Brad Dokken: Friends and family pay tribute to northwest Minnesota conservation champion

Mar. 1—Glasses were raised far and wide Sunday night, Feb. 25, as friends and family paid tribute to the man known by many as "Earl the Pearl."

Earl Johnson, a longtime wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Detroit Lakes and champion of prairie grouse, woodcock and little brown bats — to name but a few — died Feb. 25.

He was 75 years old.

Earl's younger brother, Mark Johnson, executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, shared the news shortly before noon Sunday in a widely circulated email.

"I'll be raising a glass of fine bourbon in his honor and memory this evening," Mark Johnson wrote.

Based on the replies that quickly flowed in, he had plenty of company.

Dan Svedarsky, a professor emeritus of natural resources at the University of Minnesota Crookston and

founding member of the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society,

said "Earl loved his dogs" and loved watching them work in the field, whether hunting sharp-tailed grouse on the prairie or pointing woodcock broods in the forests of northwest Minnesota for banding in the spring.

Earl and his siblings grew up in Fertile, Minnesota.

"I don't think I've ever seen anybody that loved their dogs more," Svedarsky said. "And it was a great sadness for me when I was visiting with him within the last year, and he was in the process of getting rid of his dogs."

Declining health and mobility issues meant Earl could no longer spend the time in the field with his canine companions.

"I could just feel that he had a heavy heart because he had such a close relationship with his dogs and enjoyed the field and watching his dogs work," Svedarsky said. "And that's one of the things that I will always remember about Earl is just how much and how devoted he was to his dogs. And it just saddened me greatly when I realized how much it saddened him to realize he was at that stage where he was going to have to say goodbye to his dogs because of his physical limitations.

"And he was just such a nice guy."

Johnson was a longtime member of the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, which marked its 50th anniversary in 2023, and was volunteer treasurer for nearly 35 years.

According to his obituary,

Johnson also was active in Woodcock Minnesota and the Ruffed Grouse Society.

"Perhaps his most infamous expertise was little brown bats," Johnson's obituary stated. "His bat house design was nationally known and locally notorious. ..."

Johnson's death is a big loss for the Prairie Chicken Society and grasslands support in general, said Ross Hier of Crookston, a retired DNR wildlife manager, longtime friend and fellow leader in the society.

Hier said he's known Johnson for "probably 40 years"

"He was just a very unique person," Hier said. "He was kind of a renaissance man, in many ways. I've seen videos of him singing in his home Lutheran church, which I didn't know that part of him. He was a very skillful carver, making things out of antlers" and other materials.

"I'm privileged to have known him for so long," Hier said. "He was a northwest Minnesota character through and through."

Mark Johnson said he always knew Earl was "very well respected and very connected in the conservation world," but didn't realize the incredible extent of that respect and involvement until the past week.

"Several years ago, when I first became aware of his nickname 'The Pearl,' I thought it was for his personality, but quickly was made aware by his colleagues that it was also because of his depth of knowledge and ability to share that knowledge on all sorts of levels," Mark Johnson told the Herald. "Another nickname for him was 'The Batman' because of his interest in and advocacy for bats. That by itself is another story."

Despite his recent mobility challenges, Earl was looking forward to sharptail camp this fall, with plans to "age and sex each harvested bird, pass shoot doves ... and generally hold down camp," Mark Johnson said.

"Needless to say, he will be an intimate component of each of our bird camps and hunts this fall as we celebrate his life and friendship," Mark Johnson said.

The funeral service for Earl Johnson was scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, March 1, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Detroit Lakes. He is survived by his wife, Dorothy "Dotz," three daughters, six grandchildren, four sisters and two brothers.

"My hope is that Earl's passion for conservation will continue to inspire others to take up the mantle and do what they can as well," Mark Johnson told the Herald. "He never believed one person was the answer, but that one person was an intimate part of the answer.

"I miss him."