St Louis River Estuary: The stories and the science

  • Community
  • The Stories
  • The Science

“It’s a pretty good quality of life.”

Speak to those who have lived their entire life here in view of the St. Louis River Estuary and you get a sense of how special this place is to them. Bob Cragin, once a young student at the small grade school in Oliver and now a business owner in Superior, recalls when people refused to eat the fish in the river [1950s and 60s] and when black smoke would fill the air. Today that has changed and Bob sees that this area pulls people together. “Here you have a segment of life that is probably 15 minutes away from most homes.  People can get done with work, they don’t have to plan a 7 or 8 hour drive to visit…it’s a pretty good quality of life.

Lynelle Hanson, who grew to love the St. Louis River while conducting a wood turtle survey for the U.S. Forest Service, stayed on in the area and became active in protecting and cleaning up the estuary. Executive Director of the St. Louis River Citizen Advisory Committee (precursor to the St. Louis River Alliance) for six years, Lynelle was instrumental in getting the Lower St. Louis River Habitat Plan completed in 2002. Her excitement and passion for the river are evident in her voice as she talks about the work and effort of the many people and organizations involved in cleaning up and protecting the estuary for more than 25 years. “I just think about it now…the amount of work that the EPA got out of this community for their $50,000… EPA got a very good return on their investment.”

It took more than 20 years living in the area before Dave Zentner discovered the “..wilderness in my backyard that I had ignored.” Thirty years later he continues to be amazed by the fishing, wildlife, mature white and Norway pines, and beautiful shorelines that exist here in this special place, in the heart of an urban setting and active port. He is not alone in his respect and appreciation for this area. Through the hard work of citizens, the St. Louis River Estuary gained designation as a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) in October of 2011. Bob Cragin notes, “Before the NERR site became dedicated they [people] had a lot of individual appreciation for parts of this. They never had a concentrated effort to study the whole system…” Now, thanks to people in the community, the estuary will be around for a long time.

Bob Cragin

Bob Cragin

“The river is the thread that holds this all together,”

audio transcript

While driving slowly along the western end of Skyline Parkway to gain a birds-eye view of the estuary as the sun is slowly sinking into the west, Bob Cragin is talking about the good quality of life found here on the edge of the St. Louis River Estuary.  As if to put an exclamation point to that statement, a large, 10-point whitetail deer leaps across the road in front of us. “That’s a dandy…that was worth the trip right there,” he exclaims.

Bob finds time to enjoy the many activities available in the region, even with a busy business to run. He has also found time to give back, serving as a board member of the St. Louis River Alliance, to protect the estuary for future generations. He sees the estuary as a place that “pulls people together…you get a bunch of skiers out on the ski hill, they’re going to be communicating. Or blading or biking up the Munger Trail or kayaking out here, fishing, whatever – they forget about the boundaries.”

“The river is the thread that holds this all together,” exclaims Bob. When development was being proposed on Clough Island, Bob sent letters out to several friends asking what they thought about this. He couldn’t believe the response, or the interest he would stir up to protect this unique area in the middle of the estuary, “it was unbelievable.”

Through the efforts of many in the community, Clough Island was purchased in the fall of 2011 by the Nature Conservancy and partners, protecting the island for future generations. Also known as Whiteside Island, and Big Island, this 358 acre island in the heart of the estuary provides habitat for wildlife, unaltered shorelines and feeding areas for birds like the common tern, a species that is threatened in Minnesota and endangered in Wisconsin.

Lynelle Hanson

Lynelle Hanson

..the power of community

audio transcript

Colony nesting birds of the St. Louis River Estuary (SLRE) were Lynelle Hanson’s introduction to the estuary while she was attending school at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The Port Terminal area once supported nesting piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) and common terns (Sterna hirundo). “The last nest in the St. Louis Estuary that a piping plover fledged from was in the Port Terminal,” she remembers. Little did she know at that time, that she would return to Duluth later in her career and work to protect the SLRE.

Lynelle came back as the St. Louis River Watch Coordinator at Fond du Lac, introducing youth to the wonders of the estuary. In the later part of the 1990s Lynelle was hired as the executive director of the St. Louis River Citizen Advisory Committee. She recalls those days of pulling people together across state boundaries. “We used to joke that we were going to have the meetings on Interstate Island, so that half the table could be in Wisconsin, half the table could be in Minnesota,”  Lynelle Hanson is a firm believer in the power of community. “There were people from 54 different entities involved in the Lower St. Louis River Habitat Plan...that was wonderful.”

Now working for University of Wisconsin–Extension in Superior, Lynelle is a Sustainability Specialist active in the Lake Superior Bi-National Program, working with agencies from other states and nations to protect and restore Lake Superior. One of her favorite places to go for bird watching is the Port Terminal, down in the Duluth Harbor. “It’s a great birding spot in the spring, you’ve got Interstate Island that you can look at, you’ve got 21st avenue….Port Terminal is a cool place.”

Dave Zentner

Dave Zentner

“I’m not leaving until they carry me out,”

audio transcript

Holy cow is this ever a neat place.

“I’m not leaving until they carry me out,” says Dave Zentner, who came here in 1955. He notes that it is the whole St. Louis River Estuary complex that is so wonderful, not just a portion of it. “Holy cow is this ever a neat place. The river is so diverse. I think it’s fun to be right down by the ships, and [over by] the Blatnik Bridge.  Sometimes that is really exciting to me because here we are at the Blatnik Bridge and you got 20-inch smallmouth bass… where you can find a weed line and catch a 45-inch musky or larger… you might have a sturgeon jump out of the water… Wow, right here in the middle of this heavily industrialized area, we’ve done a recovery that permits some pretty neat [recreation for all ages].”  You can “watch a kid fishing off a pier and have his or her line broken by a northern…that’s pretty cool.”

Dave, who serves as conservation chair for the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, attributes much of the recovery of the estuary to the building of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) and to active and engaged citizens. He continues to support those efforts through his own involvement in conservation issues around the state, always returning to his home near the estuary.

There are those exhilarating near-wild places further up the estuary where you almost feel as though you have left the city behind, he notes. “Sig Olson [Minnesota naturalist and author, originally from Wisconsin] used to tell me, and he would write also, you don’t need big ‘Wilderness’ to find wilderness, and very often you might even be better off finding your own little patch in the middle of some very busy stuff, and so the estuary really provides that opportunity if you're smart enough to exploit it.”

Piping plover sitting on speckled eggs on beach

A nesting piping plover Click to zoom.

Piping plover sitting on speckled eggs on beach

A nesting piping plover

Piping Plover Recovery and Citizen Science

Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant

Volunteers Watch for an Endangered Bird in the Estuary

The past few springs, a curious sight can be found on the beaches of Wisconsin Point and Minnesota Point: people in bright yellow jackets looking through binoculars. They are searching for piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), an endangered shorebird that hasn't nested in the area in decades due to habitat destruction and human disturbances.

These plover monitors are part of a project organized by the St. Louis River Alliance, a local nonprofit group, in cooperation with federal, state, and local natural resource agencies. In addition to creating habitat conditions that are more to the birds' liking, these groups train monitors who educate beach-goers about the project and watch for plovers. When any plovers are spotted, the monitors keep detailed records of the number of birds, their locations, and the types of behavior the birds may be exhibiting. Data the monitors collect is shared with government agencies and the University of Minnesota to aid in ongoing plover research and planning.

The volunteers commit time from May to mid-June. Although Alliance staff members provide training, volunteers need to be willing to work in the field under any weather conditions.

Why all this effort for a little shorebird? Because it takes effort to undo the damage that's already been done. In the early 1900s, piping plovers were abundant throughout the Great Lakes. Hunting, demand for hat feathers, and loss of habitat decimated the plover population. In 1986, the piping plover was listed as an endangered species in the Great Lakes. In 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a recovery plan for the birds. Plover monitoring programs are one result, as are education programs conducted locally and across the Great Lakes.

Since monitoring efforts in the estuary began in 2012, piping plovers have been sighted on both Minnesota and Wisconsin points. Unfortunately, no plovers have stayed to nest yet. "The biggest challenges piping plovers face are loose dogs on the beach during migration and nesting, illegal use of the beach for nighttime parties, fireworks launching, and excessive garbage, which attracts predators," said Kris Eilers, Piping Plover Project coordinator for the St. Louis River Alliance. "We are working with appropriate local governments to inform the public and address these issues."

The Alliance has installed educational signs on possible nesting sites, and monitors work to minimize human disturbances at those areas. The hope is that this combination of monitoring, education, and habitat restoration will encourage plovers to nest in the estuary once again.

Web links

two women sitting at table talking

Local stakeholders discuss and edit a draft of a "situation map" at a Lake Superior Wetland Assessment workshop (Wilkins, 2014). Click to zoom.

two women sitting at table talking

Local stakeholders discuss and edit a draft of a "situation map" at a Lake Superior Wetland Assessment workshop (Wilkins, 2014).

Engaging Decision-Makers

Katy Thostenson, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison

Why is it important to engage local decision-makers?

If you live in the estuary, your life is enriched by the management decisions of local leaders caring for the land and water. Our landscape is in a constant state of flux due to urban growth, forestry, agriculture and conservation activities. Local leaders influence where and how these changes occur in the region, and they must make decisions that produce healthy, resilient coastal ecosystems while creating opportunities for economic and social growth. By engaging with experts in scientific fields and community stakeholders, leaders can make smarter decisions for the future of the estuary and the community.

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative Learning is a technique that brings a diverse group of people to the table to dialogue and learn from one another (Feurt, 2008). In a group setting, people connect their unique sources of knowledge and expertise, reach a shared understanding of their interests and concerns, and create a shared vision for the future. In the case of our estuary, this technique enhances collaboration between local elected officials and scientists, planners and natural resource managers, government staff and other local stakeholders. These connections build social capital and integrate both science and community values into management decisions.

Engaging Decision-Makers in the St. Louis River Estuary

Innovate engagement techniques are already in practice in our estuary. A team in Douglas County, Wisconsin is applying the Collaborative Learning approach to engage a committee of local stakeholders in a Lake Superior Wetland Assessment project. The purpose of the project is to " bring local stakeholders and scientists together to develop a process for incorporating wetland science, watershed planning and geospatial tools into decision making at the local level" (O'Halloran, 2013). These stakeholders include local government elected officials and staff, natural resource managers, industry and businesses, and other interested citizens and groups who are engaged in the region.

One of the first steps of Collaborative Learning is developing a "situation map". Situation mapping is "the process of graphically representing a situation in order to create a shared or systematic understanding of it" (Feurt, 2008). In this project, stakeholders were interviewed one-on-one and their perspectives on wetland mitigation in Douglas County were organized into a draft situation map. The map was then brought to a workshop where these same diverse stakeholders, sitting in groups, discussed and edited the maps.

In the end, participants reached a shared understanding of the nature of wetland management and mitigation in Douglas County (see , and they recognized the value of this process toward building a collaborative and comfortable environment: "There is a lot of free flow of information at the meetings […] I think the format has been very conducive to people talking and sharing opinions, working through what the issues are and identifying problems."

hand drawn diagram with text Wetland Mitigation in Douglas County at the center.  Arrows radiating to and from the center point toward bubbles with citizen ideas and concerns

Shared situation map of stakeholder perceptions on the nature of wetland mitigation in Douglas County (Wilkins, 2014). Click to zoom.

hand drawn diagram with text Wetland Mitigation in Douglas County at the center.  Arrows radiating to and from the center point toward bubbles with citizen ideas and concerns

Shared situation map of stakeholder perceptions on the nature of wetland mitigation in Douglas County (Wilkins, 2014).

Taking engagement into the future

Through situation mapping and open dialogue with other stakeholders and scientists, local decision-makers are expanding their knowledge on wetland science and policy and incorporating this information into future plans. Up next, the group will incorporate this new collective knowledge and collaborative energy into an assessment of wetlands throughout the County. Short term, the group will strategically identify areas for wetland conservation based on hard science and community values. Long term, strategic wetland and watershed plans for the region will be an invaluable resource to guide future development while protecting the health and resiliency of our estuary.