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Veterinarian who died in crash treated White Cloud the albino buffalo, found first suspected case of West Nile in ND

PARK RIVER, N.D.—Dr. Gerard Dahl had a lot of adventures as a veterinarian in Walsh County, from finding the first suspected case of West Nile in a North Dakota animal to treating the state's famous albino buffalo shortly after birth.

But the well-known veterinarian who died Friday, Nov. 24, in a car crash near his hometown will be remembered for his love of his Norwegian heritage, his kind treatment of animals and his friendly smile as he worked with ranchers, his friends said Saturday.

"He was always smiling, always an encourager to others," said Jeanette Bjornstad, a Walsh County and friend of Dahl. "This is going to leave a big void in the livestock industry here."

The 75-year-old who owned the Park River Veterinary Clinic was involved in a Friday morning crash with a semi about 6 miles west of Park River on North Dakota Highway 17, according to a release from the state Highway Patrol. At 10 a.m., Dahl was westbound in a 2016 Ford F250 on the highway and tried to turn left onto state Highway 32 when a 1996 Peterbilt semi hit the pickup's passenger side, according to the report.

The driver of the semi, 55-year-old James Oliver Gustafson, of Adams, N.D., was treated for unknown injuries and was wearing his seat belt, according to the report. Officers determined Dahl did not have a seat belt and was fatally injured, according to the Highway Patrol.

Park River is about 60 miles northwest of Grand Forks.

'Part of the family'

Dahl loved animals as a boy growing up on a dairy farm near Atwater, Minn., according to Herald archives. The man who grew up in the small town about 80 miles west of Minneapolis graduated in 1966 from the University of Minnesota Veterinary School.

"I remember when I was young, one thing I wanted to do was vaccinate some buffalo," Dahl told the Herald in 2006.

He would have the chance after moving to Park River in 1968. He joined Dr. Lee Sturlaugson in running the Park River Vet Clinic, treating all types of animals from small kittens to 1,400-pound American bison.

Dahl made multiple visits to treat buffalo at the Shirek Buffalo Ranch near Michigan, N.D., where White Cloud, a rare female albino buffalo that attracted thousands of visitors to Jamestown, N.D., was born. He treated the white calf when she was born in June 1996.

"He was very easy to work with, very knowledgable," said Ken Shirek, owner of the Shirek Buffalo Ranch. "He treated the animals very kindly."

He served as a mentor to veterinarians-in-training, Bjornstad said, adding he was very knowledgable and kept up-to-date on advancements in his field. He took over the clinic as when Sturlaugson retired in 1996.

In the five decades as a vet, Dahl developed relationships across North Dakota and throughout the livestock industry, especially with buffalo ranchers, Shirek said. The vet served multiple generations—Shirek said Dahl worked with the buffalo breeder's grandfather.

"He was part of the family to everybody," Shirek said. "Everybody knew him. ... Everyone looked up to him."

In July 2002, he was credited with finding the first suspected case of West Nile virus in North Dakota, which was diagnosed in a horse in Grand Forks County, according to Herald archives. He also did extensive work on treating animals to prevent the spread of anthrax after breakouts in the 2000s.

He won several awards and accolades, including the North Dakota Veterinary Medical Association's Veterinarian of the Year award in 2015.

Dahl was proud of his Norwegian heritage, Bjornstad said. He was heavily involved with the Sons of Norway organization in Fairdale, N.D., a small Walsh County town of about 40 people that is roughly 30 miles northwest of Park River. He recently served as president of the group.

"Anything to do with Norway, he is in love with that," she said.

He had a good work ethic, she said, as many in the agriculture business do. She remembers talking to him the morning of the crash before he left.

"The last words he said to me were, 'Keep up the good work, doc,'" Bjornstad said. "This was his life."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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