‘Nature is not fixed but fluid.” So wrote American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson 180 years ago in “Nature,” his first book.
Nature’s fluidity took many forms in Minnesota in 2016. It was hotter than normal. It was wetter than normal. It was windy, too. A tree-downing storm claimed the life of a northern Minnesota camper — in June. The same fate befell two campers from Texas a month later while on a high adventure Boy Scout trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In September, powerful winds of up to 90 mph swept through Morrison County’s Camp Ripley, damaging 77 buildings (four severely), including major damage to a solar power project.
It was a year when the passive actions of the past or present — for example, perhaps simply pumping bilge water from a fishing boat into a lake — continued the spread of aquatic invasive species. The state’s infested waters list grew to some 500-plus water bodies in 2016. There were at least 36 fresh discoveries of zebra mussels, starry stonewort, Eurasian watermilfoil and faucet snails.
Yet there were positives, too. The weather was great for late-season muskie anglers who need open water to cast and troll their lures. In fact, for the second consecutive year, Lake Mille Lacs produced a behemoth that likely equaled or topped the state record. Marshall Hopp, a North Dakotan, boated and released a 56-inch muskellunge Nov. 25 whose girth suggests it was heavier than the 54-pound state record pulled from Lake Winnibigoshish in 1954.
The weather also was great for people who use and visit state parks. Attendance information (annual permits, one-day permits and overnight lodging) were all above last year’s levels and potentially on track to set a record, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
For farmers, nature was benevolent, too. It helped produce the highest corn, soybean and sugar beet yields in state history. U.S. Department of Agriculture final crop figures won’t be released until January, but current yield estimates of 190 bushels per acre for corn, 52 bushels per acre for soybeans and 30 tons per acre for sugar beets are all records.
Still, it was a year of challenges. What follows is a further look at nature through its classical elements — earth, water, fire and air.
On the land, chronic wasting disease was discovered in two wild deer in southeastern Minnesota’s Fillmore County. These were the first detections of the infectious disease since a hunter harvested an infected deer in 2010 near Pine Island, about 60 miles to the north. A poignant example of fluidity, the disease spreads when fluids — saliva, urine and feces — of infected deer come in contact with uninfected deer. The disease can also spread from infectious particles in the soil. The DNR outlined plans to control this fatal deer disease this week. The upshot is that many deer in the infection area will die from bullets and arrows outside of the traditional hunting season. The nature of disease control is to quickly and aggressively reduce the threat, and that will happen to protect a statewide herd of immense economic value.
In the water, another economically valuable game species — the walleye — was influenced by nature. Though most walleye reproduce in the state’s large lakes, back-to-back warm winters have had an effect on DNR walleye rearing ponds, the small lakes and wetlands the agency uses to grow hatchery-raised fry into fingerlings for stocking in about 1,000 lakes. Mild winter weather is preventing the ponds from “freezing-out,” which occurs when dissolved oxygen levels drop so low game fish are unable to survive. As a result, walleye not captured during autumn netting operations survive through the winter, and in doing so become efficient predators that cannibalize next year’s crop of walleye fry.
“Ideally, we like to see our ponds produce about 20 walleye to the pound. That can happen when ponds freeze out,” said Neil Vanderbosch, a DNR fisheries expert. “Yet due to recent overwinter walleye survival, we sometimes see walleye running two, three and four fish to the pound. They are almost keepers.” The implication of this nature-driven change is that the DNR is stocking roughly the same pounds of walleye but fewer of them.
Within the land, this was the year — a dozen in the making — when a rare mineral deposit became more available for extraction. That is because state natural resource and pollution regulators gave the green light to the completion of the environmental impact study of the proposed PolyMet Mining Corp. copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. These prized minerals are unlikely not be mined anytime soon because of global economics and other factors. Moreover, it’s uncertain how a federal government decision this week to not renew expired mining leases for a Twin Metals mining project near Ely might affect the PolyMet plan, which is in a different watershed and whose minerals are on privately leased land. The Forest Service’s decision to protect the pristine Boundary Waters from any mining will have ripple effects through the mining and environmental protection communities.
In terms of water quantity, it rained, and rained some more. In fact, the state’s annual precipitation record was broken. The previous record of 53.52 inches at St. Francis, Minn., in 1991 fell when more than 54 inches of precipitation was recorded at Waseca, according to state climatologist Peter Boulay.
Precipitation was widespread. As of November, the Agriculture Department reported Minnesota’s soil moisture is “adequate” or “surplus” throughout 99 percent of the state.
A wetter than normal year resulted in widespread higher lake levels, including White Bear Lake, where the water has risen nearly 4 feet from its record low in 2013, and is at the highest level since 2007.
As for water quality, Gov. Mark Dayton took a strong stand on improving it. He convened a water summit and called for a “Year of Water Action.” He stressed all Minnesotans share the responsibility of protecting lakes, rivers and streams.
Dayton was unflinching with the facts. More than 40 percent of Minnesota’s waters are listed as impaired or polluted. Urban water treatment plants need repair. Perhaps 60 percent of the wells in central Minnesota may not provide safe drinking water due to excessive levels of nitrates, a common fertilizer.
A soil erosion study this past summer in southern Minnesota’s Steele County exemplified water quality concerns. The analysis, by longtime citizen stream monitor Richard Fetterly, sought to determine the amount of soil lost to erosion. He focused on the Straight River near Medford, a location that drains nearly all of Steele County but little land outside of it. He estimated soil loss by converting daily readings of the water’s turbidity to a suspended solids estimate and multiplying that number by stream flow volume. The finding: Summer soil erosion equaled about 1,200 truck loads of soil (10 yards each), or a line of dump trucks some 5 miles long. The Minnesota Pollution Agency concurred with his conclusions.
Wildfires tend to be less frequent and smaller during wetter than normal years, and so it was. Paul Lundgren, state fire manager for the DNR, reported 1,420 wildfires burned 12,615 acres. That’s about 100 fewer fires and 31,000 fewer acres than the 10-year average.
The largest fire was near Hoyt Lakes. It blackened 973 acres. The highest level of fire activity occurred during a dry and warm period between April 14 and 22. That is when 191 fires burned 1,713 acres.
Similarly, there were fewer prescribed fires. Brian Winter, program director for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota and the Dakotas, said this year’s weather was too windy, too calm, too wet, too dry. Many habitat-enhancing burns never got lit. The group’s prescribed fires mimic the prairie fires of the past, and reinvigorate grasses and other vegetation that birds, butterflies and other species depend upon. Ironically, Winter said this year’s unusually warm and extended autumn hampered prescribed burning. “Typically, you get hard freezes that cure the grass, make it combustible and provide for a fall burning season,” he said. “That didn’t happen this year. The frosts never came; the grass stayed green.”
This year was not only wetter than normal but warmer than normal. Boulay said 2016 statewide temperatures through November have been running more than 3 degrees above normal compared to those from 1895 to the present, and monthly averages for each of the first eleven months were above normal.
Warm weather prompted early ice-out in many places. Among them was Lake Minnetonka, whose March 17 ice-out was the earliest since 1878, he said.
For many waterfowl hunters, autumn’s above-normal temperatures meant relatively uneventful duck and goose hunting. The cold fronts that normally push birds down from the north rarely materialized. Instead, hunters experienced the warmest duck season in 50 years, said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist.
“I maintain a duck season temperature index that goes back 50 years,” said Cordts. “It’s based on daily highs and lows in Bemidji. This year’s index, which starts Sept. 21 and runs through the end of November, was the highest ever.” Cordts said the index indicates 2010, 2015 and 2016 were the warmest waterfowl hunting seasons in the last five decades. Cordts added that virtually all of Minnesota’s lakes were ice-free in early December, highly unusual. “We still had good numbers of scaup on lakes in the Bemidji area at a time when often ice fishing is going on,” he said.
Yes, it was a year of surprising natural events. Some good. Some not. That’s the nature of nature. Emerson put it this way: “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrow.”
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.