BY MARK STEINGRAEBER, LA CROSSE FWCO
Thanks to successful restoration efforts, the endangered Higgins’ Eye (shown here) is now among a growing number of mussel species that once again inhabit Midwestern Rivers like the Wapsipinicon in Iowa. Credit: USFWS
The La Crosse Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO) works actively with many partners to conserve native aquatic fauna, as well as the diverse habitats required for the survival and well-being of these creatures, in landscapes scattered across the upper Midwest. Established in 1981 to help protect, restore, and enhance native fishes and the aquatic communities which support them, most work at the La Crosse FWCO is strategically focused in portions of the 190,000 square-mile Upper Mississippi River (UMR) basin. Natural resource development, dating from European settlement to the present, has drastically altered landscapes here and in surrounding watersheds. Frequently left in the wake of these actions were unforeseen environmental consequences that coalesced beneath the water. Coupled with other ecological manipulations and perturbations, these cumulative impacts have taken a serious toll on the functional stability of aquatic ecosystems, as well as the viability of fragmented or isolated populations of endemic aquatic fauna. The La Crosse FWCO fulfills many key roles in meeting federal obligations to conserve, protect, and enhance aquatic resources here that are held in trust for generations of Americans to come.
Hickson Dam located on the Red River of the North near Moorehead, Minnesota, had long been a barrier to the migration of lake sturgeon, channel catfish, walleye, and other native fish species.
The La Crosse FWCO worked with local partners to recently install a rock-arch rapids below this structure that now allows fish unimpeded access to 68 miles of upstream river habitat and has improved recreational safety at the dam.
The La Crosse FWCO coordinates actions of the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee, an organization of resource managers from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin who work to promote the preservation and wise utilization of the river’s natural resources. La Crosse FWCO biologists have been teaming with counterparts from these states and other river managers in recent years to successfully plan and execute dozens of large-scale habitat rehabilitation and enhancement projects, many of which are designed to benefit populations of native fish and recreational fisheries.
Likewise, the La Crosse FWCO supports multiagency efforts to recover several federally endangered species, including the facilitated propagation and reintroduction of Higgins’eye pearlymussels and winged mapleleaf mussels to essential habitat areas in the UMR and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, respectively. Meanwhile, in the case of the endangered Topeka shiner, the La Crosse FWCO coordinates actions of the Fishers and Farmers Partnership (http://fishersandfarmers.org). This nationally recognized Fish Habitat Partnership has leveraged resources for some landowners to restore ox-bow habitats that are required by this species in temperate streams, while decreasing soil and nutrient runoff from surrounding farmlands as well. Many of these restoration actions can simultaneously lower crop production costs for participating landowners while reducing the long range transport of nutrients that contribute to hypoxic conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.
A flotilla of electrofishing boats conduct surveillance for Asian carp near a water pumping station in the North Shore Channel, part of the Chicago Area Waterway System, near Wilmette, Illinois. Credit: USFWS
The Driftless Area Restoration Effort (http://darestoration.com) is a second nationally recognized Fish Habitat Partnership coordinated by the La Crosse FWCO. This program aims to reverse a history of poor and inconsistent land and water management practices in the Driftless Area, a unique 24,000 square-mile landscape within the UMR basin that encompasses portions of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northeast Iowa, and northwest Illinois which were bypassed by the last continental glacier. Many cold water streams and temperate rivers that drain this region store and transport excessive sediment and nutrient loads that have led to broad declines in fish populations and the overall diversity of aquatic life.
Tribal youths release hatchery-reared lake sturgeon fingerlings into White Earth Lake on the White Earth Indian Reservation in western Minnesota. Credit: USFWS
Upon request, the La Crosse FWCO also provides fishery management assistance to the National Wildlife Refuge System, other federal agencies, and recognized Native American tribes in the upper Midwest. For example, tribal work typically occurs on reservations in Minnesota and Wisconsin (i.e., beyond the UMR basin) and is largely dedicated to the re-establishment of self-sustaining lake sturgeon populations here through a combination of stocking activities and enhanced opportunities for critical fish passage. Efforts like this support what was, until recently, a widely held conviction that artificial barriers which impede fish passage and isolate vulnerable populations should be removed to help restore freshwater ecosystems.
But continuing introductions of aquatic nuisance species (ANS), particularly movements into UMR tributaries, have forced many river managers to consider whether new or existing barriers can effectively protect native aquatic fauna upstream. To help support key management decisions like these, the La Crosse FWCO conducts ongoing surveillance with partners to detect and estimate the relative abundance of ANS at key locations in the Chicago Area Waterways and UMR (Asian carp), the Illinois River (round goby), and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway (zebra mussels).
Among all of the methods used by the La Crosse FWCO to conserve our aquatic resources, perhaps the most efficient and popular are its many public outreach activities. Geared particularly towards youth, events like the annual Youth Outdoor Fest in La Crosse introduce hundreds of families to new outdoor recreational opportunities that promote increased environmental awareness and continued stewardship of our common aquatic resource legacy in the UMR basin … and at the very least, may spark some excitement for the whole family to go out and do it again!