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DNR staff review recent manure spills and fish kills
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This chart shows the numbers of brown and brook trout killed in area trout streams in the last two years in the Coulee Region. Three of the four fish kills occurred in 2019.

Correction: since we went to press with this breaking news story, the Indpendent-Scout has received a redacted copy of the report filed by Warden Modjeski into the investigation about the Brush Creek Fish Kill. In our story it states that Warden Modjeski and Fisheries Biologist Kirk Olson were on the scene and investigating on Friday, Oct. 4. The report clarifies that the two did not actually begin their investigation until Monday, Oct. 7. The fish were believed to have been dead on Friday, Oct. 4 when a citizen from Cashton observed them, but they did not call a report in to the DNR until Sunday, Oct. 6. East Town Dairy, a CAFO dairy owned and operated by Nicholas Mlsna, has been extensively investigated, according to the report, but at this time the kill remains ‘cause uknown.’ According to Warden Modjeski, this is an ongoing investigation.

COULEE REGION - DNR Conservation Warden Matt Modjeski reports that the largest fish kill of 2019 in our area will likely remain “cause unknown.” Several citizens reported seeing dead fish in an unnamed tributary of Brush Creek just east of Cashton at the intersection of Highway 33 and Oklahoma Avenue.
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The yellow star shows the location where the most recent 2019 fish kill in the Coulee Region started. From that rural Cashton location, the impacted area of the stream continued 1.7 miles downhill.

The two other fish kills in the area in 2019 occurred on Otter Creek in Vernon County in May of 2019, and at Bostwick Coulee Creek in LaCrosse County near Bangor in June of 2019. Both events showed lesser amount of dead fish.

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In the 2019 fish kill, resulting from a manure spill, into Otter Creek in rural LaFarge, 661 dead trout were recovered.
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In the 2019 fish kill, resulting from a manure spill, into Bostwick Coulee Creek in rural Bangor, 1,046 dead trout were recovered.

The cause of those previous two fish kills was a manure spill resulting from manure spreading activities conducted by K&D Handling out of Sparta. The company was operating a manure distribution of drag line hoses, which ruptured and allowed manure to enter the respective creeks.

The number of fish killed in the Otter Creek spill was 661; and in the Bostwick Coulee Creek spill 1,046 fish were killed. In the most recent Brush Creek fish kill, a total of 1,445 dead fish were recovered.

“Our office received a report of dead fish in Brush Creek on Friday, Oct. 4, [should say Oct. 6] reported by several civilians,” Modjeski explained. “When DNR Fisheries Biologist Kirk Olson and I arrived on the scene on Saturday, Oct. 5 [should say Monday, Oct. 7], we discovered dead fish but because of recent rains, found no evidence which would reveal what would have killed the fish.”
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This map shows the terrain in which Brush Creek flows where a recent fish kill is being investigated.

Modjeski explained that on the scene, he and Olson conducted a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ investigation using all of their senses. He said that upon their arrival, “the stream was running clear” and they did not see or smell anything that could explain what had killed the fish.

“We would be searching for sensory evidence such as foaming of the water, a bad smell, or discoloration of the water,” Modjeski explained. “None of that evidence presented itself in the course of our investigation.”
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More than 50 Coulee Re-gion Trout Unlimited members and a few members of the Viola Sportsmens Club gathered to hear DNR Conservation Warden Shawna Stringham and DNR Fisheries Biologist Kirk Olson discuss recent manure spills in the Coulee Region.

Trout Unlimited meeting

Vernon County DNR Conservation Warden Shawna Stringham, and DNR Fisheries Biologist Kirk Olson spoke to about 50 Coulee Region Trout Unlimited members, and a few Viola Sportsmens Club members, about recent manure spills and fish kills in the Driftless Region. The meeting occurred at the American Legion Tap House #308 in Viroqua on Wednesday, Oct. 16.

Stringham and Olson are generally on the front line of manure spills in this area. As the fisheries biologist for LaCrosse, Vernon, Monroe and Crawford counties, Olson performs the stream-level investigation and collection of dead fish. Stringham conducts the investigation about the cause of the spill and files the reports that are used to pursue either local or state-level legal solutions.

The two have worked on a total of 14 fish kill investigations between 2017 and 2019. Ten of the incidents involved manure spills or runoff, two related to disease, and the cause of the other two is unknown. Of these incidents, there have been four major fish kills on trout streams, impacting a total of almost seven stream miles.

Latest fish kill

The two discussed the 2017 and 2019 manure spills by the Wild Rose Dairy in rural LaFarge into Otter Creek, and the June 2019 spill by Manske Farms into Bostwick Coulee Creek in rural Bangor. But it was the breaking news that another fish kill had occurred in rural Cashton into Brush Creek in the last week that was the most shocking news of the evening.

The Brush Creek fish kill, according to Olson, has impacted 1.7 miles of stream, and killed 1,213 brown trout and 232 brook trout. According to Olson, recent work in restoring the class three trout fishery meant that the stream was on the verge of being reclassified as a class one trout fishery before the spill occurred.
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By the time investigators arrived on the scene of the Brush Creek fish kill on Monday, Oct. 7, the fish, according to DNR Wildlife Biologist Kirk Olson, had been dead too long to be tested to determine the cause of death. A total of 1,445 dead fish were recovered.

Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel seemed frustrated with the latest incident in an area trout stream.

“We had taken that stream from class three to having potential to be reclassified as a class one trout stream,” Micheel said. “Just one moment last week destroyed a whole lot of work, and it doesn’t seem right to me that incidents like this can be allowed to have such a disproportionate impact on a resource enjoyed by so many.”
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In the 2017 fish kill, resulting from a manure spill, into Otter Creek in rural LaFarge , 1.069 dead trout were recovered. The De-partment of Justice has yet to issue sanctions for this spill which occurred over two years ago.

K& D Handling

The two Otter Creek spills in October 2017 and May 2019 from the Wild Rose Dairy, and the June 2019 spill from Manske Farms into Bostwick Coulee Creek, all happened as a result of malfunctions of drag line hose systems. These systems are used to transport manure from storage lagoons to fields where the manure will be spread and ‘knifed’ into the soil.
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DNR Conservation Warden Shawna Stringham speaks the the Coulee Region Trout Unlimited members assembled for their monthly chapter meeting in Viroqua on Oct. 16 about her investigations into recent manure spills in the region, and the enforcement actions she has pursued.

“The spill at Bostwick was particularly bad,” Stringham said. “The drag lines were connected to a 1.5 million gallon lagoon, and there were drag lines everywhere. On Saturday, when we were there, the stream was black with manure.”

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K&D Manure Haulers of Sparta has been involved with three of the four major fish kills in the Coulee Region in the last two years. Here they are shown pumping manure out of the storage lagoon at the Wild Rose Dairy in rural LaFarge in 2019.

In all three cases, the same manure hauler provided the service for the two CAFO dairies involved – K&D Hauling out of Sparta.

“Haulers like K&D provide this service for multiple livestock facilities all over our area,” Stringham explained. “They are out there every day doing this, moving from farm to farm, and for the most part nothing goes wrong and their hoses are new healthy hoses.”

Stringham observed that the tractor used to hook the hoses on and knife the manure in is “state of the art” and “probably costs more than the house I live in.” 

“The problem isn’t really that their equipment is old or inadequate,” Stringham explained. “It’s really more of a problem, in our area, of the challenging terrain that they are moving the hoses through.”

Trout Unlimited member John Townsell of West Salem offered that “the word on the street is that farmers are spreading the manure on their fields thicker than is needed for the fertility of their fields, and then just hoping that the rains will come and wash it away.”

This led to a discussion of the impacts of ongoing runoff versus a manure spill. Stringham said the common signs of manure in a stream, even where dead fish are not observed, is foam and a bad smell.

Stringham responded that her team only becomes involved when the manure enters the water and dead fish are observed. Otherwise, she said, when her department receives a complaint about the amount of manure being spread on a field, it is referred to the county land conservation department. Those departments are responsible for overseeing the nutrient management plans for larger operations.

Stringham emphasized that when dead fish are observed, time is of the essence. She encouraged anyone encountering evidence of what could be a manure spill to immediately contect the DNR Spills Hotline at 800-943-0003. 

There was also discussion about impacts to streams outside the stretch where dead fish are found, and downstream. It was noted, for instance, that in both spills from the Wild Rose Dairy, there had been significant rainfall events immediately following the spill which would have washed spilled material further down into the watershed.

In the case of Otter Creek, the Independent-Scout also noted that the creek only begins to run above ground just above the areas of the two spills. Above there, the creek is fed from freshwater springs and seeps bringing groundwater to the surface.
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This map shows the path over which spilled manure travelled in the 2017 Wild Rose Dairy manure spill. Much of the area where the manure travelled is above where Otter Creek begins to flow above ground, and contains freshwater springs.

In the October 2017 spill, the manure had travelled overland for a considerable distance prior to entering the creek. Presumably would have had potential to enter ground water in the area through springs, seeps, and fissures. The Independent-Scout asked if any department within the DNR was investigating impacts to groundwater, and surface water from recharge, of the 2017 spill.

“To my knowledge, no one at DNR is investigating impacts to groundwater and spring water from the spill,” Stringham said.

Stream recovery

Olson discussed some hopeful signs of recovery in Otter Creek after the 2017  and 2019 spills.

“Natural systems will rejuvenate themselves as long as they are given a chance to recover,” Olson said. “However, they will not recover if they are under constant assault.”

Olson observed that in an October 2019 electrofishing survey, his team had found that adult spawners and ‘young-of-the-year’ were moderately abundant in Otter Creek. He said that based on the findings for the impacted as well as adjacent areas of the stream, his team does not plan to restock, but rather to focus on natural recolonization with an estimated time to full recovery of three to five years.

“There is still a high density of trout in adjacent areas of the streams,” Olson explained. “If funding becomes available through fines for the manure spills, we will use those funds for habitat restoration.”

Enforcement actions

At the meeting, Stringham fielded questions about what was happening with enforcement of the spills, particularly the 2017 Otter Creek spill which happened over two years ago.

“When I file my spill reports they go to Deb Dix, the DNR Environmental Warden in Eau Claire,” Stringham said. “We work with her to determine the best option to pursue legal sanctions for manure spills, and we generally have two options – to file in the county circuit court or to send it to the State of Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ).”

Stringham explained that going through the circuit court would yield a faster result, but that choosing to go through DOJ opens up the possibility of harsher penalties.

One meeting participant asked if K& D Hauling was subject to any regulation, and if even after the spate of recent spills, they were allowed to keep operating.

“I am not aware of how manure haulers are regulated, and that wouldn’t be handled by our department,” Stringham said. “However, I do know that until any case against them is adjudicated, they are allowed to keep operating.”

Stringham stated that she does not believe that any farmer of any size wants to have a manure spill. She said that she would like to find a way to get farmers and fishers all in the same room together with regulators to hash out a “better way of doing things.”