2023 Conservation Awards Banquet

On Saturday, March 25, seven conservationists were recognized for contributing to our air, soil, minerals, forests, waters and wildlife.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) members came together Saturday evening at the Annual Convention for the annual awards dinner before again debating policy on Sunday.

This is a time for us to reflect on the achievements of members and supporters, MUCC Executive Director Amy Trotter said.

“Each year we bring together our MUCC family and award those among us, DNR staff and other conservationists and wildlife professionals who have gone above and beyond in their field to positively impact our world,” Trotter said. “Michigan’s greatest conservationists have been recognized at this dinner, and it’s a tradition we are proud to continue.”

50 Years of Conservation awardPete Demos

Presented by: Carol Rose

Although the name of this 50 Years of Conservation award is lofty, it comes up a little short when speaking of this year’s recipient, Pete Demos.  Currently a resident of Posen in Michigan’s Presque Isle County, Pete began his young life in Grosse Pointe Woods.  He was a student at the Detroit Institute of Technology, the University of Delaware and Johns Hopkins University and also served in the US Army between 1951 and 1953 at the Army’s Proving Grounds in Aberdeern, MD.  With all of his coursework and training, Pete enjoyed a 52-year career as a Design Engineer for Ford where he was involved in interior and exterior design work.

Upon his retirement, he and his family moved to northeastern Michigan where he became engaged with several conservation organizations.  In addition to his many years of service as a Board and Committee member of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, he’s been an active member of the Alpena Sportsmen’s Club, the Presque Isle Sportsmen’s Club, Presque Isle Turkey Trackers, and also served on the Board of Directors of the Michigan Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. 

While involved with these organizations, Pete focused on wildlife habitat projects, especially for the turkeys he loves.  Over the years, Pete contributed significantly to NWTF’s wildlife food plot program in Michigan over the years.  His contributions included making 15,000 crab apple trees available for planting for mast production.  This was in addition to many hundreds of pounds of sunflower seed for wildlife planting and feeding, along with a Green Fire food plot mix which includes soybeans, corn, root vegetables and assorted other tasty foods.  For many years, Pete designed, manufactured and delivered over 200 barrel feeders throughout the State to supplement the winter feed for wild turkeys. When used in Northeast Michigan, special approval was secured from the then-DNR Director Becky Humphries and the Wildlife Division who allowed their use in DMU 452 where baiting was not permitted because of the presence of bTB.

As a youth, Pete’s first hunts as a teenager focused on pheasants found on land owned by relatives of his future bride.   During his lifetime, Pete has enjoyed hunting throughout North America and as far north as the Yukon where he sought a Woods Buffalo and successfully harvested a wolverine.  Of the 75+ deer he’s harvested, the biggest was a 9 x 7,300-pound field-dressed white-tail buck in northern Alberta.  Pete has also mastered the Turkey Slam by harvesting every turkey sub-species in North America. 

As an avid hunter throughout his life, Pete became a Hunter Education instructor early on and has continued to teach it for over 66 years through the various sportsmen’s clubs with whom he’s been involved.   During the annual Posen Potato Festival, Pete and his colleagues set up a special Hunter Ed orientation, including a “Jakes Team” for youngsters using air guns to target shoot and learn how to safely use a firearm. 

On a personal note, Pete shared that when his earthly life is through, he has arranged to donate his eyes to someone in northeastern Michigan, “…so that they can see the beautiful sunrises and sunsets and all of the beauty that surrounds us up here.”   And that’s what a lifetime of conservation such as Pete’s will do.        

Educator of the Year – Deann Smith

Written by Traci Gavenda; Presented by Dawn Levey

Deann has taught at Ashley Community Schools in various capacities for 12 years. Throughout this time, she has educated many students in the K-12 educational setting. Mrs. Smith educates 7th through 12th students in science and instructs the Ashley Archery Club.  Mrs. Smith stresses the importance of extending the classroom beyond the four walls of the school building.

Mrs. Smith works diligently to discover avenues to engage students. Most recently, she has been working with the Department of Natural Resources; raising salmon in the classroom.  In this program, students test the water, exchange water as needed, conduct various calculations, portion food and document the results. Once the fish have grown, the students release the salmon into an approved waterway.

As a passionate educator, she has taught composting, ornithology, dendrology and entomology.  She continually researches opportunities for students to participate in hands-on learning experiences. In fact, she coordinated a summer exploration learning program, where students learned about wolves at the Ashley Sportsmans Club.

Additionally, she has taken students on outdoor field trips to fully experience and grasp concepts discussed in textbooks. As you can see, Mrs. Smith wants students to understand that learning does not just occur in the classroom.  Her goal is to keep students connected to nature and conservation.  She has participated in Safari Club International’s outdoor education program

Mrs. Deann Smith is an individual who demonstrates that learning can be fun. She continually models the importance of being a lifelong learner. This is apparent by her organizing a chance for students to study ecology in Hawaii this summer. This program allows students to obtain high school credit for science and the opportunity to earn college credit.

Again, it is without reservation that Mrs. Deann Smithbe be recognized for this honor.

MUCC Affiliate of the Year – UP Whitetails Association of Marquette County

Presented by Jeremy Laakso


As a club, UP Whitetails Association of Marquette County has been a wonderful resource for their community. They fund Youth Day at the Negaunee Rod & Gun Club. The club also pays for programs such as Ask the DNR on Channel 13 and advertises on Discovering on channel 6 encouraging hunter safety. They also do outreach throughout the community, such as providing youth with archery during the Marquette County Fair and having a booth at the Sport & RV show in Marquette. 

The club has been a great member and supporter of MUCC. They also sponsor TRACKS Magazine for Silver Creek and  Big Bay School’s 5th graders. 

UP Whitetails Association of Marquette County attends numerous DNR and NRC meetings, MUCC events and meetings, UP Sportsmen’s Alliance, and various other sportsmen’s groups. UP Whitetails Association is also an active participant in creating policy with MUCC and UP Sportsmen’s Alliance.

Not only has the club focused on educating tomorrow’s conservationists and actively working on policy they also focus on habitat work. The club planted 30,000 Hemlock trees, 3,000 apple trees and 4,200 Cedar trees for deer habitat. 

UP Whitetails Association has made a difference in Marquette County, focusing on youth and community engagement. 

Sue Pride Unsung Hero Award – Katherine Leja

Kaye Leja accepts the Sue Pride Unsung Hero Award at the 2023 MUCC Annual Convention Awards Banquet.

Written by Nick Green, Presented by Amy Trotter

So many of us are first drawn to the conservation community or MUCC and the outdoor lifestyle because of our network and family.

This year’s unsung hero is no exception.

Katherine “Kay” Leja’s first remembers attending convention in the late 60s — when her parents purchased a pop-up camper and joined in the annual camping festivities that accompanied convention weekend.

At eight or nine years old, she remembers spending the weekend watching freighters pass in either Mackinaw City or Sault Ste. Marie.

Kay’s parents, John and Grace Sherk, were members of the Jackson Outdoor Club and that was their conduit to MUCC. After Kay left for college, her mother Grace became election chairwoman and always appreciated Kay’s help during the annual convention — just how every college kid wants to spend their weekends during summer vacation!

Grace was responsible for helping change several voting procedures, which Kay also was an integral part of assisting with: Years ago, individual ballots were given for each vote. Under Grace and Kay’s careful guidance, voters were given a card with the votes they carried — this helped streamline the vote-counting process. The duo also started color-coding regions, which further helped organize voting.

Throughout Kay’s life moves — from Wisconsin to Minnesota and back to Michigan — she always made it a point to return for MUCC’s conventions and do her part for conservation and the MUCC mission.

She recalls one convention in Escanaba and becoming the lucky winner of a downrigger. What the heck is a downrigger — she remembered thinking — as her family congratulated her. It wasn’t long before her dad John had the downrigger fixed to his 16-foot wood boat, grinning ear to ear, about his daughter’s assistance in his angling adventures.

When her mom Grace passed in 2005, Kay graciously stepped in to fulfill the role of election chairwoman and continue to ensure integrity in our voting processes. Since, she has enlisted her daughter, Krystal Leja-Lamm (who is an expert archer, among other things, with roots tied to the MUCC Youth camp) to help with the voting process. Krystal also received her hunter’s safety certification at our camp!

Throughout the years, Kay’s many mentors have included her parents, Fran Yeager, Mary Ann McCormack, Bill Kepps, Donna and Wend Briggs, Julia and Don Meixner, Kris and Jody Matthews, and Jane Finnerty.

Without Kay’s continued support, MUCC’s voting process would not be so successful. We are proud to present Katherine “Kay” Leja with this year’s Sue Pride Unsung Hero Award for many reasons.

Past President’s Award – Erik Schnelle

Erik Schnelle, Michigan state chair for the National Deer Association, accepts the Past Presidents Award at the 2023 MUCC Annual Convention Awards Banquet.

Written by Nick Green, Presented by George Lindquist

Erik Schnelle has been an active member of Michigan United Conservation Clubs for more than five years. He came to the organization through the Quality Deer Management Association, now the National Deer Association.

Erik is the state chair for NDA and has carefully and considerately worked through MUCC’s policy process to advocate for white-tailed deer, their habitat and NDA’s policy objectives.

First only a deer advocate, he quickly realized that in order to be effective within MUCC he needed to broaden the scope of things he cared about. This is a testament to his ability to recognize needs outside his own.

Erik has become a voice for conservationists in Michigan — rather than communicating about issues through confrontation, Erik does a magnificent job using real, tangible conservation victories to expound on his points. These communications have been at NRC and legislative meetings

Disease and disease response are two issues that Erik’s work resonates through. Whether it is communications, hands-on lymph node removal events or anything related to wildlife disease in Michigan, Erik is ready to do his part to combat it.

Using real-world scenarios and data in his writing for Michigan Out-of-Doors and testimony has allowed Erik to become a reliable source for legislators and NRC commissioners.

He has engaged frequently with the MUCC policy board and resolutions and is a regular attendee of our Annual Convention. We are proud to present Erik Schnelle with the 2023 Past Presidents Award for these many reasons.

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