A Conversation with Dale Hall

DU's new CEO talks about his vision for the future of wetlands and waterfowl conservation

Dale Hall
Photo by jowdyphotography.com
"Everything we do today to benefit wetlands and waterfowl is a legacy that we are leaving to our children and grandchildren, who will appreciate that DU was here doing its important work. –Dale Hall

A new era in wetlands conservation began in May as Dale Hall took the helm as CEO of Ducks Unlimited. Having served as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from 2005-2009, this devoted family man, wetlands biologist, and avid sportsman brings a wealth of personal and professional experience to this important leadership position. Hall recently took a brief timeout from his busy schedule to answer a few questions from Ducks Unlimited.

Tell us a little about your background. Where are you from, and what is your academic training?

I grew up in southeast Kentucky in Harlan County. After beginning college at the University of Kentucky, I spent four years in the U.S. Air Force. I completed my undergraduate degree at Cumberland College and went to graduate school at Eastern Kentucky University and Louisiana State University (LSU). I received a master's degree in fisheries science from LSU. My initial training in fisheries led me to wetlands conservation, which became my greatest interest throughout my career.

While I was at LSU, I met my wife of 34 years. We have three children—two daughters and a son. My career at the USFWS took a lot of twists and turns, and each of my children was born in a different state and in a different region of the country. My wife recently reminded me that moving to Memphis will be our ninth move.

Family is very important to me. Those of us who are fortunate enough to do something for a living that we are passionate about can't succeed without the love and support of our family. And that same sense of family also extends to the workplace. DU's many dedicated staff and volunteers are also a family, and that's how I see this organization.

How did your early experiences in the outdoors inspire you to pursue a career in conservation?

I was very fortunate to be raised in a hunting and fishing family, and I was introduced to the outdoors at an early age. I believe hunting and the outdoors are in our DNA. Consider the peace that comes over you when you see the sun rise over a marsh or while you sit by a campfire on a fall night. When I'm out in a duck blind in the morning and the ducks are just starting to fly, I sometimes set my shotgun down and spend a minute or two being thankful. I'm thankful just to be there in such a beautiful place and to be doing what I enjoy right there at that moment. That's what hunting is really about, and that's where my passion for conservation comes from.

What do you enjoy most about waterfowl hunting?

I love everything about waterfowl hunting. I love the wetlands, the birds, and the challenge of bringing a wary flock into the decoys. But I think what I love most is the camaraderie and the relationships that are built in a duck blind. I don't know of anything else you can do that builds stronger bonds between family and friends and that is more wholesome and pure than hunting and fishing. I've enjoyed hunting with my daughters and I've hunted with my son almost his entire life. I was there when he shot his first duck and when he took his first deer. But looking back, the harvesting of game was really irrelevant. What was most important is that we were together.

Do you have a favorite species of waterfowl?

I love them all. Every species has a place in the ecosystem, and I enjoy hunting all of them. From the standpoint of beauty, a wood duck is hard to beat. And of course I really enjoy mallards and teal and the other popular species. But when I see a pintail cup and come down from about 1,000 feet high, there's nothing else like it.

What do you see as the greatest threats to wetlands and waterfowl?

While preparing for future threats is important, we have to remain focused on the threats we are facing now. Sprawl and conversion of wetlands and other habitats are ongoing, and we have to find ways to slow and reverse habitat loss, especially on the prairies, if we are to succeed in our mission.

Another serious threat is declining participation in waterfowling, in other forms of hunting, and in outdoor recreation in general. We need to be mentors to our youth to ensure they know what it's like to hunt and have a connection with nature. In most cases, when kids receive a proper introduction to waterfowling and other forms of hunting, they become hunters themselves.

I was asked in an interview once how parents can help their kids gain a greater appreciation for nature. I told them to send their kids out to play and get mud and grass stains on their clothes because that's how they connect with nature and become conservationists. If we don't do everything we can today to reach our youth, we won't have much support for conservation a generation from now.

What are your top priorities in your role as CEO of Ducks Unlimited?

My most important job as CEO is to make sure that DU is solid and strong 10 or 20 years from now because of our actions today. What that means is, we must always follow sound business practices and be mindful of our bottom line. I am going to be having discussions over the next few months about how we can ensure that DU will always have the resources it needs to effectively fulfill its mission.

Another top priority for me is communication. You can't raise funds for conservation without good messaging and effective communication about what we are accomplishing on the ground for wetlands, waterfowl, and people. It's imperative that we continue to effectively communicate with our core supporters: waterfowlers. They are the ones who got us where we are today, and they are absolutely vital to the future success of this organization.

What is your personal vision for DU's future?

The resource always comes first. DU's mission—to conserve wetlands and fill the skies with ducks and geese—has been the same for 73 years. That's what DU does, and that's not going to change under my watch.

Second, we are going to stay true to science. I'm a scientist, and to me a fact is a fact. DU will always do what the science tells us to do, and by frequently evaluating our conservation programs through research, we will be able to accomplish our mission more efficiently and effectively in the future.

Third, DU is respected because of our nonconfrontational approach to conservation. This has allowed us to form partnerships with diverse groups and expand the scope of our conservation programs. In the future, it will be particularly important for DU to continue being a good friend and strong partner of the agricultural community. Farmers and ranchers are good land stewards, and we need to help them succeed. We need to provide them with many different options that will help them make a living while also providing habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife on their property. Without the cooperation of farmers and ranchers, we won't accomplish our conservation goals. It's that simple.

And lastly, we need to build on DU's greatest strength: our people. We've got the most professional staff and the most passionate, hardest-working volunteers in the world, and as long as we work together, we can do anything. I strongly believe that we are working for future generations—including those who are yet to be born. Everything we do today to benefit wetlands and waterfowl is a legacy that we are leaving to our children and grandchildren, who will appreciate that DU was here doing its important work.