Amid tragedy, David Rael of Cowley chosen to lead Game and Fish commission

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When Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners voted unanimously to install David Rael as their new president last week, he found it hard to think about what it all meant.

Rael couldn’t have dreamed of taking a leading role in the management of the state’s wildlife when he first fell in love with the outdoors decades ago. Rael had been intimidated by Game and Fish redshirts approaching in the fields where he found solace after moving from a school of 3,000 kids in Los Angeles to his class of 13 in Cowley; he’d learned to hunt mostly on his own as a kid. When then-Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead appointed Rael to the Game and Fish Commission four years ago, it came as a surprise.

But as his peers elected him as president at their March 21 meeting, Rael didn’t think about how far he had come in his 60 years, nor could he enjoy the moment.

Rael was heartbroken.

“I couldn’t make myself be happy,” he explained on Tuesday, fighting back tears from the front seat of his dusty Ford.

Rael quickly put on his sunglasses and stared straight ahead. There had been many tears in recent days.

A meeting and a funeral

A week earlier, he and his wife Jennie were gearing up for the inevitable nomination as president. Rael had served a year as vice president of the commission and was in line for the top job. In addition, the couple was looking forward to the arrival of their 19th grandchild, Ezekiel — due on the final day of the commission’s meeting in Cody.

But on March 18, a couple days before the meeting, the phone rang. Rael immediately knew it was serious by the tone in his son Phillip’s voice: Phillip’s wife Becca was being rushed to a Casper hospital and it didn’t look good. Soon David and Jennie were in the car, hurrying to Casper.

Arriving at the hospital room, they found Becca cradling Ezekiel in her arms after an emergency C-section. Her baby was wrapped in a blue blanket but lifeless, having been stillborn.

The Raels stayed in the room for seven hours.

“We gave him all the love we could,” he said.

Memories of his son and daughter-in-law’s loss were still with Rael as the vote was finalized last week. After the commission’s business was done for the day, Rael had planned an open house for the public. He pressed through, gracious as always, but on autopilot. Funeral services were planned at the end of the commission meeting the following day. There were many tears. He knew there would be many more.

Tuesday was different, though, because he was heading out to hunt.

Friend and neighbor

Rael hadn’t picked up a gun to hunt pheasant for many years, preferring to watch the fun as he guided his five children, other family members and friends through prime upland game bird habitat on his 1,200-acre Cowley farm. But on Tuesday, he pushed two shells into his Ruger Red Label over/under shotgun — nearly an antique — and headed out for a long walk in the unwelcome heat. His lack of practice wasn’t apparent, knocking down three pheasants on three shots during a two-hour hike.

Afterwards, at lunch with his eldest son Greg, it was clear Rael is loved in his adopted hometown. Every table at the Bull Pub was filled with friends, several who shared personal stories at his table. None seemed to be aware of his new position with the Game and Fish. For folks in Cowley, Rael is their neighbor and friend.

The Rael family has done a lot for their community. Beyond employing between 240-300 at his construction company, S&L Industrial, Rael puts on an annual Fourth of July celebration.

“He’ll have 600 or 700 people on his lawn to watch the fireworks,” said Pat Crank, commissioner from Cheyenne.

During the Independence Day party, Rael calls up and introduces every veteran in the crowd. He and Jennie will prepare a huge feast and every kid in the crowd leaves with a sack of goodies. The fireworks display is better than Casper’s, Crank said.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever met a more generous person,” he said. “They are constantly sharing the blessings they have with all they meet.”

The giving of time and love to the community doesn’t stop when the party ends. When it snows hard in Cowley, Rael gets out his tractor and plows the driveways of those in need. He attends most local funerals. “He knows no strangers,” Crank said. “He’s a man of deep faith and that shapes and melds how he deals with all he meets.”

And whether at commission meetings or on horseback, Jennie is always there — through thick and thin.

Crank and Rael met when they were both appointed to the commission in 2015. They became fast friends. The commission is all business; by statute the commission is the supervising body for the Game and Fish Department. Rael takes the job seriously, but even there he and Jennie share their blessings. He started the tradition of having an open house during the commission’s meetings in Cody. At the meet and greet, Rael has a raffle for children in attendance, giving away lifetime fishing and small game licenses. If Rael had his way, he’d hand out the tags, worth about $700, to every kid who made it to an open house.

“It’s his way of recruiting youth to the outdoor sports — one of Rael’s main missions,” Crank said.

Other commissioners have followed his lead with open house celebrations in each town the commission schedules meetings.

“David deserves all the credit for the open house program,” Crank said. “He’s recruiting the next generation of hunters and fishermen; it never ends with David Rael.”

‘Respect and admiration’

Rael hasn’t thought much about specific goals for his one-year term as president. He knows he wants to help find funding for needed conservation projects, including research on chronic wasting disease, and to continue to encourage children to find joy afield. Rael has also joined game wardens and biologists on several trips, doing his own research to help guide his votes. He’s gone deep on several backcountry trips, learning the jobs of those his decisions affect. He’s learned a lot and plans more trips, but his take so far is a better understanding of department employees.

The experiences have brought Rael full circle from the intimidation he felt in his teens.

“A lot of people think the Game and Fish is just another government entity sucking money from taxpayers — but we don’t take any tax dollars — or that they’re just out there driving around doing very little,” Rael said.

However, “my experiences confirm everthing they’ve been saying,” he said. “I have nothing but respect and admiration for all of them.”

Despite his lead position at the commission, Rael doesn’t feel he’s the leader and it’s hard for him to take the kind words that come with the spotlight.

“We’re all leaders on the board; I just help guide the process,” he said. “Everybody’s vote counts the same.”

Rael bases every vote on controversial issues from the heart, on “what I feel is right,” he said.

“I’m not the one who’ll be throwing any stones,” he added, referring to John 8:7: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone ...”

Rael is extremely concerned about issues with grizzly bears, wanting the state to have the right to manage its own wildlife. He’s currently in favor of efforts to breed sage grouse in captivity. But he also wants to find more opportunities to research all the tough subjects further.

Rael hopes to ride into the Thorofare this coming summer, hopefully with Jennie at his side.

“We’re very blessed,” he said.

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