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Details emerge about manure spill at Mlsna East Town Dairy
In Vernon County
Site of Mlsna ET Dairy spill
THIS IS THE LOCATION of the manure spill into Knapp Creek by Mlsna East Town Dairy. The spill occurred just above and to the east of the breached Mlsna Dam, and manure from the spill actually flowed through the breach.

KNAPP CREEK WATERSHED - Details have been slow to emerge about the latest manure spill from a Driftless Area CAFO. This is a headline that has become all too common in recent years. A local Coulee Region Trout Unlimited member, Duke Welter, had this to say about the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) approach to the investigation of this most recent incident, and release of information to the public.

“You are asking anglers to be your eyes and ears in the community regarding manure spills into trout water,” Welter said. “But we had to go for two weeks without even an announcement to the public, and then when the announcement was finally made, no real information was released, and the WDNR is guarding the details of the spill like it is the gold in Fort Knox.”

According to Claire O’Connell, a WDNR employee based in Dodgeville helping to investigate, the spill occurred on Friday, October 30. O’Connell said the spill was self-reported by the dairy on WDNR’s 24-hour spills hotline. She said that local WDNR employees – Warden Shawna Stringham and fisheries biologist Kirk Olson responded to the scene.

“The spill was self-reported by the dairy as being about 3,000 gallons of liquid manure,” O’Connell said. “That’s all we have to go on is the dairy’s report, especially when our investigation occurs so far after the fact.”

O’Connell said that the spill occurred when dairy staff were spreading manure in a field above and to the west of the breached Mlsna dam, which sits on an ephemeral stream that feeds into Knapp Creek. The dairy was using a dragline hose to spread the manure. She said that manure had run off the field, through the breached dam, and down the ephemeral stream to its confluence with Knapp Creek.

Knapp Creek
KNAPP CREEK is an im-portant tributary of the West Fork Kickapoo River. This stretch of the creek is just below the point where the manure from the ephemeral feeder stream joined with the creek.

“The manure joined with Knapp Creek between Kelbel and McElhose Roads,” O’Connell said. “According to the dairy, there was no known equipment failure that would have caused the spill.

O’Connell said that Kirk Olson had recovered 118 trout of “varying sizes” from the creek.

2019 fish kill

Like the Wild Rose Dairy in rural LaFarge, East Town Dairy is a major supplier of milk for Kwik Trip. Wild Rose Dairy has been the location of two manure spills into Otter Creek in October 2017 and June of 2019.

The Mlsna East Town Dairy sits in the headwaters of Knapp Creek, a major tributary of the West Fork Kickapoo River. The West Fork is recognized as one of Wisconsin’s premier trout streams. It also sits at the headwaters of Brush Creek, tributary of the Kickapoo River, and joins the river near Ontario. The dairy is owned by the Nick Mlsna.

There was a large fish kill in Brush Creek, in close proximity to the dairy’s location, in 2019. In that incident, which according to WDNR remains “cause unknown,” the area had experienced a high volume of rainfall, reporting of the incident by two fishermen did not happen until some time after the incident, and the fish found were in an advanced state of decomposition. 

A subsequent investigation of the dairy’s facility and fields by WDNR reported a manure storage structure on the verge of overtopping, manure in a nearby pond in Vernon County, and improper storage of leachate from the silage storage pad, which was observed to be running off onto the landscape.

Knapp Creek fishery

WDNR Fisheries Biologist Kirk Olson was busy preparing a report on the health of the West Fork Kickapoo fishery recently. Knapp Creek is an important headwaters to this world class trout fishing stream. Olson had this to say:

“Knapp Creek supports naturally reproducing brown trout and brook trout. It’s currently classified as class III (i.e. trout population supported entirely by stocking). However, this classification is out of date and I plan to re-classify it in the near future as class I or II. The stream hasn’t been stocked since 1993, and the current trout populations are sustained by natural reproduction. This fall I also identified trout spawning areas in the upper reaches of the stream. 

Knapp Creek Trout Redd
THIS PHOTO shows a trout spawning red (bed) in the upper reaches of the Knapp Creek Watershed.

“Compared to the rest of the West Fork Kickapoo Watershed, Knapp Creek runs warmer in the summer and supports fewer trout. In our 2019 electrofishing survey, we captured 145 brown trout and 24 brook trout per mile on Knapp Creek. This was quite a bit lower than the average for the watershed, which was 740 for brown trout and 286 for brook trout (based on 35 sites sampled between 2018-2020). We also found a high percentage of warm water fish species, relative to other streams in the West Fork Watershed (Knapp Creek = 68 percent, West Fork Watershed average = 27 percent). Creek chub, blacknose dace, fantail darter and white sucker were a few of the warmwater fish species present.

“Why Knapp Creek runs warm, relative to the rest of the streams in the West Fork, is likely the result of lower groundwater contribution to streamflow. In general, streams in the eastern portion of the West Fork Kickapoo Watershed have warmer summer temperatures and lower groundwater contributions to streamflow. This may be, in part, due to the presence of less permeable bedrock in this portion of the watershed (e.g. sandstone). Poor agricultural and land use practices could also limit groundwater infiltration, but there doesn’t appear to be major differences in land use from the eastern to western portion of the watershed based on land use maps.

“Though Knapp Creek runs warm during summer, limiting overall trout production, it provides both spawning and rearing habitat for trout. It’s likely that some of the fish that fish which spawn in the stream migrate upstream from the West Fork Kickapoo. Similarly, it’s likely that some of the fish that hatch and rear in Knapp Creek end up migrating downstream to the West Fork Kickapoo, contributing to populations there. 

“Since water temperatures appear to be a limiting factor on Knapp Creek, activities in the watershed that increase groundwater infiltration (e.g. maintaining forested hillsides, contour stripping, rotational grazing, no-till farming practices) are really the best way to improve trout populations there. In addition, maintaining large shade trees along the stream corridor is also important and another way to stabilize stream temperatures. The WDNR doesn’t own any streambank easements or property along the stream, so WDNR fisheries management ability to directly improve habitat in or along the stream is limited. We continue to pursue streambank easements throughout the watershed but interested landowners are the limiting factor. Of course, preventing manure spills and fish kills will also be critical if we hope to maintain or improve trout populations in Knapp Creek.