Funding and staffing issues have led Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources to close its only fish habitat monitoring station on the Missouri River, leaving some western Iowa residents unhappy.
The state has been operating a monitoring station in Monona County on the Missouri River since 2005. Staff have used it to observe how the Army Corps of Engineers’ shallow water habitat projects affect fish.
During a public meeting in Monona County Tuesday, fisheries officials told anglers federal funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was allocated to do habitat work from about 2006 to 2016. Western Iowa Regional Fisheries Supervisor Chris Larson recalled times when they used to receive $45 to $80 million for to monitor habitat projects, but with no new habitat projects in Iowa over the last couple of years, funding has dwindled.
“With no new habitat going on, it’s hard to justify monitoring habitat just to monitor,” he said. “It’s just collecting data.”
In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, Bob Hulle of Onawa said he is worried that without the station, there won’t be anyone to track invasive species in the area.
“We’ve got to maintain the balance of fish between carp and bass and bluegill and we need somebody here monitoring it to help out the balance,” Hulle said.
The DNR assured residents that fisheries staff in Nebraska and Missouri will still be out there monitoring and would share information with the state. The two staff members who work at the station are moving to positions in eastern Iowa.
Larson said the staff changes come as the state fisheries bureau has been struggling with its budget for about a decade. The DNR has 12 open fisheries positions and will only be able to fill three.
Though officials expect to gain some revenue from the legislature’s hunting and fishing increases, they plan to use most of the money for hatcheries. Discussions led them to decide that they have higher priority areas where their current staff are needed.
Some anglers were angered about the closure, saying they were caught off guard by a decision that had already been made without prior public input. Others complained that their taxpayer dollars are going to projects in eastern Iowa on the Mississippi River.
“Isn’t this kind of like putting all your eggs in one basket?” One woman asked, on the staffing changes.
Sioux City resident Bill Smith who fishes on the river and nearby lakes for walleye, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass said he was upset by the decision for the DNR to move its resources elsewhere, leaving western Iowa vulnerable. Though the DNR said its out-of-state partners would continue to do their own monitoring and would share information, Smith was not consoled.
“We’re leaving the responsibility of Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota to provide our Department of Natural Resources and our managers information to manage the resources for Iowa constituents,” said Smith in an interview with Iowa Public Radio. “We do not buy a Missouri, South Dakota or Nebraska hunting or fishing license.”
The DNR plans to close the station Oct. 5. It could opt to bring it back in the future if the Army Corps of Engineers returns and builds more habitat on the river.
“There’s a lot of fish species that are becoming less and less common, becoming more rare in the Missouri River and until habitat changes, that trend cannot be reversed,” Larson said. “It really boils down to habitat is the critical thing that needs to happen on the Missouri River for fish populations to start improving.”