Mike Davis isn’t trying to brag when he says he’s known as Minnesota’s mussel guy.

Davis was instrumental in establishing the state’s Department of Natural Resources mussel lab in Lake City in 2014.

Since then, Davis and staff there have been instrumental in helping repopulate area rivers with native mussels. In 2017, researchers there were the first to identify the host fish for the larvae of the federally endangered spectaclecase mussel — a discovery key to propagation and conservation efforts for the species.

The lab sits near the shores of the Mississippi River, which has been a resource for and benefactor of the work done at the lab.

That’s one reason Davis was honored in 2020 by the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium with the National Achievement Award — the highest honor presented by the National Rivers Hall of Fame.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The museum and hall of fame cited not just his mussel work, but also his more than three decades of commitment to his river-related work.

Davis said the honor caught him off guard.

“I wasn’t expecting anything,” he said.

It was on the Mississippi River that Davis helped pioneer some of the methods for breeding and stocking mussels. He was part of a team of Upper Mississippi River biologists who stocked more than 50,000 young and millions of juvenile federally endangered Higgins eye mussels in the river. Davis said specimens are now being found in pool 3 of the Mississippi River near Red Wing, where they once lived but hadn’t been found for nearly 100 years.

“There’s not a lot of good news in the world right now, but this is good news,” Davis said of the mussel population there. “It’s one of the more polluted areas,” historically.

Davis’ work on the river hasn’t been limited to mussel reintroduction and propagation. He also served on a scientific advisory panel to the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the lock and dams along the river.

Mike Davis, right, supervises as Lindsay Ohlman, a mussel propagation biologist, place black sandshell mussels in the Cedar River on Thursday, July 18, 2019, in the Austin area. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Mike Davis, right, supervises as Lindsay Ohlman, a mussel propagation biologist, place black sandshell mussels in the Cedar River on Thursday, July 18, 2019, in the Austin area. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

The panel was made up of scientists from around the country.

“I think I was the token river rat,” he said.

Davis' contributions were more than token. Some of his studies and suggestions were put in place by the corps, including the periodic draw-down of the river’s water levels. The draw-downs mimic natural changes and help promote growth of native wetland plants along the river, he said.

He recalled seeing the results on pool 8 and pool 5 when the corps dropped the river by 18 inches. Marsh and wetland plants bloomed in areas after sediments were exposed to air in backwater areas along the river.

“It was just incredible the burst of life that pushed back into those areas,” Davis said.

The recognition was a bright spot in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on mussel repopulation efforts. The state legislature’s failure to ratify funding projects through the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund last year didn’t help, either.

Davis said he hopes to place mussels in the Cannon River near Medford and near Faribault. A vaccine for COVID-19 may make it possible to hire the help needed to get the projects done.

He added that he’s optimistic the legislature will approve allocation of ENRTF money for the projects this year.

“Hopefully they’ll fund both years,” he said.

John Molseed is a tree-hugging Minnesota transplant making his way through his state parks passport. This column is a space for stories of people doing their part (and more) to keep Minnesota green. Send questions, comments and suggestions to life@postbulletin.com.