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Minnesota-North Dakota-South Dakota

Conservation Is in the Winter Family’s Bones

By Jessica Bourque

Not many 10-year-olds grew up with thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie in their backyard. Fewer still can say they’ve felt the smoldering heat of a prescribed prairie burn. And perhaps no one so young has helped scientists count endangered western prairie fringed orchids.

But Jamison Winter was not your average kid. By age 10, Jamison had chosen his future career and found a lifelong passion – conservation.

While other boys his age watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV, Jamison observed prairie chickens and hunted pheasants with his father. Now, 17 years later, Jamison’s childhood fascination with nature is the foundation of his conservation career, one that includes helping protect and study piping plovers at The Nature Conservancy's John E. Williams Preserve in North Dakota and working to conserve and restore grasslands in South Dakota for Pheasants Forever.

“It was actually very heartwarming when he made his choice on career fields,” said Brian Winter, Jamison’s father. “I never would have scripted it this way but it’s kind of nice.”

Brian may not have scripted Jamison’s life, but he undoubtedly shaped it.

Director of the Conservancy’s Northern Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion Office in Glyndon, Minnesota and president of the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society, Brian is a conservationist to the core. He and his wife Sonia, who works out of the same office, are approaching their 28th year with the Conservancy.

In their early years with the Conservancy, the couple not only saw the Conservancy grow and change, but they also played a significant role in developing its efforts to protect native grasslands  – the most threatened and least protected habitat type on Earth.  

“I made the case that I thought it would be more efficient and just more effective if we had a stewardship office based in Western Minnesota,” Brian recalled. “The Conservancy agreed with that and we started that office back in 1987.”

But ‘that office’ wasn’t just any office; it was a farmhouse located on 160 acres of native prairie purchased by the Conservancy, now part of Bluestem Prairie Preserve, one of the largest and most diverse tallgrass prairies left in the United States, and it ended up being the Winter family’s home for more than 20 years.

It was here, at this ‘office’, that Jamison learned the inner workings and complexities of nature.

“He’d go for hours just walking around the prairie seeing what he could find,” said Sonia. “He would climb up in one of the few trees on the Bluestem to watch deer or go look for orchids. He really loved being outside.”

In many ways, Jamison was his dad’s “little shadow.” He followed him around on prescribed burns, worked with him on the annual survey of prairie chickens on their booming grounds and tagged along for all of Brian’s work projects.

“It was work, my Dad’s work, but he would make it a fun learning experience. We’d usually go get breakfast afterwards and talk about all the deer, moose or any cool stuff we saw,” Jamison said.  

Fishing, camping and especially hunting also forged their father-and-son bond. Both Brian and Jamison are avid hunters who see hunting as part of life. 

“Our diet consists mostly of wild game and garden produce,” Sonia said. “I really don’t buy meat at the store anymore.”  

Brian and Sonia’s two younger children, Jeremy and Jessica, are also nature enthusiasts, though they aren’t likely to follow a conservation career path like Jamison.

At any rate, conservation seems to be in the Winters' bones. Jamison said that even his fiancée, who he described as something of a “city girl” when they first met, learned to love nature like the rest of the Winter family.

This story may have another chapter someday. “I do want kids,” Jamison said. “And I would love to teach them and nurture them just like my Mom and Dad did with me.”

Jessica Bourque is a volunteer writer for The Nature Conservancy

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