Emilee Nelson is a tomboy and proud of it, a country mouse who just happened to be born in the city.
Her idea of a paved paradise is a concrete boat landing on some hidden lake full of walleye.
This, in and of itself, puts her in limited company. Her upbringing - as a kid she hung out with the boys if given the choice and would on any given day chose shooting over shopping - was saturated with everything outdoors. Her background and passion for hunting and conservation has led her to southwest Minnesota, or as we like to call it, pheasant country.
Nelson, a native of Crystal, was recently hired as Pheasant Forever's first coordinating wildlife biologist where she will focus on grassland conservation priorities in the Lac qui Parle core area and Prairie Coteau region under the new Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan. The position is part of a partnership between PF, the DNR, the Lyon County Soil & Water Conservation District and the Minnesota Prairie Plan Working Group.
Can you say "dream job?"
"I feel like this position was made for me," she said earlier this week from her freshly-painted office at the Lyon County SWCD. "I spent a lot of time as a kid fishing, hunting - duck hunting was really big for me as a kid. The hunting was always fantastic, but I just love sitting out and enjoying nature."
That's a typical response from anyone who works in conservation. What makes Nelson stand out from the conservation crowd is that she's a woman. Although females make up about 35 percent of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' workforce, there aren't a lot of Emilee Nelsons around.
"I don't know many women who do the stuff I do as intensely as I do," said Nelson, who fell in love with bow hunting the first time she anchored a bowstring as a teenager. "I don't remember women's hunting clothing coming out until about six, seven years ago. I was always wearing all the guys' clothes, all the boys-sized shoes, which was very difficult. I've only met one other woman who bow hunts, so it's not a common thing."
Nelson, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2011 with a B.S. in Wildlife, Fisheries and Conservation Biology, started her career in the outdoors as a project specialist with the DNR. She said at the time, her superiors were leery of having a woman out in the field. But any trepidation her male counterparts may have had about her were erased when the boys realized how walking a field or donning waders to monitor a trout stream is her comfort zone.
"They were kind of thinking I was a city-slicker by the clothes I wore to the interview," she said. "There were a couple days before all of a sudden they just relaxed and said, "Yah, she can do this. We all have the same underlying concern, which is to conserve nature."
In her new position, Nelson will be helping to implement the ambitious Prairie Plan, what PF calls a multi-agency approach to sustain functional grasslands and prairies in agriculture regions of western and southern Minnesota. She's well aware of the challenges conservation organizations face in light of increasing crop prices and expiring conservation acres.
It will be Nelson's job to educate people about the importance of grassland preservation, not just to help the pheasant population, but to help all wildlife and to preserve and enhance what we have now so future generations - boys and girls - can enjoy it, too.
"Basically, we're just going to put grass on the ground for anything that needs it," Nelson said. "The problem is, it's getting turned up faster than we can preserve and protect it. The last 10 years the prices of corn and beans have gone sky-high; it just boils down to getting the right people knocking on the right doors at the right time. My job is to make sure those doors get knocked on basically so the landowners, ranchers know their options. It's a pretty big project. Hopefully I can make a dent."