Iowa DNR official spent career balancing needs of hunters, farmers and 'critters'

Dale Garner retires after more than 25 years with state conservation agency

DES MOINES — Iowa just lost another endangered species: a longtime public servant who was nationally recognized in his field.

Dr. Dale Garner, a longtime leader in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and a nationally recognized wildlife expert, called it quits last month after roaming the fields, forests, farms and sometimes-treacherous halls of state government for more than 25 years.

“I always was interested in conservation,” said Garner, a Wisconsin native who studied in California, New York and Canada before settling in Iowa. “I came here and I stayed because I really enjoyed it. Iowa has a lot to offer.”

His time in Iowa started with a southern Iowa pheasant hunting trip with a college acquaintance and continued with a long sojourn of balancing the interests of hunters, conservationists, farmers, businesses and myriad “critters” as he calls them, while ensuring habitat for all.

After that hunting trip, Garner said he finished his doctoral work in environmental and forest biology on a Friday and the following Monday got a job offer that brought him back to Iowa. Immediately after accepting his Iowa assignment, offers flowed in from Canada and Alaska, but he chose the Midwest to stay close to his grandmother. He described her as “a very important part of my life growing up” after his parents died when he was young.

“After living on the West Coast and the East Coast, I just love the people in the Midwest because they’re down to earth, they’re so polite and cordial,” he said. “I enjoyed growing up in this part of the world, and I just enjoyed working with really down-to-earth people.”

Garner said he also was drawn to Iowa’s rich conservation heritage.

Before retiring Sept. 30, Garner spent most of his career in the DNR’s wildlife bureau. He began as a research biologist for forest wildlife species in the Chariton office in 1995 before moving to Des Moines in 2001 to become the coordinator of the North American Wetland Conservation Act grant programs and other special projects that included heading up the chronic wasting disease program.


He was promoted to chief of the wildlife bureau in 2004, and later was tabbed in 2017 to administer the DNR division that oversees fisheries, state parks, forests and preserves; engineering; land and waters; law enforcement; and wildlife functions. Needless to say, that covers a lot of ground.

“Iowa is an agricultural state, but as I’ve always said there’s room for both agriculture and conservation,” said Garner, even though he’s seen those various interests lock horns from time to time.

“The competing interest is habitat,” he said. “We have nearly 1,000 species of greatest conservation need, and most of those are there because of loss of habitat.”

Water quality also is of prime concern to conservationists and farmers alike.

The key oftentimes, Garner said, is to get Iowa’s competing interests to work in sync. For instance, a recent DNR report showed a decline in pheasants, quail and rabbits over the past decades — a trend that is rooted in lost habitat as more land is cleared for tillage or development.

Because pheasants, quail, cottontail rabbits and squirrels are Iowa’s most popular upland game species, state officials have encouraged farmers to create shelter. That includes allowing grass to grow 10 to 12 inches high to provide nesting cover for pheasants, along with flowering native plants that attract insects that provide the protein hatchlings need for growth and food plots that provide seed and cover during the winter.

Throughout his career, Garner said he managed by the philosophy of keeping the resource first.

“They’re public trust resources; wildlife, the air, the water, the land,” he said. “That should always be No. 1. Public places belong to the citizens of this state. We’re just the custodians of them. Our job is to manage these resources in perpetuity.”

To that end, Garner and his associates oversaw the restoration of Iowa’s shallow lakes, development of forward-looking forest stewardship plans, cultivation of streams supporting naturally reproducing trout, conversion of upland areas into native prairies and work to restore and update Iowa’s state parks — many that had old trees and other features ravaged by the Aug. 10 derecho.

Balancing and managing Iowa’s deer herd was an ongoing challenge for Garner — with hunters wanting “a deer behind every tree,” motorists and insurers worried at vehicle-versus-deer accidents, and farmers concerned about the crop damage and loss they cause and the potential threat that chronic wasting diseases in deer and elk pose to livestock.


“Iowa is known for its great deer herd and the quality of its deer here. But at the same time too many can be a problem, too,” he said.

“There’s a fine line between too much and not enough. That’s where you have to maintain a balance that is socially acceptable,” Garner noted. “Too many or too few is a value judgment depending what side of the fence you live on.”

Also, with the coronavirus pandemic, he said more attention is going to have to be given to zoonotic diseases caused by germs that start with wildlife and move to people, adding that “as we continue to be more of a global society and we have animals that are in close concert with humans, we’re going to see more of those types of things.”

Garner said Iowans see the occasional bear or mountain lion due to burgeoning populations in neighboring states that force young male animals to look for new environs. He said the most unusual species to surface in Iowa during his time with the DNR was the fisher — a small, carnivorous mammal related to the weasel family that he said has not been seen in Iowa “for a long time.”

In bidding farewell to Garner after his years of service, DNR Director Kayla Lyon praised him for his “invaluable expertise and knowledge of wildlife” that she said “is unparalleled and ... an incredible benefit to the state of Iowa and beyond.”

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