Go-to-Mann for S.D. elk country
The following article was submitted by Greg Miller. It ran in the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Bugle magazine in the January/February 2015 edition. Reprinted with permission from Alexander Deedy, the Bugle magazine, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
By Alexander Deedy, a former Bugle intern who works at the Independent Record, in Helena, Montana.
The 300-pound black bear had its nose right up against the lens hood of his camera.It was May in Yellowstone, when the park starts to look more green than white and the hibernators have all emerged hungry.
Dennis “Dennie” Mann had been watching the bear for about an hour as it ate grass, munching its way up the gradual slope to the end of the 500mm lens. “I wasn’t too concerned, I just figured he was curious,” Mann said.
One resulting image shows the bear in its approach. Its dark fur in contrast to the wet green field, head tucked down and tilted left, brown eyes searching for the next dandelion. It could easily sell. But Mann doesn’t market his photos for profit. Instead, he donates them to auctions for the RMEF or Ducks Unlimited—two of the organizations he’s been involved with during his long conservation career.
Mann worked 35 years for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks (SDGFP) as a game warden, assistant regional supervisor and regional habitat manager. Over the years, the partnership Mann fostered between his employer and RMEF secured more than 30,000 acres of conservation easements and over 10,000 acres of land acquired by Game, Fish and Parks and the Forest Service in the Black Hills. He credits much of this success to his childhood spent 200 miles east of the Black Hills, in the 2,500-person town of Chamberlain, South Dakota. After eighth grade, Mann spent his summers working on a friend’s ranch 20 miles from Chamberlain. He bucked hay and herded cattle for $12 a day plus room and board. “Growing up in a rural community probably had a big effect on me,” he says. I think it made me what I am.”
He started tagging along on pheasant and grouse hunts with his dad when he was five years old, and took hunter’s safety when he was 12. During that class a game warden named Gene Dominiack made an impression on Mann that inspired the young hunter to pursue a career working for wildlife. Mann went on to graduate from Black Hills State University in 1978 with majors in biology and chemistry. During college he met a young woman named Mary Ann, whom he later married. After graduating, he got a job as a game warden, and he, Mary Ann and their son Dennie Jr. moved to Rapid City. It was there that Mann’s partnership with the Elk Foundation began.
Mike Mueller, RMEF director of field operations at the time, attended a meeting to speak to SDGFP about habitat projects. What he said struck a chord with Mann, and they found they had much in common. It’s a relationship that has grown ever since. “It’s not only a partnership but a friendship,” Mann says.
In the early ’90s, the Black Hills were under siege by development, Mann says, and he figured eight to 15 acres of habitat were being lost each day. In response, SDGFP and the RMEF created a cost-share position for a lands program manager, which Mueller ended up filling.
Mueller says that in his 30 years working to protect habitat, he’s found it’s a huge boost to conservation to have a state representative who has built trust with landowners. “That’s what Dennie brought to the table,” Mueller says. “He had a great relationship with the private landowners in the Black Hills.”
One of the most common complaints Mann heard when he first started working with ranchers in the area was their love for elk was tainted by the animals’ tendency to destroy fences. So he set out to see what he could do to change that. After experimenting with $25,000 acquired from RMEF, Mann found nine-gauge wire wasn’t tough enough and PVC shattered in the cold. So he approached an electric company about purchasing 3⁄8-inch aluminum cable. He discovered that using this wire kept taut 42 inches above the ground won’t keep elk out but will hold up for years and never harm an elk.
By the end of his career, Mann estimated he had replaced the top strand on more than 200 miles of fence on private land and been contacted by every western state about his solution. “That’s the other part about listening to landowners,” he says. “Having coffee, sitting at their table, you get a lot of ideas.”
Ned and Doris Westphal have been ranching in the Black Hills for 47 years, and coffee with Mann at the ranch headquarters was a common occurrence. For decades the Westphals had worked with SDGFP to protect and steward habitat for wildlife as share-crop lessees on land in Pleasant Valley. In the early 2000s, they decided to sell a 768-acre parcel of their family ranch adjacent to the leased lands. “I didn’t want the place to get subdivided,” Westphal says. “So we got together, and Dennie worked through the people he knew with the Elk Foundation.” As a result, the RMEF purchased the land and conveyed it to SDGFP, and it now provides public access and benefits to wildlife forever. Over the years, Mann and RMEF continued to work on other acquisitions in the valley, and today nearly 1,300 acres of this picturesque pocket in the Black Hills is protected.
But Mann didn’t stop there. Through prescribed burns, fence removals and water projects, he worked at improving the habitat— often with RMEF volunteers at his side. Jerry Hirrschoff, former South Dakota state chair and longtime RMEF volunteer, says Mann was their go-to-guy when RMEF had dollars to spend for on-the-ground projects. Mann served on the South Dakota Project Advisory Council for 14 years and still gets asked to sit in on meetings.
“He was extremely easy to work with, very receptive to ideas,” Hirrschoff says. The acquisitions and habitat improvement projects helped keep elk herds on public lands, which kept private landowners happy and advanced the potential for more conservation, he says. Plus he tried to make as many RMEF banquets as he could, always with a donated photo in his arms.
“He’s one of the reasons why South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, particularly in Region 1, and the Elk Foundation have been such good partners over the years,” Hirrschoff says. And though he is now retired, Mann remains friends with many of the RMEF volunteers.
Just one month into his retirement, Mann accepted a position as executive director of the South Dakota Invasive Species Management Association. Six months later, he was asked to become executive director of the Black Hills Resource Conservation and Development Organization. He still makes time to take photography trips with Mary Ann each year and competes alongside Dennie Jr. in long-range shooting competitions.
Mann doesn’t need a trophy room to mark the success of his career. The fields and hills full of elk in western South Dakota tell that story. Regardless, he’s chalked up enough awards to start a collection: four from the Elk Foundation for his conservation work and many others from various wildlife organizations. But he credits those accomplishments to a tremendous group effort. “One person can’t do it all,” Mann says. “But when you have the opportunity to partner with a group like RMEF—with your staff, with a lot of volunteers—it just worked out very well.”