DNR conservation officer remembered for her passion, fearlessness
Meadow Kouffeld, a wildlife biologist in Grand Rapids, was taking her daughter fishing on Saturday when they saw Sarah Grell at a boat landing on the Mississippi River. Kouffeld used to work for the state Department of Natural Resources, and she taught firearms safety classes with Grell, a conservation officer.
"You know, I was literally thinking what an amazing, positive person she was at that moment, and how grateful I was to know her, to have her in our community," she said.
Kouffeld found herself feeling especially grateful that her daughter had strong women like Grell to look up to in the male-dominated worlds of hunting and fishing.
"It's not easy being a woman in natural resources. But she held her own,” she said. “She was respected and loved. She was petite, and strong, and she had a big smile. She just … she could kick ass.”
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Two days after Kouffeld ran into her at the boat landing, Grell died while on duty, when a semitruck broadsided the pickup she was driving. She was 39. She's survived by her husband and three young children, and by countless colleagues and family and friends who are finding it difficult to fathom that she's gone.
"Sarah was just endless energy. I mean, just so much fun," recalled Scott Hall, who lived a mile away from where Grell grew up. His daughter and Grell were close childhood friends. Even as a young kid, Hall said, Grell loved the outdoors.
She was a fantastic duck and deer hunter, he said. It was in her blood.
Grell was a third-generation conservation officer — game warden, as they're often called. Conservation officers protect public safety and the state’s natural resources. They have a wide range of responsibilities, from enforcing fishing and hunting laws to patrolling lakes and snowmobile trails.
"A lot of these [conservation officers] are really interesting personalities, because they're cops,” said Hall. “But they totally believe in the resource … [that] the resource belongs to everybody. And it's almost sacred to be protected and taken care of in the right way."
Hall said Grell didn't just talk the talk, she walked it. She became a conservation officer in 2005.
"People like her are just so precious,” he said. “They're the people who enforce it on the ground and make make us live up to the standards.”
Grell often appeared on Grand Rapids’ KAXE-KBXE community radio station to talk about her work. In an interview four years ago, just ahead of deer hunting season, she talked about how she approached her enforcement work. She brought up a common example, when people might at first deny breaking the law to her, before later admitting it.
"When someone is honest with me,” she said, “I tend to think about what breaks I can help them out with or give them in whatever violations or things I encounter them doing.”
Heidi Holtan of Grand Rapids is the news and public affairs director at KAXE-KBXE. But she met Grell playing roller derby. They were both members of the Iron Range Maidens.
“She was just fearless,” Holtan said. “We knew her as Bomber.”
People sometimes refer to conservation officers as the "fun police," for checking to make sure people have licenses, or aren't keeping too many fish. But Kouffeld said Grell had a way about her.
"It takes a very special person to be able to handle conflict, but also not let it eat at who they are,” she said. "She could smile, and be kind, but also be firm."
Retired conservation officer Ken Soring said Grell was the total package.
"She was a great example of what we want a conservation officer to be: the pride in the outfit, the connection with the community, caring for people, caring for the resource," Soring said.
Soring worked with Grell's grandfather, father and uncle during his 31 years with the DNR. He said Grell's mom also worked for the DNR, in the fisheries division. Grell's husband, Gene, works in forestry.
"There's just so much connection and so much pride in that family with our agency. It's a tough loss,” said Soring.
Grell’s current colleagues declined interview requests. “The sense of loss we feel right now is indescribable,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in a statement.
“We are heartbroken for her family. Our deepest sympathies and concerns are with them. Officer Grell leaves behind an incredible legacy of service to Minnesota’s people and natural resources.”
Soring said Grell’s legacy will continue. She was always one of the strongest ambassadors for the agency, he said, helping to recruit young people — especially young women — to become conservation officers.