Pelicans return to Upper Mississippi

A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tour of the Pool 8 Islands, near Winona, Minnesota, revealed a stunning sight that wasn’t to be experienced for decades on the Upper Mississippi river—hundreds of European White Pelicans—the state bird of Louisiana—wheeling through the air and settling on islands in the midst of America’s river road.

Widespread use of DDT pesticide devastated the numbers of pelicans in the post World War II period, but farmers have continually improved their methods across the spectrum of chemical applications, soil and water conservation and one of the results is this magnificent river wildlife scene. For decades, pelicans were not in this picture, but in the last few years they have returned and their numbers continue to grow.

“In the past forty years farmers and people who depend on the river for commerce have proved that agriculture and commercial navigation of the Mississippi River can coexist with wildlife habitat—environmental concern and successful farming are not mutually exclusive,” said DeVonna Zeug, a farmer in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees the Environmental Management Program of the Upper Mississippi River system—in all 72,000 acres of wildlife habitat along the river have been rehabilitated through the program—making up a refuge that stretches more than 200 river miles, from Wabasha, Minnesota south to Rock Island, Illinois.

Minnesota Corn Growers Association and a host of other groups whose members depend on the river for commerce have joined together under the banner of the Waterways Council to push for progress on the Water Resources Development Act—passed but not yet funded by Congress, WRDA includes one component that would modernize seven locks in the system (all built at about the same time as Lock 8 in 1937). The upgrade plans call for doubling the length of the locks, to allow much greater timeliness and fuel efficiency for barge traffic—already much more efficient than comparable rail and highway trucking options.

The other component of the Water Resources Development Act would fund billions in environmental rehabilitation—greatly enhancing the already successful habitat restorations accomplished through the Environmental Management Program. Pool 8 has 22 man-made islands built as part of the EMP program.

Man-made islands are not a new idea in the Mississippi—as soon as the locks were built, the channel islands began to erode, according to Corps engineers. So periodically, the Corps has built replacement islands. What’s different with these newer islands is the design—none rise more than a few feet above the water, and they are lined with burr oak and other logs designed to serve as “loafing structures” for  birds, turtles and mammals that call the river home. The islands are lined with rip rock to forestall erosion and surrounded by plantings of wild celery, wild rice and other native vegetation—favorites of migratory water fowl.

To learn more about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Management Program, go to


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