Archive for June, 2017

  • Blog
  • June 27th, 2017

MUDDYING THE BIG MUDDY

By Joel M. Vance

It’s the longest river in the United States and if the Mississippi River is the Father of Waters, the Missouri can lay claim to being the Father of the Father. Which came first—the upper Mississippi or the upper Missouri? And who really cares? What’s important is that this great river that spans much of the West and Midwest is an abused and battered child and the outrages never seem to cease.
As if dams and channelization weren’t intrusion enough, now a pair of Missouri Congresspeople want to strip fish and wildlife concerns from the management goals of the Corps of Engineers (which no doubt would be just as happy to get rid of those toilsome chores.
According to the misanthropic Missourians, the periodic problems of the river are the direct result of protecting endangered species, like the pallid sturgeon and least tern. Obviously birds and fish are causing flooding, destroying levees, making the Missouri River unsafe for barge traffic.
Consequently Rep. Sam Graves and three buddies last year introduced a bill that would eliminate fish and wildlife concerns from the Corps of Engineers management of the river. His cohort in crime, Blaine Luetkemeyer, who happens to be the representative from my home district, unfortunately, has introduced a bill which basically is a Trojan horse into the endangered species act. A paranoid type like me can see the intent of both of those bills to gut environmental regulations and destroy what morally endowed humans should cherish. But ethical and moral concerns never seem to figure in the self-serving and devious motives of today’s politicians.
That’s the kind of thinking, if you can dignify it by calling it “thinking”, that has Congress with an approval rating somewhere near zero. “The Corps should not have to waste precious resources on building wildlife habitats,” Graves said. He is right on one point when he said the Corps is not suited for wildlife work—the Corps and its various projects have been about as friendly to wildlife as a cat is to a cornered mouse.
Graves and his band of environmental brigands maintained that the Corps should concentrate on navigation and flood control and forget about wildlife—the bill would, he maintains, reduce flooding. Flooding on the Missouri is almost as traditional in its namesake state as mules, molasses and moonshine The river epitomizes the famous Harvard Law of Animal Behavior that is translated as: “under carefully controlled conditions, organisms do as they damn well please.” And so do rivers.
Luetkemeyer’s bill would give the governors of states regulatory authority over endangered species, which is akin to giving the aforementioned cat the authority to kill whatever it wants, birds as well as mice– or more appropriately, in a country ruled by Republican governors, loosing a band of foxes in the environmental chickenhouse.
The Missouri has been flooding for thousands of years, long before man thought he could tame it with dams and channel work and long before Congress came along to muddy the water. The roiling river, spilling into the Mississippi near what became St. Louis, scared the crap out of Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in the 1600s. But it would be the highway West when Lewis and Clark explored to the Pacific Ocean, and it carried other luminaries like John James Audubon and artist George Catlin on pioneering voyages. It was benign until it wasn’t.
Hark back to 1951 when a flood of epic proportions flooded the Missouri and caused huge damage—all before anyone thought of fish and wildlife enhancement and before the Corps was tasked with helping undo the damage they were inflicting on the Missouri River. It stands to reason (a concept that eludes the Graves gang) that if you narrow a river it forces a given amount of water into a constricted channel, increasing the force of the water and setting the table for historic-proportion floods to overtop the levees you have built to hold the water in so you can float barges without worrying about low water.
A series of dams on the upper Missouri theoretically provide water storage to allow a measured downstream flow. Except when, as happened in 2011, there is a huge snowpack melting into those reservoirs, coupled with heavy spring rains. Then the Corps has the option of watching its dams wash out or releasing a tidal wave of water to do exactly what happened—overtop levees and cause flood damage. In other words, the operation was a success but the patient died.
Graves was joined in his idiot bill by Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer (remember him—my own representative who when you try to call his office to complain about something, gives you a ride around that is bound to drive a conscientious constituent to total insanity and incoherent rage), Vicki Hartzler and Billy Long. Hartzler, among my least favorite legislators, said this: “While preserving wildlife habitat is important, we cannot allow these narrow interests to take precedence over the lives and activities of farmers, businesses and residents on or near the river.” So if you discount fish and wildlife habitat as a concern, all will be well with those who choose to live and farm in a flood plain. That’s just simple-minded. All the Corps work of 100 years, which was mainly to benefit a barge industry (speaking of narrow interests) which never has come close to paying for itself, did absolutely nothing to prevent huge floods in 1993 and 1995. Those bluff to bluff floods drove many landowners out of the bottoms and as a result the federal and state governments acquired (from willing sellers) the nucleus of the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge and several state conservation areas.
Those areas are a bonanza for waterfowl, as well as for indigenous wildlife, adding thousands of acres of self-maintaining habitat. I’ve duck hunted on the Missouri, dove hunted in riverside fields, canoed on it in low water. An old friend, the late George Fleener, a biologist with the Missouri Conservation Department, once did a use study of the river and found heavy usage all the way from hunting and fishing to gathering mushrooms and, for which he was mercilessly kidded, “spooning.”
Once I chased jugs downriver with some buddies and we collected a couple of catfish. In the 1970s, conservationists managed to convince the Corps to breech wing dikes to allow the current to scour out eddy pools for fish habitat—that type of beneficial management, of course, would die if the Graves Gang gets its way.
A flood is at its least damaging when it is allowed to spread out, softly and without the scouring firehose effect of a channelized river. Levees are a stopgap measure, as the Corps found on the Mississippi River in 2011 when it had to breach a southeast Missouri levee at Birds Point and another at New Madrid. The blown levee flooded some 200 square miles of Missouri bottomland and did help mitigate the flood. But it also made the point that man’s intrusion into nature inevitably gets squashed by a far greater power. All the bulldozers and dredges and implements of the river manipulators pale when nature decides to declare a flood.
As Gomer Pyle would say, Su’prise! Su’prise!” Sam Graves has the dishonor to be one of Congress’s Dirty Dozen, selected by the League of Conservation Voters. He has voted against everything even remotely connected with conservation and the environment. The highest percentage he’s ever gotten for favorable environmental votes was 10 percent. Last year it was three percent.
Hartzler is taking time out from her favorite sport of gay bashing to help her buddy bash some endangered species but, with a 10 percent LCV rating, she’s a virtual tree hugger compared to Graves. Lutkemeyer has a seven percent rating from the LCV, and is widely regarded as a mouthpiece for Big Oil (along with his fellow Missouri politician Senator Roy Blunt). Project Vote Smart, a group that tries to pin down candidates on issues so voters can make intelligent choices, says this: “Blaine Luetkemeyer refused to tell citizens where he stands on any of the issues addressed in the 2012 Political Courage Test, despite repeated requests from Vote Smart, national media, and prominent political leaders.”
But by golly he finally is taking a stand. He’s opposed to those damn fish! Way to go, Blaine!
And then there’s Billy Long, the last member of the quartet (if they were a barbershop quartet, they’d be singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Our Own”). Apparently he’s shooting for Graves’s dismal LCV overall rating. He’s at three percent equivalent to Graves’s three percent. They have a ways to go among Missouri’s political hacks—Blunt is at two percent LCV rating and thus can claim credit as Missouri’s most Neanderthal environmental legislator—for the time being.
I’m ashamed to be from a beautiful, diverse state with the nation’s best, most progressive conservation program that consistently elects shambling knuckledraggers like this quartet of thumb-suckers. The Missouri River in its namesake state is a priceless resource, not the least of which is its recreation, wildlife and environmental value. The idea that the Missouri is vital for transportation of farm goods is a fiction. Missouri River barges carry an annual average of 1.5 million tons of goods, compared to nearly 100 million tons on the Mississippi River. The Missouri ships less than two percent of the grain from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. And according to the Corps itself, the Missouri provides annual economic benefits of less than $10 million for farm interests, compared to $1.3 billion from other sources, including recreation (of course you can legitimately argue that the Corps, when it lacks provable data, simply makes it up).
. Aside from the river itself, a fine canoe float when the water is low, there is associated recreation along the river. The Katy Trail, a rails-to-trails treasure for hikers and bicyclists parallels the River for much of its length, and there is a string of Missouri River wineries that attract many tourists. Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is unique in the state and a leader nationally for using wastewater from Columbia to flood its wetlands, benefiting ducks, hunters, Columbia and the River.
You’d think that efforts to maximize and encourage recreation and tourism on the Big Muddy instead of discouraging it in favor of special and destructive interests would be an intelligent use of legislative time.
But that would take intelligent legislators. Don’t hold your breath.
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  • Blog
  • June 11th, 2017

GENERATIONS

By Joel M. Vance
It’s an old country church, on a gravel road with a grave yard that slants to a woods. There are horses on the other side of a barbed wire boundary fence, and the last line of graves, with the newest markers, are within a yard or two of the fence. Not much room for newcomers.
Asbury Church is where three generations of Vances are buried— my mother and father, my grandfather and grandmother, and great grandpa and great grandma. Great grandpa was briefly a Union soldier. He and his brother formed Vance’s Rangers, a ragtag militia outfit, composed of farm boys with no more military experience than a bunch of grade schoolers. Three months later they sallied forth to defend Glasgow from the rebels. They lasted about one hour and all were captured by general Sterling Price’s army, relieved of their weapons and were sent home to do what they could do best–try to scratch a living out of the unfriendly hill dirt of Chariton County, Missouri.
Great grandpa Bill Vance, should’ve known better than to hang around with his brother John, an adventuresome type who made two trips to California to win fame and fortune in the goldfields. He failed the first time, but convinced himself that another trip would be successful, and enlisted my great grandpa to go with him the second time. They returned without either fame or fortune, but with California cooties, hardly anything to retire on.
They got back to Missouri just in time to form the ill-fated Vance’s Rangers which must’ve been exciting, exchanging California cooties for Missouri ticks and chiggers. The fun lasted through the summer until they ran up against Price’s rebels who were real soldiers.
I don’t know much about great grandpa, except that I have a Colt .44 army revolver alleged to have been his during that brief military career. I have my doubts, however, since the only photograph I’ve seen of him in uniform shows him with a musket. He was an enlisted man while his brother who was the organizer of the militia company, was a captain, and thus entitled to a revolver. I wonder if perhaps the revolver was the brother’s, or perhaps bought by great grandpa for protection back on the farm. Chariton County during the Civil War was a hotbed of skirmishes by bushwhackers and other rural gangsters who thought nothing of stopping at a farmhouse, rousting out the man of the house, and shooting him dead in the front yard.
I don’t know if the old army Colt ever was blooded in battle or bushwhack, but I doubt it. I heard that my grandpa used to get it out on the Fourth of July and fire a round in the air to celebrate the country’s independence, and maybe his as well. I do know that cap and ball revolver shooters used to plug the unused chambers to prevent a chain fire where the fired round would set off the next one and the next and so on, generally doing great harm to the hand and arm of the gunner and probably nothing at all to the target. That would be a Fourth of July celebration to remember with considerable regret.
My grandfather and grandmother allegedly were married by a kinsman of the infamous Younger brothers, one who apparently chose a different career path than robbing banks and shooting people they didn’t agree with. I looked up the Younger family tree and couldn’t find any connection with preachers, but I do believe it’s true that a Younger married grandpa and grandma. If so, he failed to save the outlaw Younger brothers from a life of sin. Two of them died in prison, shot up in their ill-fated raid on Northfield, Minnesota. Although the oldest, Cole, did survive prison and lived a long life and even enjoyed a career giving lectures with Frank James, the older brother of Jesse, recounting hair-raising tales of their exciting life shooting innocent people.
Of the three of them great grandpa, grandpa and father, I remember grandpa the best. My father and I fished and hunted together and until a bum leg laid him low.. There was a plot of land on his farm in an overgrown oxbow of the Chariton River which we called the Bend—maybe five acres–which was wooded with oaks and flooded about knee deep. We would get out of our rusting pre-World War Two Ford in the dark before sunrise and slog through marshy ground into the shallow water and sneak up on mallards roosting in the flooded woods. It was great sport, until the day that a neighbor, mistaking our decoys for real ducks, shot holes in all of them, after which they listed like the vintage Titanic, some floating upside down and all eminently unconvincing to avian visitors.
And then, after my father sold the place, new farmers of a breed that can’t bear to see standing trees, cleared the land and drained the swamp and our duck hunting spot was no more.
My father and I once turned over in a rickety rowboat while fishing and that remains the most prominent memory of our fishing times together, that and a photo I took of him standing on the shore of the Macon Lake with a fly rod in hand, casting a popping bug for bluegills. There is something poignant in that stark photograph, and I wish now it had been taken by someone else of the two of us together. Our outdoor times together were too few and too short, but sometimes we are together in dreams and always fishing, never catching much, but also never turning over in old rowboats. My father inherited from his father a tendency to enjoy the outdoors by himself, hunting or fishing without the need to conflab with his fellow man.
Not that he didn’t hang out with the guys— he also enjoyed fishing trips to northern Wisconsin where my mother grew up, knocking back beers with the guys telling enhanced stories of fishing triumphs. And he enjoyed taking his big eared kid, me, duck hunting on the Dalton Cutoff, which in the 1950s was as good a duck hunting spot as there was anywhere in the country.
But I was not invited on those Wisconsin buddy trips, left to play with my similar-aged cousins, and if we fished at all it was for lake perch off the town dock. So my father and his friends sat around a kitchen table in a rustic resort cabin and told stories and laughed while their braided fishing line dried so it wouldn’t become brittle and break if they tied into a 20 pound northern or a seven or eight pound walleye— something that, in those days, was far more common than it is today.
But I think he most enjoyed his time alone in the woods with our mixed spaniel, Chaps, hunting for squirrels. It was a partnership that I think he treasured more than he did any outings with humans. Chaps, allegedly, was my dog, bought as a puppy in Chicago But she effortlessly became a premier squirrel dog when she was launched into the Missouri woods after we moved south in 1948. She lived to be 17 years old, a Methuselah among hunting dogs, and she was my dog only for that brief period of her life in the big city. After that, she belonged only to my father.
Grandpa didn’t need anyone with him. As far as I could tell he was perfectly happy by himself, doing what he did by his lonesome. He decided somewhere in midlife, perhaps after his wife died, that life was too short to spend it working and he retired from carpentry to a long life of fishing and hunting. His sons bought a small hard rock farm, which provided him with a place to live and his daughter and her husband, who ran the farm, provided his board for which he paid by coming home from a day afield with a mess of squirrels or fish. It was an arrangement that suited them all and worked flawlessly until a stroke stopped him at the age of 87.
I spent several adolescent summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm and have a vivid memory of my grandfather setting out across the hill in the morning, not to be seen again until the sun was low, carrying the day’s bounty from the woods and water. My father gave him a single shot bolt action 22 caliber Winchester rifle which I still have. The old man had but one eye, the other having been put out by a flying billet of firewood which he was splitting, but both the remaining eye and the rifle were unerring when it came to potting squirrels. That was the game of choice in those days, before the restoration of deer and turkeys offered a variety of wild game fit for the table. The fish he brought home often were collected from his exquisitely built (and illegal) fish traps, a product of the carpenter he once had been.
It may be true; I have no reason to doubt it. A cousin says that grandpa Joe, as he called him, once asked a group of men who had stopped at the farm, wanting to hunt quail if he could go along. They were reluctant to take the old man figuring he would just slow them down but they agreed. He retrieved a battered old single shot Stevens shotgun (“probably had to clean the mud daubers out of it” said my cousin). They jumped a covey. “Grandpa Joe shot one bird, shucked the empty shell out, reloaded and shot another one before the first guy got his gun up to his shoulder” said my cousin.
There they are three generations of Vances, father, son, and grandson, planted in the thin soil of Chariton County, in a country churchyard overlooked by horses. I can imagine their spirits roaming the hills, now almost as wooded as they were when the first Vance migrated to the County back in the 1700s.
Great grandpa would find his musket outmoded by today’s sleek autoloading shotguns and grandpa would find his beloved Chariton River jerked straight by a “reclamation project” into a virtual drainage ditch. And my dad would find bean fields where the Bend once was. And the big eared kid has grown old.
And Asbury Methodist Church drowses in the summer sun as it has for many decades and the horses wait just across the barbed wire boundary fence for the next generation.

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  • Blog
  • June 1st, 2017

GOOSE BICYCLING

By joel M. Vance

No one would confuse Dr. Charles and Dr. William Mayo with Dr. Frankenstein, but they created a monster nonetheless. In 1932 Dr. Charlie and Dr. Will bought three pair of Canadensis maxima, the largest subspecies of Canada goose, which had been used as live decoys (the practice was outlawed in 1935). And today 18,000 Giant Canadas clog the city of Rochester, Minnesota, like plaque in an artery.
Rochester is the home of the Mayo Brothers Clinic which dominates the city economy, so the city fathers aren’t about to tell Mayo to get its damn geese out of town, but the flock of geese is a whole lot more healthy than most of the folks who visit the clinic. Benumbed by geese and goose droppings, Rochester frets about how to introduce Zero Population Growth into the avian world. Egg shaking and other contraceptive ideas have trimmed the flock back to its present level, but there still is a world of geese, winter and summer.
It could be worse—in fact it was. At peak the flock topped 30,000. Giant Canadas, as they are popularly known, tend to resident nest rather than migrate and in Rochester they have a lake kept ice-free all year by warm water from a power plant discharge—their own little hot tub.
As annoying as the geese are (they do have terrible bathroom habits), they provide scenic accompaniment to a bicycle ride along the Zumbro River, which bisects the city of 103,500
Other than having to bicycle through copious goose poop, the animals create no problems on the city’s more than 80 miles of bike trails. Rochester is among the nation’s most “bike friendly” communities along with its larger northern neighbor Minneapolis.
Many of the biking trails wind along the Zumbro Rivers and around several lakes within the city. Other trails eddy out from the city creating a network
Goose droppings and feathers litter the green belt along the river, a less-than-attractive mess. But the geese are a perfect example of one man’s poison being another man’s passion (or in one case anyway, the passion of teenage girls). A friend, jogging the bike/hike trail (and dodging avian fecal landmines) said, “Two days in a row I saw a pair of teenage girls–I swear the same ones–feeding Cheetos to the geese. A perversion!”
But while I recognized the sputtering population bomb, I had to stop and enjoy the sight of 10 goslings herded across the bike path by their watchful parents. The babies, not long out of the egg, scooted in front of me, while the gander and goose hissed a distinct warning, shaking their heads—you don’t mess with the family life of a Giant Canada goose without risking contusions and shed blood.
This is a hunted flock, assuming it flies out of the city limits to feed during goose season, but protected by city ordinance they tolerate bicyclists and joggers equably. Canada geese, being birds, are not intellectual giants, but they are among the most intelligent birds and to them a shotgun blast anywhere within hearing means to draw in to the urban sprawl and enjoy human-watching.
Brad Jones, director of the Rochester Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, says, “Rochester is among the country’s most bicycle-friendly cities, along with Minneapolis in Minnesota. You can link with 60 miles of bicycle trails from downtown.”
And those in turn link with many more miles through the Root, Cannon and Zumbro river valleys. The 20-mile Root River Trail is a rails-to-trails conversion which offers level riding. The 20-mile Cannon Valley Trail is on what used to be the Chicago Great Western Railroad line, which connected the towns of Cannon Falls, Welch, and Red Wing. And there is the 55-mile Douglas Trail.
I stayed at the historic Kahler Hotel, Rochester’s original way-stop for Mayo-bound patients. I wheeled my bicycle into my room from the parking garage and rode out from the garage, into downtown traffic. It’s a three-block ride to the river bicycle trail but once there automobile hazards vanish.
Always there are the geese, lounging by the riverside, herding their kids, bobbing in the chop of the lakes. Canada geese are a sociable lot—I’ve never seen a squabble among them, although they undoubtedly get ticked off from time to time.
In fact, a ticked off Canada goose, especially of the giant variety, can be a formidable opponent.
I vividly recall when I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department, one of the assistant directors returning from lunch at a nearby cafeteria, along a path, guarded by a large male goose, was sent in full flight, much to the amusement of those employees lucky enough to see it happen. I think there was some talk about entering him in the Olympic sprints, but it didn’t happen. However, he ate his lunches out of a sack in the office until the nesting season was over.
Every spring for years, department employees would round up flightless geese during their molt so they could be examined and if need be transplanted to other locations. The wildlife workers handling the geese, usually wore welding gloves or something similarly protective because the geese have toenails like the claws on a Bengal tiger. They also can flog you with their wings which is somewhat like being beaten with a baseball bat. And they have powerful bills that can snap shut like a rat trap— all together a long way from a helpless creature.
The Rochester flock has the distinction of having provided seed stock for a restoration of a creature once thought to be extinct. The giant Canada geese once nested and probably still do in the bluffs along the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark saw them on their historic journey up the Missouri and commented on them. Hatchling geese as light as feathers would leap off of their bluff nest and flutter to the ground far below them, without injury. Then they had the daunting task of trying to make it to the river before some hungry predator discovered them.
Turned out the most daunting predator was man. Over harvest and other man related perils brought the geese to the brink of extinction. Once numerous, by the middle of the 20th century they were thought to be extinct.
Lewis and Clark wrote about many of their encounters with wildlife but didn’t mention any narrow escapes from pursuit by angry ganders. If they did have such an encounter it probably paled in comparison with a narrow escape that a private Bratton had after being chased a half a mile by an angry grizzly bear.
Then there was the time that Jim Fowler host of television’s Wild Kingdom literally ran for his life and climbed a tree just ahead of the claws of a grizzly bear that had awakened from a tranquilizer a little bit too soon. On the whole I prefer an encounter with a an angry Canada goose to one with a 1,000 pound bear.
Restoration of the giant Canada goose has been ongoing for about 60 years to the point that the geese now have become nuisances in many communities where they eat gardens, foul golf courses and generally act like 1,000 pound grizzly bears.
They’ve come a long way from a species once thought extinct. In 1954 Jean.Delcour in his book “Waterfowl of the World” said that the giant goose appeared to be extinct. But Forrest Lee a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, noticed Canada geese roosting on a warm water lake at a power plant in Rochester.
Lee invited Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey to take a look at the huge geese on Rochester’s Silver Lake. The geese, remnants of historic live decoy flocks, proved to be Branta canadensis maxima—the giant Canada goose of Lewis and Clark fame.
Geese transplanted from that seed stock to other areas began to breed and now there is a nationwide flock of epic proportions, hunted and cursed, sometimes with equal velocity. But they can be a charming sidelight to a bicycling trip in downtown Rochester, if you don’t mind squishing through goose droppings along the way. And if you do somehow run afoul of a fowl, you’re only a block or two from the Mayo Clinic where they are fully equipped to take care of goose wounds.

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