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A chat with Marilyn Vetter, new president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever

Avid upland and waterfowl hunters, Vetter and her husband, Clyde – also a North Dakota native – live in New Richmond, Wisconsin, where they own and operate Sharp Shooter’s Kennel.

Marilyn with desert quail.jpg
A German shorthair pointer aficionado, Marilyn Vetter is the new president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. A native of Anamoose, North Dakota, and a 1988 graduate of the University of North Dakota, Vetter will be the guest speaker at the Women for Philanthropy luncheon, set for Tuesday, April 25, on the UND campus.
Contributed/Pheasants Forever

GRAND FORKS – Marilyn Vetter is the new president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, replacing Howard Vincent, who retired earlier this year after serving in the position since 2000.

Selected to oversee the conservation group in January, Vetter grew up near Anamoose, North Dakota, graduating in 1985 from Harvey High School and in 1988 from UND, where she earned a communications degree. Vetter, who served on the QF and PF board of directors beginning in 2015, worked as a reporter for KFYR-TV in Bismarck for 3½ years after college and later held leadership positions at Horizon Therapeutics, Takeda Pharmaceuticals and Organon Inc. She also served on the executive council of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association for more than 20 years.

Avid upland and waterfowl hunters, Vetter and her husband, Clyde – also a North Dakota native – live in New Richmond, Wisconsin, where they own and operate Sharp Shooter’s Kennel.

On Tuesday, April 25, Vetter will be the keynote speaker at UND’s Women for Philanthropy Luncheon. She recently spoke with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken about growing up in North Dakota, her work with PF and QF and her upcoming UND appearance. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.

BD: Tell me about your background growing up in North Dakota.


MV: I was the youngest of seven kids (with three sisters and three brothers) on a small cattle ranch in central North Dakota. We call it the Antelope Hills; it’s near Antelope Lake.

We were super remote. We were a close family, probably, because in some ways we had to be. It was truly the end of the road. We couldn’t see a neighbor from our house. You couldn’t see anything from our house because we were at the bottom of a valley, which is why it was called Oak Valley Ranch. And so we had each other, we had our cousins and we had a whole lot of those. We spent a lot of time with family and certainly some time with neighbors, but we were a very, very close family and a very close extended family, which was a really special way to grow up.

BD: Was hunting and the outdoors always kind of part of your lifestyle?

MV: Bird hunting was not. My brothers were big deer hunters and they still – they and my nephews and some of my nieces – are very involved in deer hunting. My brothers did some waterfowl hunting, but upland hunting wasn’t a really big part of our family. And probably because there just weren’t a lot of upland birds around the farm. I don’t think there were any pheasants on the farm when I was a kid. There were sharp-tailed grouse and there were Hungarian partridge that lived in our pastures.

I suppose they were more logical about hunting in that there wasn’t a lot of time to go hunting. And so if they were going to go hunting, they were going to go shoot a deer because it filled the freezer.

We also didn’t have upland dogs. We had herding dogs most of the time.

BD: How did the road lead you to UND?

MV: One of my older brothers, and one of my older sisters had gone to UND. Partly because I thought I was going to go on to law school, partly because, I suppose, I was the little sister following in my siblings’ footsteps because they were first-generation college students.


Marilyn Vetter PF.jpg
Marilyn Vetter, new president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
Contributed/Pheasants Forever

And I also knew that I was always going to be in-state. I needed to have in-state tuition.

Because I had been involved in student government in high school all four years and gone to Girls State, things like that, the university reached out to me and offered me a leadership scholarship. And because it covered tuition for two years, and they also helped me get a few other scholarships on campus, that for me was the final determination.

In fact, I hadn’t even been to the campus. I took the offer, and it was super exciting and I have no regrets. It was a really great place to go to school.

BD: How would you say your years at UND shaped your career?

MV: It encouraged me to really lean into my curiosity. When you go to a smaller high school, you don’t have a tremendous amount of different classes to take. You might have one or two electives, there weren’t even foreign languages in my high school at the time. An elective might have been a business class or typing. It wasn’t something that necessarily really stretched my mind.

At the University of North Dakota, I was allowed to just play intellectually and look through the syllabus and read about classes that were super interesting to me. And that allowed me to really stretch myself and take them. It allowed me to say “Hey, the world’s an open book and let me see where I find myself in it,” which is how I then got led to the Communications Department.

BD: You are the first woman to lead Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. Are there many other non-governmental conservation organizations out there that have women as leaders?

MV: Becky Humphries led the (National Wild Turkey Federation) for several years (beginning in 2017); she just announced her retirement. You look at state agencies around the country, and you see some women are really ascending through the ranks there.


There aren’t as many as the leaders of the NGO space, but people stay in these roles for a long time. Howard (Vincent) was in the role for 23 years, and others that have been at the leadership level of other NGOs (a long time), because they’re passionate about their work.

And so I think it will take time, perhaps, for these organizations to catch up a bit.

Also, we have to build a pipeline of women that are interested, and the great thing is that we do have a really strong pipeline that’s coming through. Not just Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, but our universities, our state agencies, federal agencies, have women that are involving themselves at all levels of conservation, and so I am really hopeful for the future that not just women, but people across all sectors of our country, will be involved and so that 5, 10, 15 years from now, I think it will look really different, who is leading organizations and who’s involved in them.

BD: How would you describe your leadership style?

MV: I’m really curious, so I’m taking this time to really get to know the staff, the initiatives that they’re working on. I don’t want to be involved in their work. I don’t want people to ever feel like they’re not empowered to do their work because they’re the best qualified to do it. But I want to know what it is, so that I can be the ambassador for them with others, that I’m very aware of what their needs are, what they’re working on.

BD: What do you see as key conservation issues and priorities out there right now?

MV: There’s a real sense of urgency that no matter how hard we work as an organization, we’re losing acres faster than we can restore them, faster than we can build them. And so, it’s really important, I think, that the message gets out that we all have a responsibility to that.

We want to make sure that there’s habitat for pheasants and quail and all of the wild critters that live with them. And that is really declining at just a frightening level.


And then, of course, there’s lots of policy that is floating around (Washington). You have the North American Grassland Act, you have (the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act), you have a huge Farm Bill that has to get across the finish line in the next couple of years that are integral to the success of conservation.

BD: How did your upcoming appearance at UND’s Women for Philanthropy luncheon come about?

MV: They reached out to me. They knew that I have a history throughout my life of volunteering, and they asked me if I would come join them for a conversation about how women can get involved in philanthropy and, I think, the unique space that women play in philanthropy. Also, I think it’s an opportunity to bring that conversation and just to bring people together.

BD: It’s the first chance you’ve had to get back to campus in quite a while, I would imagine.

MV: It’s been quite a while, so I love coming back and just to see how much it has changed and I’m sure it will look vastly different. I’m hoping I get some time that morning to just walk around campus a bit and see how much it has changed since I was there.

BD: So here’s a tough question: What’s the best hunting dog? 

MV: My husband and I are German shorthair pointer aficionados. We’re probably well over two dozen personal dogs and over 70 litters. We just sent home the last puppy from our most recent litter. Every one of them makes me smile.

I’m a German shorthair pointer fan, but honestly, I’ve hunted behind some really amazing dogs of all breeds, and the only bad ones are the ones that don’t listen and that’s because they have owners that don’t spend enough time with them. So all hunting dogs are great, as long as they are brought in as family companions, and they make the experience better for everybody.


BD: Anything else?

MV: I think what I would say about the upcoming event is whether people come to that event or something else, I think volunteering is intimidating for people. I realize that philanthropy has a mindset for people that it is only dollars. And what I want people to know is the importance of volunteering is not just whether or not you can give an organization dollars. Many times we can’t, but we can always give time and talent, and you will never regret a day of volunteering.

About Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever

  • Founded: 1982.
  • Headquarters: St. Paul.
  • Membership: More than 400,000 members, supporters and partners and 754 local chapters spread across North America.
  • Accomplishments: Since 1982, the organization has dedicated more than $1 billion to 567,500 habitat projects benefiting 24 million acres.
  • On the web: pheasantsforever.org ; quailforever.org .  

Women for Philanthropy Luncheon

  • When: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 25.
  • Where: Gorecki Alumni Center Gransberg Community Room,
  • 3501 University Ave., Grand Forks.
  • Tickets: $50 in-person, $10 virtual; https://undalumni.org/wfp .
  • Info: events@UNDalumni.net or (701) 777-2611.
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 1998.

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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