Passing Down Great Outdoor Traditions

Carl Millegan and daughter Jada visit Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska.
Carl Millegan and daughter Jada visit Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska.

Great Outdoors Month, celebrated each year during June, reminds us to head outside and explore our nation’s abundant natural beauty.

More than 101 million Americans, 40% of the U.S. population age 16 and older, pursue wildlife-related recreation, including hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching. In 2016, these outdoor activities contributed more than $156 billion in economic activity in communities across the United States.

Hunters and anglers play an important role in ensuring the future of diverse and healthy wildlife populations. In the United States, hunting and fishing are outdoor traditions. With a few exceptions that vary by state, everyone must have the required state license(s) to hunt or fish. As practiced on national wildlife refuges, hunting does not pose a threat to the wildlife populations, and in some instances sound wildlife management even requires it.

Carl holds a rainbow trout.

Our public lands, including national wildlife refuges, national fish hatcheries, parks, and forests, offer tremendous opportunities to explore and enjoy the great outdoors, most from sunrise to sunset every day, and during the pandemic have provided a much-needed outlet to thousands.

We are highlighting Carl Millegan from #TeamPublicLands at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hope his work and love of the outdoors will inspire you to create your outdoor traditions.

What made you go into the natural resources and fish and wildlife field?

I was raised hunting and fishing with my brother, father, and grandfather. My grandfather was a government trapper for many years in New Mexico. He hunted and trapped for many of the ranchers in the state using a variety of techniques, using the proceeds to pay the bills and provide for his family, even after retirement. He would take my brother and me along on his adventures and expose us to some incredible places throughout New Mexico and up to southern Colorado fishing the high mountain lakes. Summer vacations were spent with the whole family fishing in the lakes and streams across the New Mexico. Each fall, we would head out in the field chasing small game or any big game species we could get a tag for. I am now sharing these favorite memories and traditions with my own family.

At left: antlers. | Middle: wildlife watching. | At right: cooking dinner while camping.

I never really thought I would end up where I am today, but if I really think about it, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. Determined to get an education, I applied at multiple schools and was accepted to New Mexico State University where I graduated with a degree in wildlife and fisheries science.

Ruddy ducks in San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Fernandez/USFWS
Ruddy ducks in San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Fernandez/USFWS

During my schooling, I was fortunate enough to receive an offer for employment with the Service through the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP), now named the Pathways Program with support from the university’s career department where I was placed at San Diego National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. After completion of my degree requirements, I was offered a permanent position at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, and for the last 22 years have continued to work within Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System.

What is your current job? What is an interesting part of what you do?

I am the Deputy Chief of Refuges in the Midwest Region, which includes 56 national wildlife refuges and 12 wetland management districts across more than 1.3 million acres of fish and wildlife habitat in eight states. I enjoy getting out to meet the amazing people at our field stations and learning more about the natural resources we manage from the tallgrass prairie and oak savanna to coastal wetlands, marsh wetlands, and forested bottomlands. These areas provide homes for bald eagles, bats, sandhill cranes, wild turkey, river otters, bison, elk, waterfowl, warblers, wildflowers, insects, and many more species.

What I love most about my job is helping our staff be successful and supporting them. My day is not done if I have not helped an employee do their job, solve any problems, and accomplish their goals each day. My job is perfect for that purpose.

At left: bison with calf at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Doreen Van Ryswyk/USFWS | At right: sedge wren on wildflowers at Morris Wetland Management District. Photo by Alex Galt/USFWS
brook trout.
Carl with a brook trout.
Jada scouting for deer and elk.
Jada scouting for deer and elk.

What are your favorite outdoor activities?

Anything outdoors is a favorite activity. I find myself at peace when I am outside and sitting still in a blind, on a river somewhere, or on a lake listening to nature all around me and taking it all in. I can sit for hours and listen to nature around me.

Who do you go with on your outdoor adventures?

I enjoy the outdoors with anyone that will join me. I often take my daughter, Jada who is 16, exploring, fishing, and recently took her on her first wild turkey hunting trip.

I also take pleasure in the personal challenge of going out on my own to find new and exciting places to hunt and fish.

Everything that I harvest like big game, I bring home to my family, Jada and wife Jo Ann, for us to eat. I bring some fish home, but much of it is catch and release.

The ice fishing in Minnesota is exceptional and I do not mind the cold weather! You dress for it with the appropriate gear and have a blast whether riding ATVs, snowmobiling, or getting in the river with your waders on.

Images: At left: patiently waiting. | Middle: wild turkey hunting. | At right: harvested wild turkey.

Any special hunting and fishing spots near you or in the United States you like visit? Any top national wildlife refuges?

There are wonderful local places where I am based in Minnesota for hunting or fishing opportunities. The national wildlife refuge I have spent the most time on by far is Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Wyoming. Some of the best fishing in the entire country can be found on the Green River within the refuge.

At left: fishing with the sun setting. | At right: with a brown trout.

What is the best part when you are you outdoors in a favorite spot?

I like to visit the most remote and isolated spots I can find. Knowing that I am the only person for miles gives me a sense of peace into the depths of my soul that recharges me and brings me back home to family, friends, and coworkers with renewed energy and sense of purpose.

What is your favorite bird species?

The American robin is my favorite bird species. Many people might see the robin as a rather plain and unremarkable bird, but I love to hear it sing on cool spring evenings. Its song brings a sense of renewal to my soul. I get a sense of excitement and joy to hear the first robin of the spring.

American robin at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS

I also love to watch them hunt for worms. I can watch them for hours cocking their heads back and forth and then quickly diving in to grab the worm right at the surface pulling it from its hole.

It’s an amazing skill that they seem to perform so effortlessly but goes so unnoticed. Heading outside to my backyard to watch 4 or 5 of them after the sprinklers go off is a great feeling.

Have you traveled anywhere far away for a particular outdoor sport?

I went fishing in Belize several years ago. We found this inexpensive guide that was willing to take us out for a day. We got caught in a massive rainstorm that filled the little boat we were in about one-third full while we were about a mile offshore. Yet, we managed to catch several fish and our guide dove in to bring up several spiny lobsters. When we got back to shore, he told us to come back that evening. When we arrived, he had prepared the day’s catch on the beach and fed us as we watched the sun set.

Given my current location in Minnesota and being so close to Canada, I am making plans to celebrate my 50th birthday next year fishing in Canada somewhere. I hear there are some great places to visit, but I am sure to go outside right here this weekend. I’m excited for the next adventure.

Carl and his rescue German Shephard dog, Titan, who enjoys eating and sleeping.

All images unless noted courtesy of Carl Millegan.

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Written by Vanessa Kauffman, public affairs specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters, and Carl Millegan, deputy chief, USFWS National Wildlife Refuge System, Midwest Region

We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.