Eagles, pelicans, and diving ducks on Minnesota’s Upper Mississippi River.

Rob DriesleinJameson Drieslien wets a line in the Mississippi River.Hit the Mississippi River on Friday morning with my spring-breaking sons and their granddad. We’ll blame the lack of biting fish on the cold front that moved through the area and remarkably low water (for early spring). On the upside, other wildlife gave us quite a show.

Given the waterfowl in the area, the Polander Lake islands project just above the Lock and Dam 5A spillway surely has been an incredible success.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, built a series of islands in the Mississippi River backwater in the  late 1990s. Delays initially plagued the Polander project because of concerns about paddlefish spawning there, but the feds eventually completed the work in 2002. Funding for the project came through the Environmental Management Program, an optimistic effort  of the mid-1990s – back when Americans still believed in their ability to tackle big efforts in the name of improving the environment. Read more about that program here.

Polander Lake by the early 1990s had become a biological desert thanks the aging of the Mississippi backwaters, high water, and excessive siltation. The man-made islands now break up the wind fetch, and the change has decreased turbidity and allowed high-quality aquatic vegetation to take root.

That’s duck food, and the scaup, canvasback, bufflehead, and other divers – including one speedy little ruddy duck – were thick as thieves in the vegetation-rich backwater. Go figure.

One highlight was the multiple flocks of pelicans staging in the area. We probably saw more than 1,000 white pelicans fishing around us, and their airborne acrobatics amazed my boys when they flew over. My dad snapped the image you see attached to this blog.

We also had several adult bald eagles watching us, an immature bird that refused to leave a dead snag fishing perch, and we saw a new eagle nest with a bird incubating. Wonder if my @Birdchick friend has seen that nest yet on her eagle nest surveys.

As the Polander Lake project unfolded 10 and 20 years ago, lots of folks complained about the time, money, and effort involved in such an endeavor. To this day, many people outside the hunting, fishing, and conservation game might look at a series of manmade islands, and call that “waste in government.”

Too bad society spends more time these days listening to these morons, but thank God we ignored them 20 years ago when sketching a vision for Polander Lake. It was a massive undertaking, but here’s the good news:

The scaup waterfowlers see this fall are resting and rejuvenating themselves on the wild celery and sago pond weed tubers within its sediments. Our national symbol feeds and nests over this healthy fishery, less than a mile from the busy main channel and a couple miles from the City of Winona. And I’m told the beginning of a pelican rookery – the first on the Upper Miss in living memory – may be germinating. (I remember when pelicans first appeared on the river 20 years. It takes them that long to recolonize an area before they start nesting.)

None of this is an accident. The wildlife that hunters and anglers, birders, and the general public enjoy and marvel about exists because of fish and game laws that protect them. It exists because of multi-million-dollar projects that restore habitat in terribly disturbed ecosystems like the Upper Mississippi “River.” It exists because of the battles that resulted in a ban on DDT. And it exists because people taught their children to appreciate such things.

All of the above delivers results. I remember the first eagle nest on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1980s. Now there’s nearly 50. Pelicans, which didn’t exist on the Upper Miss 20 years ago, now stage in the area by the hundreds, maybe thousands. The scaup I witnessed today looked big and healthy, ready to complete their journey to Canada’s boreal forest for 2012 nesting.

The bad news. I don’t see efforts like Polander Lake anymore, and it’s for one simple reason: It might require tax money. God forbid!

Federal agencies work with smaller budgets overall, and more and more of their budgets are dedicated to people habitat, recreation, and education. That’s well and good, but the bread-and-butter of conservation traditionally has focused on acquisition and large-scale habitat improvement.

We can continue to sacrifice that in the name of lower tax bills and hope we retain status quo. Don’t hold your breathe. As we’ve seen with trout stream quality and farm country pheasant habitat, we can lose our gains quickly – in a matter of a few years – when we let up on the conservation throttle.

Go ahead and hate me, but here’s one scribe who intends to keep his foot on the gas. In the meantime, I’ll occasionally enjoy a day like today and appreciate the people and tax dollars who made it possible. Hope you do, too.

Coyotes, gotta love ’em

I’ve written about this before, but here’s a quick link again on a study that shows how outdoor cats are popular prey for coyotes. Gotta love old Wily E., eh? I think maybe we should have more protection for coyotes if they’re eating filthy, feral domestic cats. C’mon bird lovers and small game hunters. Who’s with me?

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