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Conservation efforts support Rochester area’s wildlife habitats

ROCHESTER, Minn. – Organizations and individuals are working to maintain habitat quality and balanced species populations. By doing so, they help conserve Rochester’s rare mix of geography and native wildlife for today’s outdoorspeople and future generations.

“Land of 10,000 Lakes” makes water quality top priority

Rivers, creeks and coldwater trout streams surround Rochester. A city flood control project recently improved fishing opportunities and created access via an extensive new trail system along the entire Rochester river corridor. The $96 million project widened and deepened the Zumbro River channel and the second phase created seven floodwater reservoirs, five of which are stocked by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and are among the top sites for wildlife and bird watching in Olmsted County.
Working toward improved water quality, Justin Watkins with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Rochester office studies impaired waters and oversee new buffers along streams, acquisition of land near waterways and wetland restoration.
“We are partially funded by a landmark Minnesota state constitutional amendment, which earmarks sales tax dollars for use on clean water projects,” Watkins said. “The Clean Water Legacy Act is pioneering state policy.”
The Cascade Meadow Wetlands & Environmental Science Center is another groundbreaking Rochester clearwater project. The Center restored 50 acres of wetland behind the Rochester Athletic Club and conducts programs aimed at studying and educating about energy and water resource systems.
Just south of Rochester are 700 miles of trout streams.
“These streams are truly world class,” said Tom Dornack, past president and stream restoration officer of the Hiawatha Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “We have more than 100 limestone spring trout streams with excellent fly fishing. Our goal is to return these already great streams to their natural state.”
Efforts have made the streams deeper and narrower.  The project slopes severely eroded banks and connects them to the floodplain to reduce sources of sediment, increase velocities and create cleaner substrates, said Steve Klotz, area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota DNR’s Lanesboro office.
“There is more stream restoration going on than ever before,” Klotz said. “We have put in overhead cover to increase numbers of adult trout, invertebrates and non-game fish. Trout populations are the best they’ve ever been.”
Wild brown trout now reproduce without assistance. The Minnesota DNR and Trout Unlimited are set on bringing brook and rainbow trout to the same success with the assistance of the three coldwater hatcheries east of Rochester.
Along the Mississippi River, the Minnesota DNR is improving already superior backwater hunting and fishing. Dams along the river contributed the filling of some backwaters, reducing water flow and the river’s ability to move sedimentation. The DNR helps maintain panfish fishing opportunities, improve mussel and vegetation prevalence, and reduce pollutants. Still, the Mississippi River just east of Rochester is perhaps the cleanest part of the river, due to its sandier substrates and coldwater tributaries.
The Minnesota DNR’s long-term resource and monitoring program operates stations along the Mississippi River to report trends regarding water quality, fish and vegetation. This program will be on the lookout for Asian carp, being the first to report and react to their presence.
The Federal Fish & Wildlife Service operates the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge east of Rochester. This refuge not only provides plentiful hunting, fishing and bird watching opportunities, but also builds islands, other habitat improvements and observation areas for waterfowl. The Mississippi River floodplain was recently named a wetland of international importance!

Beloved animals maintained through pioneering programs

While many work to preserve and maintain animal species in the Rochester area, a few stand out.
Michael Pappas, a popular Rochester restaurant owner, has a unique passion: preserving native turtles. While Pappas welcomes celebrities and royalty from around the world at his restaurant during the evenings, he spends his days studying, tracking and advocating on behalf of Minnesota turtles. Pappas discovered a population of Blanding’s turtles, which may be the largest in the world, and works to preserve the six out of 10 Minnesota turtle species that are on the endangered species list.
The Blufflands Whitetails Association works with the Minnesota DNR to achieve better management of the regional whitetail buck herd. One of its founders, Jim Vagts, noticed yearling bucks harvested in disproportionate numbers near his 1,500-acre, 125-year-old family farm. Having protected buck maturity on his own herd for 20 years, he and others thought it time to push for antler point restrictions and the outlawing of cross-tagging, where hunters assign kills to others. The Blufflands Whitetails Association will see its legislation in effect this year.
The upper Mississippi River is known for its bald eagle population, and the National Eagle Center in Wabasha works to keep it that way. The Center’s 14,000-square-foot education center tells visitors how the species was brought back from near extinction and allows them to view the 200 to 300 bald eagles living adjacent to the center. It also studies golden eagles, which winter in the area, even tracking one above the Arctic Circle.
Another concern is deforestation in the summer habitats of neo-tropical migrants such as warblers and tanagers that use the Mississippi Flyway.
From waterway improvements to efforts to improve and preserve wildlife, Rochester is a community committed to maintaining its extraordinary hunting and fishing prowess well into the future.

–Courtesy Rochester CVB

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