come” certainly applies to his work as an area wildlife manager. By building wetlands and grasslands, he gets to see firsthand the wildlife that are lured in by the habitat.

“That’s what puts a smile on my face,” he said.