Mussels play a critical role in the health of Wisconsin’s rivers and streams, but according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, nearly half of Wisconsin’s native mussels are endangered or threatened, and even more as species worrying
Wisconsin conservation groups and resource agencies have implemented stream restoration projects to help conserve mussels, but their ability to assess, monitor, and study the state’s many streams and communities is limited.
During the summer of 2022, a team of UW-Platteville undergraduates helped fill the void. With a grant from the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, seven students worked with faculty mentors conduct fish, mussel, and habitat surveys at eight different stream sites in the Grant, Platte, and Blue River watersheds to help evaluate stream restoration efforts. the chapter of Harry and Laura Nohr Trout Unlimited and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR).
“We were very excited when we found mussels. We went to all these back roads and river crossings not knowing if we were going to find anything,” says Lindsey Ockerlander, a criminal justice and biology double major who will graduate in December 2023 and start work at Prevention Genetics. “For two weeks we didn’t we found nothing, and on the last day we found 10 different species of mussels. We were on cloud nine.”
In addition to documenting the mussel species, the students had a unique opportunity to participate in a mussel relocation effort that was part of a US Army Corps of Engineers project to mitigate bank erosion at Goose Island on the Mississippi River.
“Before any bank work, the mussels in the area had to be relocated out of harm’s way,” says Kristopher Wright, professor of biology at UW-Platteville and principal investigator of the Freshwater Collaborative grant. “We joined the collaborative team that included the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wisconsin DNR and the Minnesota DNR.”
The mussel work built on previous undergraduate research, including that funded by the Freshwater Collaborative in 2020 and 2021. This grant provided an opportunity to integrate fish surveys to complement Trout Unlimited’s management and restoration efforts.
The students presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Nohr Chapter of Trout Unlimited and contributed to a report that was provided to the Nohr Chapter, WDNR and local landowners.
Carol Murphy, president of the Nohr Chapter of Trout Unlimited, says the students’ research will help them in their mission to conserve, protect and enhance southwest Wisconsin’s cold water streams.
“Monitoring and assessments provide essential data about the health of our streams, before, during and after our restoration efforts,” he says. “This project collaboration with UW-Platteville continues to be an enjoyable highlight for our chapter!”
Not only will the data provide valuable information about local watershed management, but students gained hands-on field experience that will prepare them for the workforce. For biology majors Myah Sierens and Chloe Mellody, shocking fish was one of the most interesting skills they learned. They were surprised to find so many different types of fish, even in narrow places in the rivers.
“I really love fish, so I think the most useful skills I learned were fish identification, how to handle fish, how to find fish and what signs to look for in an environment when looking for fish,” says Mellody. . “The biggest thing for me was learning how to do formal surveying when it comes to habitats and invertebrates. It’s going to make it a lot easier for me to learn how to do fieldwork.”
Tyler Vargas, who graduates in December, says the experience went beyond research skills.
“The biggest thing I gained was learning the value of teamwork while doing field research and building on the strengths of each team member,” he says. “The research project helped me discover new career paths that I didn’t even know existed before. It also gave me skills that I can translate into future tasks and opportunities when working with others. “
Read more about student experiences: UW-Platteville Students Spotlight: Muscles and Fish Surveying