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Dokken: Remembering Harold Duebbert, a respected North Dakota waterfowl biologist and sportsman

Harold Duebbert, a renowned North Dakota waterfowl biologist, hunter, writer and carver of decoys, died Tuesday, Jan. 18, at the age of 92.

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Harold Duebbert with a pair of white-fronted geese, also known as "speckle bellies," shot in September 2004 during a hunting trip to Saskatchewan.
Contributed / Ross Hier
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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Like mallards swarming a prairie slough on a crisp fall morning, tributes poured in last week for Harold Duebbert, a renowned waterfowl biologist, hunter, writer and carver of decoys. Duebbert, 92, of Fergus Falls, died Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

A Missouri native who grew up hunting ducks on the river bottoms along the Missouri River, Duebbert moved to North Dakota in the late 1950s and worked as a biologist in Devils Lake, at the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge near Bottineau and, for the final 21 years of his career, at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown.

He moved to Fergus Falls in 1989, whetting his waterfowl appetite by carving decoys, writing about waterfowl and making extended hunting trips to the prairies of southern Saskatchewan. Duebbert’s first book, “Wildfowling in Dakota: 1873-1903,” came out in 2003, and a collection of personal hunting memoirs, “My Lifetime Among Waterfowl,” will soon go to press, according to his obituary , published online at olsonfuneralhome.com.

“I love North Dakota,” Duebbert told me in a 2001 interview. “I’ve had a passion for it for many years. North Dakota is in my blood, and it will be as long as I live.”

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Ross Hier, who retired in 2016 as a wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Crookston, got to know Duebbert in the late 1980s through mutual friends. He was among many friends and colleagues who shared thoughts and memories on the tribute wall accompanying Duebbert’s obituary .

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Hier shared a few stories of his friend and mentor in a phone interview and speaks with reverence of the man he often called “HFD” – for Harold Franklin Duebbert – a middle name taken after Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“Harold was a deep thinker, not only in the realm of waterfowl biology, but in the realm of humanity, decency and community,” Hier said. “I’ll miss him dearly.”

Professionally, Duebbert was a “common, no-nonsense field biologist,” Hier says.

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Ross Hier works on a watercolor painting in his Crookston home studio in June 2016. Hier recently shared stories of Harold Duebbert, a longtime waterfowl biologist, hunting partner, friend and mentor, who died Jan. 18, 2022 at age 92.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

“He just observed things in nature and tried to seek answers from his observations and his research,” Hier said. “He didn’t carry any airs about him whatsoever. He was a very humble man – and, of course, a world-class decoy carver in his own right.”

Like Duebbert, Hier is a passionate waterfowl hunter and decoy carver. He also is known in conservation circles for his watercolor paintings depicting outdoors scenes.

Prairie memories

Hier started hunting with Duebbert as their friendship grew and recalls shooting his very first sandhill crane while afield with him in September 1992 in the Missouri Coteau country of central North Dakota. He also made several trips to Saskatchewan with Duebbert, who hunted with a early 1900s-vintage L.C. Smith-brand side-by-side 12 gauge shotgun he simply called “The Smith,” Hier recalls.

“He’d tell a tale about three cranes coming over, and The Smith was raised up and two cranes would fall,” Hier said. “He had a deep love for that old side-by-side. It wasn’t anything fancy, it was a field-grade L.C. Smith, but I guarantee it shot a lot of birds.”

Trips to Saskatchewan always followed a certain ritual, Hier says: Oatmeal every morning, decoys that had to be set “just so,” and a Thermos that Duebbert always carried in a homemade wooden shotgun shell box a son-in-law had made.

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He also dressed like an old-school waterfowl hunter, Hier recalls.

“You just look at his clothing and you know what era it’s from – it’s all brown canvas,” Hier said. “I still prefer that vs. all this camouflage (today).”

For Duebbert, who would spend three weeks in Saskatchewan, those trips were about more than hunting, Hier says.

“He got to know a lot of people and he would invest himself in local history wherever he was hunting – buy local baked goods and things like that,” Hier said. "He was certainly a community man.”

Despite an age difference of more than 25 years, Hier says he had a “spiritual connection” with Duebbert unlike any friendship he’s ever had.

He was a “prolific letter writer like I am,” said Hier, who has a collection of perhaps 125 letters he received from Duebbert over the years.

“I’d like to do something with them someday, but I’m not sure what,” Hier said. “We talked about all kinds of things, but we did believe in a kind of Native American-type spirituality that flows through the prairie.

“There were just so many serendipitous things that would happen between us.”

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One time, Hier recalls hunting in the coteau country near Robinson, North Dakota, in Kidder County, when he drove up over a hill and saw a vehicle creeping in his direction.

“And here it’s Harold,” Hier said. “We hadn’t communicated, but it was just such a joyful meeting on the prairie. I’ll never forget it.

“Those were the kind of things we cherished.”

A memorial service will be held sometime this spring on the “North Dakota prairie that Harold loved,” his obituary states.

  • On the web:

www.olsonfuneralhome.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1988.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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