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River project poses new threat to turtles

By John Weiss

weiss@postbulletin.com

KELLOGG -- Mike Pappas was going to kick back this summer, not spend so many days and weeks studying Blanding's and other turtles in the Weaver area, as he has done in past summers.

Then came the Corps of Engineer and its plan to pump 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Island 42, which is across a riverside channel from Pappas' cabin, to a nearby site in the West Newton area, southeast of Kellogg.

Pappas again went into action because he said the island is one of the best sites in the region for nesting for smooth and spiny softshells, snapping, painted and three species of map turtles. The smooth softshell is the rarest turtle in the state, he said.

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He knows he can't stop the work, but he and Josh Capps, both from Rochester, are spending many hours looking at where different species nest as well as taking eggs from those nests to be put on islands in Weaver Bottoms where they won't be disturbed.

Island 42 probably has been a nesting site for 100 years or more, said Pappas, a self-taught turtle expert who has had his work published in a scientific journal. It is not only has a great place for turtles to nest, but the marshy area behind it is also ideal for the young to live. "It is like the Taj Mahal for turtles, up and down the river," he said.

The threat to that perfect place for turtles comes from a need to keep the main river channel open for barges.

The corps has to dredge certain areas that consistently fill with sand. Instead of dumping sand anywhere, the corps has agreed to only put it in certain areas. One such site is Island 42, which is now full, said Dan Krumholz, corps operations manager for channels and harbors in this region.

Once full, it has to be emptied, either by using it for road projects or filling in another area. In the case of this project, it will be put into 39 acres above the floodplain in the West Newton area.

Krumholz said excavation won't begin until September to let many of the turtles there hatch and leave. It might be a quarter century until the work has to be done again, he said.

Turtles and their habitat haven't received in-depth analysis when looking at river projects in the past, but that is changing, in part because of Pappas' work, he said.

A work group, made up of representatives of the corps, the U.S. Fish &; Wildlife Service and the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of natural resources, has formed to look more at turtle habitat and how dredging might not only not damage it but even improve it, Krumholz said.

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What worries Pappas is not only damage to nesting sites this year, but in the future. When excavation is done, a large opening is usually formed and boaters go into the lagoon to camp or relax. That would be bad for the turtles because they are easily spooked, he said.

Since turtles usually return to where they were hatched to build nests, Pappas isn't sure whether turtles that might turn away from Island 42 will nest somewhere else. And turtles swimming in the lagoon could be damaged or killed by boat propellers.

Pappas is pushing to have the corps spend more time and effort looking at turtles when they dredge and do other work on the river. "There has got to be middle ground," he said.

He was encouraged when Jaime Edwards, Minnesota DNR non-game manager, found money to fund the research he and Capps are doing this summer.

And he said the search for the middle ground got a boost from Don Hultman, manager of the Upper Mississippi Refuge that includes Island 42. He wrote to Pappas last week that his agency is concerned about all fish and wildlife species on the refuge that goes from Wabasha into Illinois. It will continue to work with the corps, which jointly manages part of the refuge with the service, to minimize impacts on turtles in general and on Island 42 in particular, he wrote.

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