Volunteers, professionals help visitors enjoy overlook

By Craig Moorhead for the Houston County News

OverlookThrough cold mist and drizzle, the clear notes of thousands of tundra swans greeted visitors to the Waterfowl Observation Day Nov. 13 near Brownsville.

The event, hosted by the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge and Mississippi River Wild, a friends of the refuge group, showcases one of the greatest bird migration corridors on the North American continent. Besides swans, many varieties of waterfowl — including ducks, geese, coots and even raptors — sail down the waterway.

Busloads of bird watchers arrived at the Brownsville overlook Saturday morning. One of those groups, from Winona, had as tour guides Dave Palmquist, naturalist of Whitewater State Park, and Edward Lagace, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Winona District park ranger.

“This is my 27th annual swan watch field trip,” Palmquist said. “Considering the weather, this is a pretty darn good turnout.”

The swan watch has followed the birds over the years, he explained, with tours beginning in Weaver and then Alma, Wis. Now the favored spot is Brownsville, due to extensive habitat work done there in recent years.

“This is my third tour,” Lagace said. “We brought 50 people today, but I had to turn about 20 more away when they called in after the deadline to sign up. We may need to bring two buses next year. People just love coming, just absolutely enjoy this.”

Umbrellas sprouted and rain drops glistened on spotting scopes. River Wild volunteers served bowls of chili, along with other warm victuals. Sue Fletcher, naturalist/educator with the Fish and Wildlife Service, held a big jar of broadleaf arrowhead tubers. Attached to the roots of the plant, they’re the reason the swans are here.

“One swan can eat about six pounds of these per day,” she said. “That’s about two of these containers.

“They do a count every week, and the latest one showed 5,000 to 7,000 tundra swans,” Fletcher added. “That was early last week, so there may well be more here now. In addition, there are about 150,000 canvasback ducks on the refuge, which takes in 260 miles of the Mississippi (River) from Wabasha to Rock Island, Ill.”

That’s a large portion of the total population of the big diving ducks. Fletcher told birders that if they scanned the river, they’d also see other species, including Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, green wing teal, coots, mergansers, ring neck ducks, golden eyes and bald eagles.

Palmquist said that 12,000 to 15,000 tundra swans can sometimes be seen in the area. In fact, 20 percent to 25 percent of the total eastern population of tundra swans rest and feed in this region in November and December, leaving only when the waters freeze. Then they’ll continue south and east, wintering along the Atlantic seaboard, mostly from Maryland to the Carolinas. The eastern population breeds on a vast swath of arctic tundra from Alaska to Hudson Bay.

Swans from Overlook
Tundra swans swim near the Brownsville observation deck on Saturday. The birds will likely remain in the area until freeze-up, biologist say. (Moorhead-HCN)

Mississippi River Wild President Ken Visger said that in spite of the weather, more than 300 people attended Saturday’s event. For those who missed the boat, there’s more birding to be had. Two observation decks are located along Minnesota Highway 26 south of Brownsville. Both the upper (northern) deck, where Saturday’s festivities were held, and the lower deck, closer to Reno, sport permanently mounted spotting scopes.

“The volunteers are great,” Lagace said. “It’s important to note that Saturdays and Sundays throughout November, there will be staff here with scopes for people to use, and people to talk to (including MRW members) and ask questions regarding the swans.”

“Without the friends group and other volunteers, we’d be sunk,” Palmquist said. “We wouldn’t have the manpower to run these programs.”

A busload of college students from Decorah, Iowa, loaded up to leave. The second bus from the Winona area began to load up as well. The drizzle continued, but cars trickled in and visitors stared out at the big white birds with their long, graceful necks.

Winona resident Farmer Parsi showed his daughter, Ryka, what wild swans look like, birds that have flown straight from a place that most humans will never see. Speaking for the people who were braving the cold, he summed the sight up in two words: “It’s gorgeous.”

Upper Miss Designated Wetland of National Significance

Swans flying over Upper Mississippi River Refuge

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, is an international treaty signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. The convention provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation of wetlands around the world.

In January 2010, the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands became one of more than 1,800 Ramsar sites worldwide. Over 302,300 acres of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin are included in the Ramsar designation.

In making the announcement, Secretary Salazar said, “The ecological, social, and economic values of the Upper Mississippi River make it one of the crown jewels of this nation’s wetlands. This marks the 27th U.S. wetland designated under the Convention on Wetlands. The U.S. became a party to the convention in 1987, which now includes 150 countries. It’s certainly fitting that this area has now officially received international recognition.”

The designation includes just over 300,000 acres of federal and state lands and waters of the Upper Mississippi River floodplain from near Wabasha, Minn. to north of Rock Island, Ill. The designation includes all of the 240,000-acre Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge headquartered in Winona, Minn. and the adjacent 6,226-acre Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin.

Other designated sites in the U.S. include such wetland icons as Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia and Florida, Everglades National Park in Florida, and Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin.

The site consists primarily of flowing main and side channel habitats, backwater marshes, and floodplain forests.

Facts about the Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands of International Importance:

  • Home to more than 100 native fish species and 42 native mussels including the nationally endangered Higgins eye pearlymussel
  • Located at the core of the Mississippi Flyway, through which 40% of North America’s waterfowl migrate. Treasures of the floodplain wetlands are the canvasback duck and tundra swans.
  • Well over 3 million people visit each year

Celebrate Working Wetlands

10/10/10 for 10!

Celebrate Working Wetlands

At Brownsville Overlook

Brownsville, MN

On the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge

Join us on Sunday, October 10, 2010 (10]10]10 for 10!) at 10:00 AM to celebrate
wetlands for at least 10 minutes
The “official” event will last 10 minutes and 10 seconds.
10 am A flock of people will meet at Brownsville Overlook on Highway 26 near Brownsville,
We will write down 10 reasons why we love wetlands.
10:10 am We will chant “We Love Celebrating Wetlands!” a photograph of us will be taken
with our list in hand.
10:10:10 am the Official Event Over!
Stay and enjoy the migrating waterfowl and meet the Mississippi River Wild members.
Spotting scopes will be placed and binoculars available to enjoy the view.
Contact for more information: Paula Ogden_Muse @ 608 783 8403 or email Paula_Ogden
Events Listed at:
http://coord.info/GC2BQB1 10/10/10 for 10! Brownsville Overlook, Minnesota

Basin Protection Act

Re   Kind Continues Efforts to Protect Mississippi

Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act to Reduce Sedimentation, Improve Water Quality

Washington, DC U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) today reintroduced his Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act, legislation calling for the development of a coordinated, public-private approach to studying and reducing nutrient and sediment runoff in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. The bill also establishes a water-quality monitoring system and a computer modeling program to analyze data.

“The river plays a vital role in our economy and our quality of life in western Wisconsin,” said Rep. Kind, founder and Co-chair of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Congressional Task Force.  “Increased sediment and nutrient flow into the upper basin poses a very serious threat to the long-term health of the entire Mississippi River system. This bill will lay the scientific foundation necessary to ensure the future quality and beauty of the Mississippi for generations to come.”

The accumulation of excess sediment from increased soil erosion and nutrients, such as fertilizers and animal waste, in the Upper Mississippi River Basin degrades aquatic and wetland habitat and imperils a wide variety of fish and waterfowl.  The increased soil erosion causes applied fertilizer from area farms to wash into the river, resulting not only in dangerously high nitrogen and phosphorous levels, but also a reduction in the long-term sustainability and income of family farms, and the plaguing of farmers annually with $300 million in unnecessary costs.   In addition, sediment accumulation fills the main shipping channel of the river and valuable wetlands throughout the basin, reducing the value to wildlife and their capacity as nutrient filters and costing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more than $100 million annually in dredging costs.

The Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act aims to produce the data needed to better understand sediment and nutrient flow from its source in the landscape to its destination in rivers and lakes and drive the innovation needed to solve the excess sediment and nutrient problem in the Mississippi River System.  The legislation establishes a sedimentation and nutrient reduction monitoring network and an integrated computer modeling program that, when combined, will provide the baseline data needed to make scientifically sound and cost-effective decisions to improve the Upper Mississippi River’s ecosystem.

“While there is no easy solution to stopping the runoff of sediment and nutrients into the Upper Mississippi River Basin, this legislation will make significant strides toward reducing this flow of harmful pollutants into the river.  I have worked closely with farmers, industry, sporting groups, conservation organizations, and government agencies to develop this effective, basin-wide, and non-regulatory approach, and am confident it will find support in both the House and the Senate.”

The reintroduction of the Upper Mississippi River Basin Protection Act is particularly timely considering the Mississippi River Basin Initiative introduced by Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack late last week.  The USDA initiative aims to improve the overall health of the entire Mississippi River, as opposed to the current regional approaches, and provides $320 million for improvement projects in states bordering the river.  Together, the two efforts will take important steps to maintain and improve the overall health of one of America’s most central water resources.

The Upper Mississippi River system, with tributaries and a basin encompassing much of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri, is widely recognized as one of our nation’s great multi-use natural resources. The Mississippi River and its tributaries provide drinking water to approximately 22 million Americans and the system’s 1,300 navigable miles transport millions of tons of commercial cargo via barges.  In addition, 40 percent of North America’s waterfowl use the wetlands and backwaters of the main stem as a migratory flyway, illustrating the environmental significance of the system as well as recreation capabilities.


– 30 –

CODE RED — Carp-Pocalypse Begins in Lake Michigan

June 24, 2010 — A 19-pound Asian carp has been found near the shore of Lake Michigan, above a navigation lock that regional political leaders had been demanding the Army Corps slam shut to try to keep the invaders out of the world’s largest freshwater system.

The fish confirms what DNA evidence had been telling fishery managers for months – that Asian carp had indeed breached an electric fish barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, considered the last line of defense for Lake Michigan. Read the following four articles to get the details.

“Michigan Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Mike Cox said the find means that the region’s “worst fears” have been realized, and he is considering further legal action.”

“We have zebra mussels which have clogged water intake pipes and whose effect on Great Lakes water users in the United States and Canada may total several billion dollars spent on machinery to stop them from clogging pipes. We have the Asian carp which are threatening to follow zebra mussels as the latest foreign species to invade and unbalance the lakes by competing for the same food supply that feeds game fish and thus supports the sport fishing industry. We have longstanding fish consumption advisories resulting from chemical contamination. So yes, it would be a very good idea for the mayors, governors, premiers, and federal governments to get together and talk about disaster plans and about the disasters we already have.”

“One invasive bighead Asian carp has been found in Lake Calumet along the Chicago Area Waterway System – the first fish that has been found above the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s electric barrier system built to keep out the voracious exotic species.”

“There’s an underwater war underway in the Midwest – an offensive to keep the ravenous Asian Carp out of the Great Lakes. On Wednesday, it became clear: The carp are winning.”

Pelicans eating Asian Carp

I spent all weekend at Dresser Island Conservation Area photographing waterfowl along the Mississippi River. While I was there I made some interesting images of white pelicans foraging on huge, silver carp. It was fascinating to watch as sometimes it took several minutes for the pelican to get the fish down. Also, when a pelican caught a fish the others converged on it to fight for the bounty. As a matter of fact, when a common merganser caught a shad the pelicans would converge on the little guy and try to take its morsel away as well.

Danny Brown
Fisheries Management Biologist
Missouri Department of Conservation

Bill would close Chicago waterways to halt Asian carp


On 1/21, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) introduced a bill that would close some Chicago-area waterways in an effort to halt the advance of invasive Asian carp to the Great Lakes.On 1/19, the Supreme Court denied Michigan’s request for a preliminary injunction to close the waterways, which provide the fish a link from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan.

Experts fear that the invasive carp, which have been traveling up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers for decades, will devastate the $7 billion Great Lakes fisheries. The 100-pound fish have voracious appetites and rapid reproduction rates that could ravage native lake species.

“It is clear Asian Carp pose an immediate threat to the Great Lakes, its ecosystem and the 800,000 jobs it supports,” Camp said in a statement. “The failure of the Supreme Court to act yesterday jeopardizes the future of the Lakes, and it is clear we must take additional steps now.”

Researchers this week said they have for the first time found the carp’s DNA in Lake Michigan, a signal the fish already may have reached the Great Lakes.

H.R. 4472 would direct the Army Corps of Engineers to immediately close the O’Brien Lock and Dam and the Chicago Controlling Works until a controlled lock operations strategy is in place. It also would instruct the Army Corps to build barriers in several locations to keep the fish at bay. The bill directs the corps to conduct two studies: one to curb the effects of the bill on shipping commerce and another to abate the effects on Chicago flood control. The Army Corps also would receive new authority to use fish poison, netting and other means to kill or slow the carp.

The bill already is facing criticism from the shipping industry.

“The regional economy would be devastated if the Chicago-area locks were closed,” said a news release yesterday from the American Waterways Operators, the trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry. “Millions of tons of critical commodities, such as coal for utilities, petroleum for heating homes and fueling vehicles and airplanes, currently move through the Chicago-area locks, and thousands of American jobs depend on regional waterborne commerce.”

The group urged Congress to allow the Obama administration to work with states and other stakeholders to develop a strategy to fight the carp.

The White House this week said it will meet with governors from Great Lakes states to devise such a plan. White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley suggested an early February meeting “to discuss strategy to combat the spread of Asian carp and ensure coordination and the most effective response across all levels of government.”

In addition to the House bill, companion legislation was introduced in the Senate on 1/22 by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich).

RIDGERUNNER REPORTS: by Jim Solberg. Swans arrive in area waterways

After visiting the new Brownsville, Minn., overlook several times without seeing much waterfowl action, it was a pleasure to hear the tundra swans hooting and hollering when I visited again on Halloween. Most of them were farther out when I arrived, but the bay below the overlook was packed with a variety of ducks, Canada geese, pelicans and a few swans.

Several other excited visitors were looking through the telescopes and shouting about the eagles and other birds they were spotting out there. I moved my tripod down toward the scopes to get a better view, and I had barely got everything set up when the birds began to fly. Soon there was a general panic as every bird in the bay eventually took flight and headed across the river.

Unfortunately, a boat was putting along under the overlook, a violation of the voluntary closure of the refuge area that began Oct. 15 and extends until the end of the duck season. There are signs, but every year some people either ignore them or are just clueless about the disturbance they cause to the migrating waterfowl. After waiting patiently for 30 minutes for the birds to return, I gave up and headed for Goose Island.

Around sunset, I again heard the hooting of tundra swans as group after group flew over the island in “V” formations to join the others along both sides of the river. They will continue to arrive for some time now, reaching a peak sometime around the middle of November.

Pool 8 Project Restores Islands to Mississippi

By Gregg Hoffmann

For several years, one of the biggest reconstruction projects in the Midwest has been going on — in the middle of the Mississippi River.

The Pool 8 project is located within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, just west of Stoddard, Wis., and east of Brownsville, Minn. It includes constructing 26 islands, which were virtually wiped out by high water after Lock and Dam No. 8 was constructed in 1937. Higher water allowed wind and wave action to erode the islands, resulting in the loss of aquatic plants and valuable habitat for birds, reptiles, amphibians and other animals.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, U.S. Geological Survey, Minnesota and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and others have cooperated on the project, which started in 2006.

The benefits of projects like this island restoration is varied. First, the habitats for birds, fish and other animals is being restored. That has an intrinsic value that is hard to put a dollar figure on, but it also should lead to continued growth in recreation and eco-tourism industries.

By restoring the islands and more natural flows to the river, the impacts of flooding and high water periods could be reduced. Land values also tend to go up along riverways that have been restored.

The rehabilitation is quite a project. Sand and water are pumped as far as five miles along the river to the island sites. Rock and other base are installed to gather the materials. Bulldozers, which from the shore seem to be working right out of the water, shape the contours of the islands. Various cover foliage then is planted, and as one worker said, “the river plants what it wants to grow.”

“It really is a team effort out there, between various agencies and our contractors,” said James Nissen, district manager for the Refuge. “We do the designs, but the ingenuity and creativity of our contractors who are out there doing the work really get it done.”

Public tours were recently conducted of the work. “We started the tours last year,” Nissen said. “There’s a lot of interest in the project because it is visible from Highway 26. So, we take the opportunity to let people know what progress we are making.”

Visitors also come for the wildlife — the area serves as one of the migratory havens for more than 300 species of birds. Fifty percent of the world’s canvasback ducks spend time in the area.

Twenty percent of the population of Eastern Tundra Swans stop on their migratory routes from northern Canada to Chesapeake Bay.

The arrival of the swans has become an annual tourist event. The birds begin arriving in mid-October, and some stay until mid- to late-December.

“We draw people from all over, not just the Midwest but also from other states and foreign countries,” Nissen said. “It’s quite a gathering, and people always have a lot of questions.”

The area also is home to 119 species of fish. While hunting is not allowed in the Pool 8 area, fishing and other types of recreational activities are allowed, with some exceptions during peak migratory times.

About 3.7 million annual visits are made to the area for hunting where it is allowed, fishing, wildlife observation and other recreation.

Eco-tourism is a growing industry on the Big River. The Mississippi Explorer, which was used to transport some of the 300 people who showed up for the public tours, runs boats out of La Crosse, Prairie du Chien, Lansing, Iowa, and Galena, Illinois. Other nature tours are conducted in the area.

Economic Figures

The project has been rather costly. Estimated costs for the north and west islands is Pool 8 are $9.5 million. Costs for the four islands slightly further south are estimated at $5.3 million.

An east island was completed in 2006 for $780,000. The Army Corps of Engineers completed several islands in 2007-08 and several more are scheduled for completion this summer.

All this work has been funded through federal funds. Additional islands are being designed and will be built as funding becomes available. Nissen said work on those islands are scheduled to start in 2011 and be completed in 2012.

The entire Environmental Management Program, which includes much more than just the Pool 8 project, is authorized to receive $33.5 million annually. For fiscal year 2009, the allocation is $17.7 million. Project design, construction and other costs are fully paid by the federal government if the project is located on lands managed as a national wildlife refuge. For any other projects, costs are funded 65 percent by the federal government and 35 percent from non-federal sources.

“Any time you are doing marine construction, it is expensive,” Nissen said. “We have been funded through the EMP funds and could be tapping other sources. We also are receiving some stimulus money from the American Recovery Act.”

According to the Refuge web site, the Mississippi River annually contributes an estimated $1 billion in recreational benefits to the region. Refuge visitation generates nearly $90 million per year in economic output.

Visitation to the refuge, plus visits to adjacent counties in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, generates another $255 million annually.

The Pool 8 project created some controversy because of a drawdown of water in the backwater area. But, adequate water depth for commercial transportation and other navigation has been maintained in the main corridors of the river.

While Pool 8 might be getting the most attention right now, it is by no means the only project along the river. In fact, 25 projects have been completed — ranging from island reconstruction to dredging to dike construction and bank restoration — from Gutenberg, Iowa, to the Twins Cities since the EMP was authorized by an Act of Congress in 1986.

Perhaps the most valuable benefit of projects like these is summed up by a couple signs along Highway 26, on the Minnesota side of Pool 8. One reads that the Upper Mississippi Refuge is “perhaps the most important corridor of fish and wildlife habitat in the central United States.”

The second deals with the migration of the tundra swans: “You are lucky. Not everyone can say they have witnessed the spectacle of tens of thousands of tundra swans making their way on the 4,200 mile journey to and from their wintering grounds.

“Stop where swans have gathered and listen. You will hear the melodious bugling call of swans talking to each other. It is a sound you will not soon forget.”

Hoffmann has written on a variety of topics for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com. He writes the WisBiz GreenBiz feature monthly.

RIDGERUNNER REPORTS: New river islands nearing completion

It is rare to witness the birth of islands, much less 26 of them. But we’ve had the chance to do so on the Mississippi River for the past few summers.

In fact, a couple weeks ago the La Crosse Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave a boat tour around some of the new islands being built below Brownsville, Minn., as a thank-you gesture to volunteers who had served over the past year.

The day before, they had done the same thing for the public. It was a great chance to see the results of a successful partnership between government agencies and private organizations to restore parts of the mighty Mississippi to its full potential.

Our great river system has changed a lot in the past century. During the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created a series of locks and dams to increase the depth of the main channel. This, along with other changes, has had an enormous impact on life along the river. Some of the bottomland forests were immediately inundated, but eventually many of the islands that remained above water were also lost to erosion and wind action.

The disappearance of those islands allowed winds to increase water turbidity, depriving aquatic vegetation of light. Losing those plants made parts of the river less suitable for waterfowl feeding, fish spawning and a variety of other wildlife activities. The deposition of sediments from agricultural lands also filled in backwaters, further decreasing habitat potential.

To counteract some of these detrimental effects, Congress passed a law in 1986 that implemented the Upper Mississippi River System Environmental Management Program (UMRS-EMP). This formed the working partnership between the Army Corps of Engineers, the USFWS, the U.S. Geological Survey and five states bordering the Upper Mississippi River system, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. .

One part of the EMP program features habitat rehabilitation and enhancement projects (HREPs), such as the 1,000-acre island restoration project we were touring, known as the Pool 8 Islands Phase III HREP. The new islands will bring back some of the natural habitats lost when the original islands washed away.

Heavy equipment could still be seen on the low islands and on barges along Raft Channel. The material for the 26 new islands was dredged from nearby sloughs. They are being protected from wind and river currents by rocks that could be seen along some of the shorelines and by terrestrial vegetation planted onshore.

The project will be finished for the year by the end of September, but we could already see new wild rice beds, wild celery, coontail, pondweeds, lily pads and numerous other desirable plants growing around the islands for waterfowl to feed on this fall and for fish to breed in next spring.

The area will be closed to waterfowl hunting and is under voluntary avoidance by boat traffic from Oct. 15 through the end of the duck hunting season. The purpose, of course, is to let the thousands of pelicans, tundra and trumpeter swans, geese, ducks, cormorants and various other water birds feed and rest on their southward migration.

Unfortunately, some boaters ignore the voluntary restrictions and barrel through the area anyway. Last year, I personally watched as thousands of birds were unnecessarily panicked by thoughtless boaters roaring through their midst. If intrusions continue, a full closure might have to be enforced.

It is hoped that an already important migratory stopover will become even more attractive with the new islands. The enormous flocks of birds that are visible during October and November from the Brownsville overlook have already become a world-class spectacle, and it can only get better.