BY SCOTT COVINGTON, REGIONAL OFFICE- EXTERNAL AFFAIRS ON DETAIL
What better way for budding biologists to get their hands dirty than digging in the dirt? This past year, students at Southern Bluffs Elementary School helped Genoa National Fish Hatchery (NFH) Staff with a long-term habitat restoration project.
One of the wetland meadows that students are working to restore.
Credit: Scott Covington, USFWS
Genoa NFH is a 155-acre facility established in 1932. Since its founding, the mission has broadened from a fish culture station into a state of the art facility that raises lake sturgeon and coaster brook trout, as well as endangered mussel species including the Higgins eye pearlymussel and the winged mapleleaf mussel. Genoa NFH recently began raising an endangered insect – the Hine’s emerald dragonfly.
Continuing this effort to broaden the hatchery’s operation, staff tapped into the Service’s Connecting People with Nature initiative, reviewing ideas to get children involved in projects on the ground. Several ideas were discussed, but staff agreed that involving students in a yearlong study would provide the students with repeat experiences in nature augment their current science curriculum and benefit the hatchery.
Staff identified specific habitat blocks within a former 30-acre wetland pasture on the hatchery grounds in need of improving, so students could attack the problem systematically, acre by acre. Jennifer Bailey, now of the Service’s La Crosse Fish Health Center, began the Outdoor Classroom project with a simple idea – involve local students in an outdoor classroom by having them assist with a four-season restoration project spanning the length of the school year – and simultaneously, help improve habitat conditions on the hatchery grounds.
Initially, students were introduced to vegetative quadrat plots – a method that quantifies all species within the boundaries of a quadrat, typically one meter square. Students learn to identify grasses, forbs and shrubs through this method, and also learn how to record data on the density of each species.
Once students confirmed what species were present and the density of those species, they determined a method to address problems they noted. For example, when students found the meadow covered in an exotic plant, they planned how to reduce the exotic’s numbers.
One method used involved collecting seeds from native plants on the hatchery grounds. Students plucked milkweed seeds from pods and planted the seeds across the hatchery to improve habitat for pollinators, especially important for the Monarch butterfly. As part of their “experiment”, they directly sowed seeds in the ground as well as raised them in a greenhouse setting – to compare the rates of seed growth in the wild and an artificial setting.
Students also helped by planting native species directly amongst the invaders with the expectation that our natives will outcompete – outgrow – their foreign rivals. One of those rivals that are found on the hatchery grounds is reed canary grass. This species is very invasive – it can take over entire wetland meadows by forming a blanket of grass that has little value for wildlife because so few species eat it, doesn’t provide cover for small mammals or waterfowl, and when it flowers, produces a lot of pollen, which aggravate hay fever and allergies.
The project will continue on into the winter and spring as children note how the plants go dormant, covered with snow, and then respond next spring as the first shoots turn green. They will continue with the quadrat plots to determine the effectiveness of their project. So far, the students have three acres of habitat restored – leaving enough for the next class of biologists to begin work.
Hatchery manager Doug Aloisi had this to say about the project, “The hatchery has recently worked with Prairie Moon Seed Company to purchase native prairie seeds and planted roughly six acres of native seeds to support the habitat restoration. This active restoration project, which students can take ownership of and be an active participant in, will help them to see the benefits of becoming the next generation of conservation stewards that value wild things and places and strive to conserve them. The project will also dovetail nicely with the new Great River Road Interpretive Center, which will focus on the value on the natural resources of the Upper Mississippi River Basin and how to conserve them for future generations.”
Learn more about Genoa NFH at: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/genoa/