ST. PAUL (WCCO) — A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources non-game wildlife leader is retiring after decades of service, but his legacy will be felt for years to come.

WCCO’s Bill Hudson sat down with the conservationist to learn more about his impact on Minnesota’s wildlife.

In a topsy-turvy, mixed-up world, it’s healing to spend some time with nature.

“Seeing a trumpeter swan, it’s like seeing a bald eagle, so majestic, so huge and they’ve made such an awesome comeback,” said Carrol Henderson.

A comeback thanks to the efforts of Minnesota DNR’s non-game wildlife program, and for the past 41 years, Henderson has been its supervisor-in-charge.

The overriding goal of the department has been bringing non-game species back from the brink of endangered status.

“The bald eagles back in the early 1970’s, we didn’t have more than 50 pairs in the state,” explained Henderson.

There was a mindset decades ago that eagles and other raptors could be shot from the sky. Today, there are an estimated 8,000 nesting pairs of eagles. This is thanks to a ban on the pesticide DDT and educating the public about the need for protections.

Through the years, Henderson and his staff have helped return peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, turtles and river otters, just to name a few. The group has also worked to restore native prairie habitat to benefit songbirds and pollinating bees.

“A conservationist also needs to understand what they’re not seeing, and I didn’t see otters,” said Henderson. “Why don’t we have otters on the Minnesota river, they used to be there?”

So they did, relocating otters from northern habitat to the Minnesota River, where they are more plentiful today.

In the early years of the program the annual budget was just $25,000 – barely enough to pay for a meager salary and fund program work. Then Henderson worked with the state legislature to pass the hugely successful, “Chickadee checkoff” that taxpayers can contribute to on their state tax forms. Today, it raises some $3 million in funding for non-game work.

In addition, Henderson was instrumental working with Dr. Pat Reddig to establish the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center. And when research proved the connection between toxic lead shot and dying waterfowl and eagles, Henderson pushed hard to ban lead from tackle and ammunition. Unfortunately, there is still a need, Henderson says to convince big game hunters to make the switch from lead bullets.

Over the years, Carrol and his wife would lead birding trips to the tropics to observe and research wintering songbirds. His fascination with nature dates back to his time growing up as an Iowa farm boy, credit he gives to his parents.

“My parents bought me birding books, golden nature guides and I just wore the covers off those,” Carrol muses.

In a career so rich and rewarding it is hard to settle on a single legacy, but it is no coincidence that his final week at the DNR is also when the federal government signs off on a huge settlement with British Petroleum over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Henderson put in countless time assessing damage to Minnesota’s wintering population of the common loons, our state bird. Minnesota’s non-game program will benefit from an estimated $7 million settlement from BP to help fund more research and better loon habitat protections.

“I’ve done my best to bring back things that were conspicuously missing,” said Henderson.

And there rests the fortunes of a rich career we all can enjoy.

Bill Hudson