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Herb Behnke: Life of purpose for the 'common man, woman,' hunters, anglers, wildlife and wardens

Published: October 12, 2013 in Outdoor Recreation

By: Joanne M. Haas/Bureau of Law Enforcement

Herb Behnke’s favorite dog is the yellow lab – it’s their disposition he likes. He’s a Depression kid – which means he understands what tough times really are. And the only answers he knows are straight ones.

Herb Behnke

Herb Behnke

If you think you can sneak anything by Herb, and he does prefer Herb instead of Mr. Behnke, you quickly will learn this is futile. He won’t have any part of it. Just ask any of the conservation wardens who know him, the DNR Natural Resources Board members who served with him during his 22-year tenure, the many citizens who sought his counsel – and most likely the governors who appointed him.

“I’ve always been for the common man and woman. I am only interested in things that I can control,” Herb says with eyes that could double as cannons. “I don’t care what people think about me. Why would I?”

Period. Next question. Refreshingly direct – and classic Herb.

If Herb were to have a theme song, it would be Aaron Copeland’s1942 American classic, Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s a stirring brass and percussion salute the late Copeland described as direct and powerful, yet traditional and contemporary.

Herb Behnke Unit of the Lower Wolf River

Herb Behnke Unit of the Lower Wolf River

It is 1:30 in the afternoon. Rains are expected to hit Shawano in a few hours. Herb is sitting in his living room in a chair that seems to swallow him. The room appears enormous as the wall of windows brings the nearby flowing Wolf River to his side. There is an undeniable peace here, in the room Herb is living, where time – always precious – stops for awhile.

In his lap is his cell phone. We make a deal.

We’ll talk until he’s had enough. Fair enough. It’s his house.

Herb doesn’t like talking about himself. So it’s good thing when retired Northeast Regional Warden Larry Kriese of Green Bay stops by Herb’s house toting a load of eats to pack the Behnke refrigerator.

Larry Kriese

Larry Kriese

Kriese plunks down on the living room sofa and describes Herb as nothing less of a world-class diplomat and a Wisconsin conservation giant. Kriese says this in front of Herb, who did his share of rides with wardens as a type of special deputy warden for years.

“You can pick up your money on the way out,” Herb says to Kriese. “That’s all I paid him to say,” Herb says to me, and smiles.

Apparently, Herb paid a bit more as Kriese appears to have no intention of stopping.

“Herb could walk into a room full of wardens, hunters – anybody -- and everyone is ready to throw darts at each other and argue about everything!” Kriese says. “And Herb had this way of simply finding the middle-ground and getting them to talk and focus on what’s really important. And that’s a rare commodity.”

Herb leans forward and immediately counters with: “I have no idea I do that.”

And therein is the real beauty of Behnke. He’s just wired that way. That’s his normal. Debates don’t bother him. Disagreements aren’t deal-breakers. Grudges are worthless.

Herb’s name comes up routinely at the meetings of the conservation organizations Kriese participates today. He’s never heard anyone ever accuse Herb of being a blind supporter of everything the DNR did during his years on the Natural Resources Board.

“In fact, Herb probably did just the opposite -- and stepped on different people’s toes at times,” Kriese says. “Along the way, there have been people who have either admired or have disagreed with Herb. But on the next issue, they might have been great buddies in total support of each other.”

Talk with Herb for a while and even agreeing to disagree becomes an agreement. Kriese says it’s because Herb does something a lot of people fail to do.

“People want to be heard. He listened,” Lenore Behnke says. “Most people, I think, are sincere. You may disagree, but I think they are sincere in their beliefs. So you listen. And they were always polite.”

Lenore is Herb’s wife, a woman Herb describes as a “trooper” during all his years serving the people as a member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board. Herb was on the board, but she was on the phone.

The Behnke home phone would ring and ring, and she’d answer and answer – take some notes, pledge a return call from Herb and thank them for their time. “They’d say, ‘thanks for listening,’” she says. “And they were polite.”

Lenore and Herb: A team then and a team now.

Kriese tells Lenore he packed the family’s fridge with food for the pair just before she got home from her day’s errands. There’s even some ‘health food’ in the mix, Kriese yells to her from the sofa. Lenore laughs and says, “Oh, we’re not doing health food.” Herb smiles.

Herb’s health is waging war. It’s leukemia. But, in true Herb form, he’s decided to face it straight on. But that’s no surprise – he’s a Depression kid. No complaints, no whining.

Tough with a capital ‘T,’ warden rides & Mr. Leopold

Behnke was born in 1925 and grew up with a slew of siblings – make that 10 – on a dairy farm near Lena.

“Have you ever picked up rocks? Have you ever pitched hay? Ever clean out a cow barn? No, I didn’t want to be farmer,” Behnke says with a slight grin when asked why he opted to dedicate his 42-year professional career to an international Shawano-based animal breeding company, known today as Cooperative Resources International. You may remember it as 21st Century Genetics.

The company wasn’t known by that name when he started. Still, he learned at a young age this specific animal breeding industry was on the rise. So, being the youngest of his siblings, he advised his father to sell the farm.

Herb retired from Cooperative Resources International as their vice president of marketing. What’s marketing? Communicating the value of a product. Herb’s been learning about Wisconsin’s outdoor products and communicating about their value since childhood – that’s when he first learned to hunt and fish and enjoy Wisconsin’s immense natural resources.

Spare time? What do you do with it? “Hunt!”

He learned to hunt because that’s what you do in a big Wisconsin family. He says he doesn’t recall any big traditional passing of the hunting torch. Heck, Herb just learned by watching and repeating what he saw. The family hunt would be take place near his dad’s cabin north of Lena. His dad would pack a mattress that could be thrown on the floor and shared by the hunting crew. And the clothes he wore when he left home for the hunting trip would be changed when he got home a few days later. “You just kept them on,” he says.

“The reason for hunting rabbits, ruffed grouse, prairie chicken and ducks was to put food on the table,” he says. “Deer was non-existent -- except up north.”

Wolf River in autumn

Wolf River in autumn

Herb says he never knew his family didn’t have much because that’s just the way it was. It was the Great Depression. When his mother had a meal to share, people came and she found a way to feed everybody.

“It’s just the way it was. It was tough,” he says. “With a capital T.”

And the local game warden was someone he seems to have always known, always liked and always respected. He didn’t want to become a warden – but he still rode with the local warden as often as his time would allow. His interest was there, but fact is Herb was earning a nice company salary– and it was higher than the warden’s.

In his 20s, Herb spent hours on the road with former warden Ralph Richardson. The two would ride together while Herb was working in the Peshtigo area for the company.

“I got to be a friend of his and I used to travel with him on his work schedule and I became a type of special deputy for a while,” Herb says. “I have always respected the wardens – the work they do. They are protecting our resources. And they are the ambassadors of the Department of Natural Resources.”

And along the way he found his way into conservation work and fighting for the common man and woman who share his passion for the resources. As a teen, he looked forward to the monthly meetings of the Lena sportsman’s club at Jack Kinziger’s tavern. Kinziger was a delegate to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.

It was there Herb got hooked… to the idea of working with others to set the hunting and fishing dates – and bag limits. “There were no public hunting grounds in our area and the choice spots were controlled by the rich guys from Green Bay,” Herb says of the way things were.

And who did he read for inspiration? Aldo Leopold.

Not a politician, but dedicated to policy

His first official conservation work came as a member of the Northeastern Conservation Council – a three-county group dedicated to state acquisition of public lands for hunting and fishing. State dollars were few but he plowed ahead, working with then-state Sen. Reuben La Fave. The council’s first purchase was to create the Peshtigo Harbor -- a 160-acre area with prime duck hunting frontage on the west shore of Green Bay. All for $18,000.

He served 12 years on the Conservation Congress before Republican Gov. Warren Knowles tapped him in 1967 to serve on the Wisconsin Conservation Commission. “He never invited me to coffee,” he says with a quick smile when asked how well he knew the former late governor. “I was just one of many appointments a governor does.”

Yet, this was a big move for Herb. He was moving in the same direction and with the likes of Aldo Leopold, Bill Aberg, Haskell Noyes – all who led a charge to create this commission to manage resources for the best of the state and its citizens. Herb recalls that time as being able to work with conservation giants like Charley Smith, Arthur McArthur and more. “Pretty heady stuff for a country boy from Lena.”

The state conservation and resources development agencies were merged to form the Department of Natural Resources in 1968. That’s when Governor Knowles appointed Herb to the new Natural Resources Board. He stayed on until 1972. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson went to Herb and appointed him back to the Natural Resources Board in 1989 and served until 2007.

All those years, Herb’s focus never faltered.

“I never really listened much to special interest groups. To me, it was the common men and women who loved to hunt and fish and what they wanted.” There’s just no place for politics in resource management in Herb’s play book – a theme many have heard him say during the years.

Kriese says Herb’s legacy also includes his dedication to making natural resources decisions “based on science.” Herb says science operates on a much longer time frame than politics, and the wildlife suffers the consequences of hasty decisions based on factors other than science.

Herb says deer management has long been a challenging issue for the Natural Resources Board and the state. Among his most valued work was acquiring lands and waters for the public. In 2006, the Herb Behnke Unit of the Lower Wolf River Bottomlands Natural Resources Area was declared. The ceremony was held commonly known as the DNR Sturgeon Camp northwest of Shiocton in Outagamie County.

He downplays that he bought the area to preserve it – it was simply the right thing to do.

It was important then and it is now, as he sits in his home along the Wolf River where he can see the water, the wildlife and the changing trees of this season of transition for himself -- and for a state he has served for decades.

Wisconsin’s Chief Conservation Warden Randy Stark likes to tell the new warden recruits the purpose in life is to have a purpose in life. Herb Behnke is what that looks like.

Last Revised: Saturday, October 12, 2013

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