Iowa landowners are restoring native habitats


Prairie Grass
Photo by David Cornwell, Flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 1st, 2019

Tall grass prairie once covered 70-80% of Iowa, but today, less than 0.1% of that remains. Some conservationists and landowners are working to change that, planting native species to restore Iowa’s natural ecosystems. 

The fourth annual Linn Landowners Forum was held in Marion on Sunday, educating landowners large and small on restoring native habitats, planting pollinators, and reviving the monarch butterfly population. Mark Vitosh, from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, spoke at the forum about the effects of invasive species, which can push out native plants and disrupt natural habitats.

The Iowa DNR Prairie Resource Center purchases thousands of acres per year to restore natural habitats. The loss of prairie has caused the decline of many native species. Tall grasses provide winter cover for a variety of species and are home to insects and small mammals important to the ecosystem’s food chain. Additionally, native grasses can slow soil erosion and nutrient runoff, protecting lakes, rivers, and streams from pollution.

The event’s finale featured the release of 500 monarch butterflies, captured by the Monarch Research Station, which tags hundreds of butterflies each year to track their migration patterns. According to the station’s manager Mike Martin, those patterns are often disrupted by habitat loss, pesticide and herbicide use, and the elimination of milkweed. 

Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy draft released


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Female monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed pods. (Charles Dawley/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | March 15, 2018

A draft of the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy was released on Monday, and Iowa plays an integral role in its success.

North American monarch butterfly populations have decreased by 80 percent in the last two decades, and their numbers are less than half of what is needed to guarantee a sustainable population. The black and gold pollinators spend their winter months in Mexico and southern California and travel to the northern midwest for the summer. Female monarchs lay eggs exclusively in milkweed pods.

Released by the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the conservation strategy draft explains that midwestern states plan to establish 1.3 billion new milkweed stems over the next two decades. The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is included within the midwestern effort. Written by Iowa State University’s Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, its aims to establish between 480,000 and 830,000 acres on monarch habitat by 2038.

Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, said, “The consortium has worked collaboratively with diverse stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan to expand habitat on our agricultural land, urban areas, roadsides, and other public land. We appreciate the many partners that have been involved and are encouraged by the work already underway.”

Iowa’s strategy provides evidence-based recommendations for creating monarch habitat and aims to document all voluntary efforts. 127 to 188 million new milkweed stems are estimated to be planted in Iowa in accordance with the plan.

Given that the vast majority of Iowa land is in agricultural production, the plan’s authors emphasize that agricultural lands must be a part of the solution. The strategy considers both expanding on existing conservation practices and planting milkweed stems in underutilized farm land as viable options. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services will decide in June 2019 whether the monarch butterfly should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said, “Iowa falls entirely within the monarch’s northern breeding core. This means that every patch of milkweed habitat added in Iowa counts, and Iowa is perfectly situated to lead the way in conservation efforts for the monarch butterfly. The recovery cannot succeed without Iowa.”

The full draft of the Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.
The complete Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.

Iowa DNR fails to obey some state regulations


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A recent audit found Iowa DNR has failed to follow a state law related to the establishment of wetlands near close agricultural drainage wells. (Iowa DNR)

Jenna Ladd | September 8, 2017

A state audit released on Tuesday revealed that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has failed to follow state law related to identifying and safeguarding wetlands, monitoring public works projects on the local level and establishing a clean air advisory panel.

In its defense, Iowa DNR claims that state law pertaining to these issues are often duplicative or less stringent than federal requirements, according to a report from the Des Moines Register. Federal requirements for wetland protection specifically exceed regulation put forth by the state, Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp told the Register. He said, “We recognize and understand the value of wetlands.” The Iowa law “is asking us to do something that would be even less stringent than the federal code.”

In response, Iowa Environmental Council’s water program coordinator Susan Heathcote noted that federal oversight related to water quality is questionable at present, considering that President Trump is expected to repeal and revise an Obama era water quality regulation soon.

More specifically, the audit found that the Iowa DNR has not established a program aimed at assisting in the development of wetlands around closed agricultural drainage areas, which would aid in the filtration of nutrient rich water flowing into municipal taps. The news that the state is failing to abide by existing water quality-related regulations comes after another legislative session during which state legislators failed to provide funding for more robust water quality measures Iowa voters approved more than seven years ago.

End-of-summer means more fish kills statewide


The end of the summer is when fish are most vulnerable to changes in their environment, so even a small amount of pollution can cause major fish kills in Iowa’s waterways. (flickr/AgriLife Today)

The state Department of Natural Resources warns Iowans to consider how fish are affected when using chemicals and fertilizers.

The end of the summer is when fish are most vulnerable — temperatures are high, and dying and decaying plant life reduce dissolved oxygen in the water. Fish and other aquatic wildlife are stressed, meaning pollution can lead to more fish kills.

In 2016, the DNR reported 15 fish kills, 11 of which occurred in the latter part of the summer, after July 15. In the last two weeks, the DNR has investigated four fish kills around the state.

The DNR reminds farmers and homeowners that what they put on their fields or lawns will wash into waterways, where it could harm wildlife. Even a small amount of a chemical can cause serious damage.

“We have received several reports of small summer fish kills at many lakes, ponds, and a few streams throughout Iowa,” said Chris Larson, fisheries supervisor for the DNR in southwest Iowa, in a press release. “We have also had some fish kills caused by pollutants.”

Rarely, however, will all of the fish in a single body of water die at once. Usually the ecosystem can bounce back from a fish kill and balance its population again within a few years.

Farmers and homeowners can prevent pollution-caused fish kills by not applying chemical fertilizer or manure before it rains, and following disposal instructions on pesticide labels.

Iowa DNR dissolves Bureau of Forestry and other programs


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The State Forest Nursery and urban foresters program will stay in tact amid multiple program eliminations. (Joshua Mayer/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | July 7, 2017

Iowa legislators approved a $1.2 million cut to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this year, resulting in the elimination of the Bureau of Forestry and several other positions.

The department announced on Wednesday that it terminated the Forest Bureau Chief Paul Tauke. All other foresters were reassigned to other divisions within the DNR. Alex Murphy is a spokesperson for the department. In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, he said, “We’ve moved these employees under different areas and actually eliminated the bureau itself, although all the functions of the bureau exist, just in different bureaus or divisions.” The changes saved the department around $277,000.

The DNR Trail Crew program was abolished along with two full-time program DNR employees. The Trail Crew team was comprised of 15 Americorps members that traveled around the state with DNR employees to develop and improve Iowa’s 500 miles of nature trails. Other Americorps programs within the department were eliminated as well.

State Geologist Bob Libra also lost his job. The state plans to contract UI geologists to take over geological research projects. Among the other positions eliminated are the department safety officer, animal feeding operations coordinator and art director for the DNR’s magazine.

UI environmental science program graduate Megan Henry warned that the elimination of positions in environmental sciences may drive more young people out of Iowa. Her letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register reads,

“Now the university will likely also equip natural science students in geology with even more hands-on experience, because “without a state geologist, the DNR will contract with the University of Iowa for geological research and technical assistance.” The only problem: How do you attract students to this vital work, if the jobs only exist while they are paying tuition?”

Spawning stress fish kill in Tama County


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More than 1,000 black crappies were reported dead at Lake Casey yesterday due to spawning stress. (Georgia Aquarium

Jenna Ladd |June 8, 2017

A fish kill has been reported at Casey Lake in Tama County. More than 1,000 black crappies were reported dead at the Hickory Hills Park Lake yesterday. Crappies are a North American freshwater sunfish that are indigenous to Iowa. Fish kills can be caused a number of factors including pesticide contamination, high temperatures, algal blooms and more.

“When we get calls about one species of dead fish during the spawning season, it is usually caused by spawning stress,” said Dan Kirby, fisheries management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Like many freshwater fish, crappies move closer to the shoreline to spawn in the late spring and early summer. Spawning activities require fish to expend a lot of energy, leaving them susceptible to infections and illness. It is common for spawning fish to sustain abrasions from jagged rocks and debris at the water’s edge. These cuts and scrapes are vulnerable to infection that can cause death. Typically, spawning stress fish kills occur slowly over the course of weeks. It is unclear how long the fish at Casey Lake were piling up near shore.

“Fish surveys conducted this week on Casey Lake showed that largemouth bass and bluegills are doing well, and black crappies are abundant,” Kirby added.

Iowa DNR encourages residents to call their 24-hour phone line at 515-725-8694 if they notice dead fish accumulating in lakes or rivers.

Study finds Iowa groundwater is extracted at unsustainable rate


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The Jordan Aquifer lies beneath most of Iowa; locations with water use permits for tapping into the aquifer are shown above. (Iowa DNR)

Jenna Ladd | February 7, 2017

A recent study found the groundwater in Iowa’s Jordan Aquifer to be much older than previously known, and scientists say that could have implications for water use in the state.

Researchers from the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa in collaboration with Grinnell College, the UI Geology Department and Iowa Department of Natural Resources used isotopic age dating to estimate the age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer. The study measured major and minor ions, stable isotopes (d18O and dD) and
the radioactive isotope Chlorine 36 in eight wells scattered across the aquifer. The peer-reviewed journal article explains that the groundwater in northern and central Iowa is somewhere between 70,000 to nearly 180,000 years old.

The study points out that ethanol production in the state relies heavily on groundwater from the Jordan aquifer, which also provides roughly 300,000 residents with drinking water. From 2003 to 2013, annual use of groundwater from the aquifer for ethanol production increased by 7.4 billion liters per year.

Keith Schilling is a research scientist at the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa and the study’s leading author. He said,

“The implications for biofuel refineries and any water use of the aquifer is the realization that the groundwater is very old. It is not going to be recharged in any human timeframes so we should make sure that water from the aquifer is being managed appropriately.”

Beyond the lagging groundwater regeneration rate, the study also notes that increased groundwater pumping can result in detrimental water quality changes such as radium contamination. The authors conclude with a call for new ethanol refineries to steer clear of the Jordan Aquifer and utilize more sustainable groundwater sources instead.