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State seeking input on pollinator protection efforts
  • Updated

Winter’s weather has left plants across the state dormant, but in a few months greenery will sprout from the ground once more and flower petals will open to entice bees, butterflies and other pollinators to visit.

As the days begin to warm and spring arrives, so too will pollinators. The Minnesota Interagency Pollinator Protection Team (IPPT) has increased its efforts to engage with the public on the topic of pollinator importance to the environment.

The IPPT has recently asked for the public’s feedback on the 2020 Minnesota State Agency Pollinator Annual Report and its usefulness to residents via a survey.

“We want to get feedback from the public on how they use a report, if they use a report, if it’s going to different audiences,” said Rebeca Gutierrez-Moreno, state pollinator coordinator at the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board. “Then we hope that with the feedback, we can work on the current report for this year and make it accessible to all Minnesotans.”

The public survey will help IPPT determine what actions people and organizations are taking to encourage pollinator populations and what future action could be taken to ease the hurdles pollinators face. The 2020 report describes challenges and makes suggestions on pollinator protection efforts within Minnesota. The survey can be found at https://survey.mn.gov/s.asp?k=161038710365 and will be open until March 12.

Gutierrez-Moreno coordinates IPPT which is made up of staff representing 10 different state agencies. The group works within the framework of Executive Order 19-28, which directs the IPPT to its desired outcome goals for pollinator protection within the state. Meeting monthly to plan, each agency has its own role in the effort to achieve IPPT’s goals.

“We’re looking for opportunities to engage with Minnesotans at different levels, not just organizations, but also even at the individual level,” Gutierrez-Moreno said, adding that she hopes the survey will give the team insight into who is interested in learning more about pollinator protection efforts.

A marked Dakota skipper from a 2020 reintroduction. (Photo courtesy of

2020 report and actions individuals can take

The 2020 report includes information about desired outcomes such as creating a healthy and diverse pollinator population, along with three goals that fall under that aim. The first goal aims to restore pollinator habitat, the second is related to the judicious use of pesticides and the final goal is to get Minnesotans to value and support pollinators.

“We’ve put forth a scorecard in each one of the sections to kind of show the public and legislators where we’re at in terms of progress and we also have challenges and recommendations,” Gutierrez-Moreno said.

IPPT has been releasing yearly reports since 2017. The most notable advances have occurred in outreach, awareness and individual participation in pollinators protection. The IPPT has also seen small advances in terms of knowledge about pollinators from the public.

“That’s one of the things that we see as a big need, is to learn more about what pollinator populations are in Minnesota,” Gutierrez-Moreno said. “Not just managed honeybees, but also native bees like rusty patched bumblebee and other lepidopteran, like the Dakota skipper, and we also try to keep track of monarchs and how they’re doing. There’s a huge knowledge gap in terms of what is out there and what we need to protect.”

Despite the cold and snowy weather, spring is coming and considering how to attract and support pollinator populations is important now. There are some simple ways people can get involved in pollinator protection efforts. Gutierrez-Moreno suggests planting pollinator friendly plants, even small gardens and patches can help.

“As soon as the weather starts warming up, a lot of these species are coming up and looking for food. So if we can provide that early forage for them, that is a great way that we can all help,” Gutierrez-Moreno said.

People can also ask their city representatives to make pollinator-friendly decisions, enroll in pollinator-friendly programs and manage pests and public areas in a sustainable way. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has put forward best management practices for pollinators in different settings including backyards, gardens to big scale agriculture, according to Gutierrez-Moreno.

Residents can search for local organizations in their area or check out Pollinate Minnesota, Pollinator Friendly Alliance or Monarch Joint Venture to get involved in conservation efforts or advocacy. Participating in citizen science projects such as Bumble Bee Watch, Monarch Watch and iNaturalist is another option.

“People are more aware of pollinators and get excited about it. They also spread information around to their friends and to their family. Just spreading the word is a great way to help,” Gutierrez-Moreno said.

The most important message drawn from the 2020 annual report is that everyone can do something, no matter how small, to help pollinators in the state. She encourages every resident to fill out the survey, even those that are unfamiliar with the annual report.

“We might not like the bugs around us, but we’re all part of a whole and we all need each other,” Gutierrez-Moreno said. “We need pollinators for our food, we need pollinators to keep our green and natural areas healthy.”

A rusty patched bumble bee visits a flower. (Photo courtesy of Trisha Leaf)

Southern Minnesota agencies work together to protect the vulnerable

Parents have a lot on their plate. Is their child happy? Fed? Warm? Kind? Upset? The list of questions is never ending and cycles through their heads day in and day out.

But one question may be the most terrifying: Where is my child?

While it is fortunate that this is not a common question for many families, when it comes to children with cognitive or developmental disorders – such as autism or Down syndrome – their sometimes compulsory nature to wander off and the panic that follows is known all too well by their caregivers.

But there is a tool to help with this anxiety, and it lays in the toolboxes of area law enforcement. For a number of years, sheriff’s offices in Steele, Rice, Waseca, and Nicollet counties have been proud members of Project Lifesaver, a program that helps family members or authorities to locate their loved ones if they wander off.

“A lot of agencies commit to the program – why wouldn’t you?” said Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele. “It just makes sense. A lot of people who are known to wander are vulnerable, and when it comes to your loved ones and making sure they are OK, you’re going to do whatever it takes.”

Thiele, along with leadership from his investigators Mary Ulrich and Kari Woltman, implemented Project Lifesaver in 2016 in an effort to provide an additional sense of security not only for families with children who have cognitive and developmental disorders, but those who care for elderly individuals who may have other cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s. The program connects the client with a bracelet that emits a unique radio frequency that law enforcement can then use to locate the individual if they wander away from their home or caregiver.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Kari Woltman (left) and Mary Ulrich, investigators with the Steele County Sheriff’s Office, have been leading the Project Lifesaver program in Steele County for a number of years. Using the hand-held device Ulrich is holding, law enforcement are able to help locate vulnerable individuals who are prone to wander off due to cognitive and developmental disorders. (Annie Granlund/southernminn.com)

“We have had clients ranging from age 4 to in their 80s and for a really wide range of reasons such as high functioning ADHD or dementia,” Ulrich said. “Fortunately we have never had to actually use the equipment to locate someone who is lost, but I know it brings a peace of mind to caregivers.”

In Nicollet County, where Project Lifesaver has been around for a number of years, Sheriff Dave Lange said they too have never had to use the equipment to locate anyone enrolled in the program – which is a good thing.

“Our caregivers are still putting all their usual precautions in place that they normally would do, but for them to know that if their family member slips through the cracks, that they have this secondary means to locate them, then that’s very reassuring,” Lange said. “We’ve made the investment, we’ve got the equipment, we are going to continue to provide this service and offer it to anyone interested.”

Lange, who has taken place in searches for lost individuals not enrolled in the program, said Project Lifesaver is also a huge benefit to law enforcement and other agencies when it comes to locating a lost person.

“Search parties can be very labor intensive depending on the situation,” Lange said, recalling a time a young child was lost in a cornfield and several law enforcement agencies and fire departments had to come together to locate them. “A program like this allows us to pinpoint a general location of a person a lot sooner.”

And time is of the essence when it comes to someone who is lost. Dan Berndtson, an investigator with the Rice County Sheriff’s Office, said the quicker a lost person can be located the more likely the results will be favorable.

Rice County Deputy Sheriff Dan Berndtson holds equipment used to locate people enrolled in the Project Lifesaver program who go missing. Those with the devices are found through a radio frequency. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“You can get a search group together and you can use drones, but any tools on the table that will help a search go faster and give as an idea of which direction to go is crucial,” Berndtson said. “Time is off the essence in an emergency situation, so the more resources we can bring to those efforts is always better.”

Rice County is one of the few counties in the area that has had to use the equipment to locate an individual since first implementing the program in 2010, and Emergency Management Director Jennifer Hauer-Schmitz said the response time was always quick and efficient.

“Part of it does rely on the family, too, because the sooner they call us and we can have our team of searchers dispatched to the last place the person was seen, the sooner we can find them,” Hauer-Schmitz said.

The equipment used by law enforcement, which is a hand-held antenna device, can pick up the unique radio frequency for the individual’s bracelet in about a one-mile radius. There are also antennas that can be placed on top of squad cars that broaden the range a bit further. Hauer-Schmitz said the frequency will play a sound, which should sound like a chirp, that will get louder as the searchers hone in on the lost individual.

“I can’t imagine how stressful and the horrible feeling it must have for the family when someone who is attracted to wander off is lost,” Hauer-Schmitz said. “We definitely fear a bad outcome, but these tools help us prevent that.”

Hauer-Schmitz said one of the most important parts of the project is building the rapport with the clients and their families. In one specific case, the agency was able to learn quickly that the individual who kept wandering off was drawn to a specific pool in town. By the third and fourth time they were dispatched to search for the client, they instinctively learned to head towards the pool to locate them even quicker.

Woltman said building a relationship with the clients, which they are able to do through the regular maintenance visits every couple of months, also helps build an important level of trust in the chance that the individual does go missing.

“The hope is that if they see one of us and they already know us that they will be comfortable,” Woltman said, adding that it has been important over the years to get the individuals accustomed to the site of a man or woman in uniform.

OPPastewart / By ASHLEY STEWART astewart@owatonna.com 

Marquis Murrell sitting with Steele County Investigator Mary Ulrich and his brother DaSean with Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele were the first to receive bracelets through the county’s Project Lifesaver program that rolled out in 2016. Ulrich said building rapport with the clients, especially kids like the Murrell boys, is an important part of the program if they were to go missing. (File photo/southernminn.com)

“The uniforms are the ones looking for them,” Hauer-Schmitz said, adding that someone who wanders off is already vulnerable and now in a stressful situation, so anything to help bring a sense of calm to the scenario helps.

One of the biggest benefits the program brings is the ability to share information across agencies. In Steele and Rice counties, one individual enrolled in Project Lifesaver resided in Steele County while attending school in Faribault. The two agencies were able to exchange information – specifically the client’s frequency number – to add another extra layer of security.

“In the past we have had people come down for the Steele County Free Fair who were enrolled in the program in another county,” Thiele said. “The family is able to call us up, give us the information we need just as an extra precaution. Just in case. That works really nicely.”

Hauer-Schmitz said the program even allows for easy transfer of information out of state, stating she has helped several families prepare for vacations to Florida by providing the client information to the law enforcement agencies in the cities they were traveling to.

“This lets whatever agency be able to go in and take over right away with no problem,” Hauer-Schmitz said. “It’s set up really well that way.”

As far as funding goes, all the area agencies were happy that the program is highly affordable. While there is usually a one-time fee to get the bracelet, Lange said by calling the local agency they usually can help set a family up with a more affordable options if there is a financial concern. Those already receiving help from social services can also qualify for a waiver from the state.

“It runs relatively cheap and provides a solid, concrete way to locate someone,” Ulrich said. “It’s a service we are happy to provide, even if we never have to turn on the equipment.”

Teachers in southern Minnesota roll up their sleeves for COVID-19 vaccine
  • Updated

The number of staff in Southern Minnesota school districts who have received the COVID-19 vaccine has been increasing since the state prioritized teachers for it.

Minnesota is one of 28 states to prioritize school staff vaccinations. Nearly 25% of teachers in Minnesota have been at least partially vaccinated so far and school staff will have access to more than 18,000 doses at state vaccine sites next week. Gov. Tim Walz said this week that he predicts “the bulk of our educators” will be vaccinated by March 8, the date by which Walz expects all schools will offer some sort of in-person learning. Ninety-six percent of Minnesota school districts are also using on-site saliva testing for staff, according to the Governor’s Office.

Faribault Superintendent Todd Sesker said about 35% of Faribault Public Schools staff have been vaccinated so far. At Owatonna Public Schools, just over 60% of staff have been offered the vaccine.

“Steele County Public Health has been our major provider and a great partner,” Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad said.

In Blooming Prairie, 87% of the staff have been offered the first dose of the vaccine as of Tuesday, according to Superintendent Chris Staloch. Second doses are being lined up for completion in March.

The Medford school district has seen similar numbers.

“I’m happy to announce that, mostly thanks to Steele County ... we have given the opportunity to be vaccinated to about 98% (of staff),” Medford Superintendent Mark Ristau told the school board on Tuesday.

Ristau added that there were several people who declined the optional opportunity for vaccination. Medford teachers, paraprofessionals, cooks, drivers, custodians and coaches were among those that received the first dose of the vaccine. Many have round two of the vaccine scheduled in the next couple of weeks, Ristau added.

“The good news for us right now is that we were really able to allow folks in our district to choose to get vaccinated if they want to and I think that does build some confidence in our staff,” Ristau said.

About two-thirds of Waseca school staff have been offered the COVID-19 vaccine and a small amount of staff chose not to receive it, according to Superintendent Eric Hudspith. He expects nearly 100% of staff to be offered the vaccine and have the first dose by the end of February, he said.

“That’s a celebration,” Hudspith told the Waseca School Board Thursday.

The 14-day county case rate per 10,000 people for Steele County is 29.45, Rice County’s rate is 35.58 and Waseca sits at 34.56.

Minnesota Public Radio News contributed to this report.

Ethanol producers support federal legislation after difficult year
  • Updated

Ethanol producers are supportive of legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar that would boost the industry.

Klobuchar, D-Minn., told several ethanol leaders in a virtual meeting Friday that President Joe Biden’s new administration, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, will also be helpful in passing legislation.

“It’ll be some great opportunities for me to advance some of our interests,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar said the focus needs to be on increasing the discussions about ethanol and renewable fuel, and getting relief for rural areas into COVID-19 relief legislation.

Ethanol production dropped last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and decrease in demand, and production reached its lowest point since 2009, said Tim Rudnicki, the executive director of the Minnesota Biofuels Association. But throughout the crisis, the ethanol producers kept their workers employed.

Chad Friese, CEO of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, said they took 50% of their facility offline in March 2020 while maintaining all of their jobs, but their efficiencies and revenue were down and they had increased costs to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among workers. They operated in that mode for three months last year.

It all goes back to the local community, he said.

“If one of these plants shuts down and lays off 30 people, it impacts hundreds of people and families,” he said,

Federal biofuels reimbursement legislation last year wasn’t about making an ethanol plant financially whole, it was about returning value to rural Minnesotans and communities, he said. They’re still trying to climb out of the financial woes caused by the pandemic, including demand and production still being down, and the “hits just keep coming,” he said.

Randy Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel, said they were “crushed” by the pandemic and had to slow down production because there wasn’t a market as gas demand decreased last year.

“Definitely painful, especially with a much larger plant, that much more cost involved in slowing down. … But we kept running,” he said.

He noted that Al-Corn, along with other companies, stepped up last year to switch to producing ethanol for hand sanitizer.

Ethanol legislation

Klobuchar is working on the Renewable Fuel Infrastructure Investment and Market Expansion Act with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, to authorize a $500 million grant program to install new fuel pumps or convert existing fuel pumps to E15 fuel and the Adopt GREET Act with U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would direct the EPA to update its greenhouse gas modeling for ethanol biodiesel to reflect the latest science.

“That is really important because I think you know the Biden administration … is going to be more interested in working on climate change issues than Trump did,” Klobuchar said.

Doyal called the Adopt GREET Act “a breath of fresh air.” Rudnicki said his association members see a greener energy future with ethanol, but they also recognize that it’s only one tool available.

“It is the most immediately available and readily available-for-use tool,” Rudnicki said.

Klobuchar’s renewable fuel infrastructure legislation will help them get the product to consumers, he said. A recommendation from Gov. Tim Walz’s biofuels council was to provide adequate funding for infrastructure and there’s support in the Minnesota House to financially support retailers making the switch to E15, but it would be great if there was a way to leverage that into a larger amount, he said.

“This is a way to pivot to that greener future you’re talking about,” he said.

Broadband expansion

Brian Kletcher, CEO of Highwater Ethanol, also made a plea to Klobuchar during the meeting to get broadband internet into rural areas.

Klobuchar noted that there are a couple pieces of legislation to support broadband expansion and Biden is focused on infrastructure improvements.

“This is our moment to get broadband done,” Klobuchar said.