Big River Magazine
Mississippi River stories and news

July-August 2013

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From July-August 2013 Big River

Fly by Night Fans

A prairie haven

Bug life cycles

Moth lists

Birds and butterflies have inspired enthusiastic fans for years, but what about moths? They’re winged, patterned, colorful and incredibly diverse, but they’ve never gotten much attention — until lately. July 20 to 28 has been named National Moth Week this year. Ecologists and wildlife watchers around the globe will be hosting activities to introduce people to the beauty, diversity and strangeness of moths.

Since the celebration was started in 2005 by the Friends of New Brunswick Environmental Commission it has spread worldwide. There is now a website, a Facebook page and several blogs devoted to the celebration and to moth-watching.

One Driftless Area expert is Marcie O’Connor, known as “the moth lady” to her friends. When her family bought a farm in Buffalo County, Wis., years ago, she took up restoring the prairie, started a blog about the process and began learning about the inhabitants of her land.

“First I learned about the birds and butterflies, then I started to learn about the moths,” O’Connor recalled. “And that’s where I’ve gotten stuck.”

Every summer O’Connor stages “moth nights,” in which she invites friends to come over and see what’s flying after dark. She sets up a white screen and shines a black-light or mercury vapor light on it after dark. Moths are attracted first to a nearby yard light and then to the screen. It’s not hard to attract moths, especially in July, August and September, she said. The closer you are to wild lands, the more species you’ll find. To share her enthusiasm, O’Connor maintains two websites devoted to moths and other insects.

Luna moths, hummingbird moths and sphinx moths are dramatic and easy to recognize. But there are thousands of others, many of which depend on river plants. The caterpillars of two moths — the cattail borer and the American lotus borer — spend part of their lives underwater dining on cattail or lotus roots. O’Connor wants to stage a moth-watch at a river site in late summer.

To find out who’s sponsoring events near you, check out the National Moth Week website or call your local park or refuge. Or better yet, organize one yourself.

Last Link

St. Paul —The Mississippi River Trail (MRT) route through the Twin Cities has been formally approved. As a result, the MRT now officially runs the length of the Mississippi River in Minnesota.

The MRT stretches from Itasca State Park, in Minnesota, to Delta National Wildlife Refuge, at the end of Louisiana’s peninsula, although not all segments have been secured. It follows highway shoulders, low-use roads and off-road paths on both sides of the river. Connecting and marking good roads has never been easy.

MRT’s route through the Twin Cities follows the same route as U.S. Bicycle Route 45, part of a nationwide system of trails established in 10 states, with 40 more working to create them. U.S. Bicycle Routes are organized by the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials, which aims to create more than 50,000 miles of routes, the group said in a May 10, 2013, press release.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation will begin installing MRT signs this summer. Detailed maps and other information are available at the department’s website.

Fracking Illinois

Springfield, Ill. — On June 5, the Illinois legislature voted by a large margin to allow frac drilling in the state and to regulate it with what it claimed are the most protective regulations in the country. The house approved the bill on May 30 with a vote of 108 to 9 and the senate approved it by 52 to 3. Governor Pat Quinn said he would sign it into law.

Some environmental groups dismissed the claim of environmental protection. Others felt the regulations were both necessary and good, given the state’s total lack of regulation and a flood of drilling permit applications.

Interest in fracking’s potential economic impact was intense, especially in the 17 southern counties where the New Albany shale plain is deepest. The area includes the Rough Creek fault zone, an eastern extension of the New Madrid fault system, according to the Kentucky Natural Gas website. (Southeast Missourian, 6-6-13; Star-Telegram, 4-7-13)

Protecting Birds & Bees

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is asking that the two largest makers of wild bird seed, Kaytee Products and Scotts Miracle-Gro, keep their products free of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids.

ABC researchers found the pesticides on many types of seeds, including corn, canola, sunflower and millet. Use of the pesticides is widespread on seed crops in the United States, so this was not surprising. In a recently released report, “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds,” ABC reported that a single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. As little as one-tenth of a coated corn kernel per day during egg-laying season can thin egg shells, and cause loss of muscle coordination and other damage. For more information about the report, see the American Bird Conservancy website.

Meanwhile, the European Union has instituted a two-year ban on the neonicotinoids to study the evidence that they are contributing to the rapid decline of honeybee colonies. In Switzerland, the Federal Office for Agriculture has done the same.

Scientists have also found that freshwater shrimps and other organisms exposed to constant low levels of the pesticides suffer starvation after two to three weeks. The slow starvation effect is not detected by conventional toxicity tests.

Neonicotinoids are neurotoxins that jam insects’ central nervous system. Because they are water soluble and do not degrade rapidly, they can be taken up by plants, but they also run off into streams and wetlands. They were invented in the 1980s as a less harmful alternative to organophosphates. Neonicotinoids are less harmful to mammals than organophosphates. (Science Daily, 5-15-13)

Keeping Score

The Minnesota River is the largest source of silt and several other pollutants in the Mississippi River from its confluence in the Twin Cities to Lake Pepin. As a result, Lake Pepin and many backwater lakes in that stretch are filling in much more rapidly than they would naturally.

Studies have shown that most of the problems begin on farmland on the Minnesota River watershed. Now farmers, county officials, state officials and others who are looking for solutions have a new tool that makes it easier to discover what’s working and what’s not — an online County Scorecard.

“The scorecard is intended to be a resource for lawmakers and people who want to improve their water resources,” said Mike McKay, executive director of the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA). “Our goal is to make this the go-to place.”

The County Scorecard is on the LPLA website. It’s easy-to-use interface is centered on a page with a map of the Minnesota River watershed that shows county boundaries and tributaries. Clicking on a county reveals information about that county’s land use, agricultural practices and crops. Information for each county is presented in the same format, which makes it easy to compare one county to another. Links to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, county offices and other resources provide additional information about programs and data.

as well as farmers, agency people and elected officials who grapple with these issues routinely.

Much of the data are from 2007 and there are some blank spots, but McKay explained that LPLA wanted to make the County Scorecard public as soon as possible. In the near future they may add a blogging function or some other way to allow users to ask questions and compare notes. It will continue to add more features as needed. In the long run, they may add more counties and watersheds.

“If this rolls out as envisioned, it may never be completed,” McKay said.

Riverboat Reprise

Two out-of-commission riverboats may be carrying passengers again if all plans proceed as potential buyers, sellers and many river people hope.

The La Crosse, Wis.,-based Julia Belle Swain has been out of service since 2009. There are rumors that a local group is interested in purchasing the 100-foot, filigreed, steam-powered paddlewheeler and returning it to the river.

The Julia Belle would need to be recertified by the Coast Guard before it takes any passengers. Its last certification expired May 31, 2012.

Meanwhile, there is a ray of hope for the Delta Queen, languishing in Chattanooga as a floating hotel, but with engines intact. The boat is for sale, and there are rumors of interested parties from both coasts who would like to strip it of its moving parts and set it up permanently as a hotel.

The first hurdle to restore the DQ to cruise service requires an act of Congress, which would have to exempt it from the Safety at Seas rule. Congress did just that from 1970 until 2008. The city of Cincinnati wants to welcome the Queen back to its port. Both of Ohio’s U.S. senators and two of its congressional members have introduced bills to restore the exemption.

Cornel Martin, who spearheaded the last successful effort to secure the exemption, is looking for investors to help raise funds to buy the boat and get it ready to welcome passengers again. Details for potential investors are available on the Save the Delta Queen website.


To read more Mississippi River news and stories, order this issue or find Big River at one of these retail outlets.

Go to Previous River News (May-June 2013)

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Go to Previous River News (Nov-Dec 2012)

Go to Previous River News (Sept-Oct 2012)

Go to Previous River News (July-August 2012)

Go to Previous River News (May-June 2012)

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