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Discovery adds to VNP Wolf Project; Funding running out
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Wolves affect wetland ecosystems by killing beavers dispersing from their colonies to create new ponds.

And while that’s no surprise when considering the logic, the long-term effect could be substantial and ought to be studied, said one of the authors of a new paper published by researchers with the University of Minnesota’s Voyageurs Wolf Project and Voyageurs National Park.

The journal “Science Advances,” published a paper by project biologists and co-authors Tom Gable and Austin Homkes who found that 84 percent of newly-created and recolonized beaver ponds remained occupied by beavers for more than one year. But when a wolf kills the beaver that settles in a pond, no such ponds remain active.

This relationship between wolves and dispersing beavers shows how wolves are intimately connected to wetland creation across the boreal ecosystem and all the ecological processes that come from wetlands, Gable told The Journal Monday.

He noted that wolves can have this impact on wetlands without necessarily changing the abundance or behavior of beavers.

“Part of their role in the ecosystem is, at times, altering where beaver are building ponds, and whether or not that is substantial over long periods of time, we don’t know,” Gable said. The project estimates that wolves altered the establishment of about 88 ponds per year in the 2,000 square kilometer area being studied.

That means an impact to about one pond for ever 21 square kilometers per year, he said.

“The question becomes over a longer period of time, does that effect become more noticeable?” he wonders.

He said in a 5- or 10-year period, the impact to 400 or 800 beaver ponds, or where they would have been created, impacting a pond every 4 or 2 square kilometers, could be significant.

“That wolf appears to prevent beaver from turning streams and forested areas into ponds — I don’t this will come as any big surprise to people, it’s very straight forward — the logic makes sense, but that’s the beauty: (The effect) remains unknown, but it’s so simple in many respects,” he said.

The information has been gained over the five years of the VNP Wolf Project, the groundwork for which began in 2012, when Voyageurs National Park biologists began to monitor the wolf population, following delisting as a federally protected species.

Gable joined the project as a graduate student in 2015, when additional scientists came on board to consider wolf behavior, and predator behavior in particular, said Steve Windels, VNP biologist.

Windels said the park’s interest in the study is twofold: Gaining knowledge about wolf behavior in and of itself is valuable, and knowledge may play a role in the park’s management; and to highlight the role national parks play in scientific studies.

“National parks are national laboratories,” he said. “In some ways, how Voyageurs National Park looks now is the window into what this part of the world might have looked 500 years ago.”

Meanwhile, the recent finding adds more questions the project’s team would like to answer.

Specifically, Gable said he’d like to know more about the long-term effects to the ecosystem of the wolf-beaver predation connection.

However, the project relies greatly on funding and one source, the Legislative Citizens Committee on Minnesota Resources, has not yet been awarded.

Money earmarked for the project, and other projects in Borderland, has not been allocated by the Legislature from the state’s Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources.

Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls, is a member of the LCCMR and called getting the money to the projects “a lesson in frustration.”

He said a bill allocating the money should be among the first items on the agenda for the 2021 session.

Attempted a bill at one of the six special sessions held this year came to no avail, he said, adding that a VNP beaver project, Ranier dock project, and others that would create jobs and add money to the economy are being held up.

Gable said project members are not optimistic that the LCCMR funding will come through. “We are very close to being out of funding,” he said. “We are scrambling.”

He said he may go without pay for a while, but the project is worth it.

“I am going to stick around until the bitter end,” he said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

People who would like to support the project or learn about it should see the VNP Wolf Project Facebook page.

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Falls students to continue in-person learning
  • Updated

Falls Elementary students will not transition to a distance learning model next week, as was earlier announced, after action taken by the Falls School Board Monday.

In addition, Falls High School students will resume their normal in-person learning schedule beginning Thursday.

Officials representing the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Department of Education, and local health officials met Monday afternoon with district officials and recommended the district continue operating under the current learning model.

While local cases of COVID-19 are on the rise, the number of cases associated with the school is low, and the district can continue to safely operate, prompting the recommendation.

Superintendent Kevin Grover said situations can change quickly, and families should have a plan in place if distance learning needs to be implemented in the future.

“We spared some time here, but we need to continue to plan,” Grover told The Journal. “I know this has been a struggle... And it could happen where we have to switch to distance learning in the future, and we might have to make the change with shorter notice.”

The decision also means co-curricular activities can continue.

Reversed decision

Last Thursday, district officials announced the transition to a distance learning model as the number of COVID-19 cases saw its steepest increase in Koochiching County since last spring. Falls High School would have started the new model Monday and elementary students would transition to distance learning beginning Nov. 23 to allow families time to make child care arrangements.

Grover said when districts choose to switch learning models, it is recommended to have a consultative meeting with MDE, MDH and local health experts. Based on guidance outlined by the state earlier this year, if counties see an increase of 30 or more cases of COVID-19 in a 14-day period, high school students should start distance learning. If there is an increase of 50 or more cases in the same time period, elementary students should transition to a distance model.

When cases increased more than 60 in a week, Grover said that is when the decision was made Thursday.

But what he learned during the Monday afternoon meeting was the total case count needs a closer look. He said the number of cases connected to the district were considered, as were how many students and staff were out on quarantine.

“(The recommendation) to continue under our current model was not the direction any of us thought it was going to go,” Grover said.

Still, the superintendent said the situation can change quickly.

“We want families to have a plan in place,” he said. “I’m happy to have kids in session, but we really encourage people to not stop planning.”

Distance Wednesdays

The board also Monday agreed to designate the second and fourth Wednesday of every month to a distance learning day at Falls Elementary School, beginning Nov. 25.

The effort follows an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz earlier this month that aims to ease the burden on teachers during the pandemic. The order requires schools give teachers an extra 30 minutes of planning time each day to prepare for distance learning. That’s in addition to the five planning minutes teachers already get for every 25 minutes of instruction.

“Teachers are stretched too thin,” said Walz, who is a former teacher. “We must relieve pressures on schools and educators to allow for capacity and resources to focus on students’ learning needs. This change may require some school districts and charter schools to rearrange student and teacher schedules. Some school districts and charter schools may also need to reassign staff.”

Board offers plea

Going into Monday’s meeting, extracurricular activities were not going to be allowed to continue under a distance learning model.

One day shy of the first playoff game for the Bronco football team, head coach Seth Ettestad requested the board reconsider. He outlined benefits of student athletics and said the program hasn’t experienced a case of COVID-19 since it began practicing last summer. Any player with exposure to the virus within his family has followed quarantine guidelines as needed.

“Are we willing to postpone a program if a diagnosis is found?” Ettestad said. “Absolutely.”

Board members Terry Murray and Mike Holden spoke in favor of continuing sports, also noting several benefits to student athletes.

And while Monday’s unanimous board decision to keep students under the current learning models at Falls High and Falls Elementary Schools, some members cautioned that could change if the community doesn’t help stop the local spread of COVID-19.

Board Chairperson Ted Saxton said students, school staff and coaches are doing their part to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, but said he has seen examples in the community that could change things.

“What the hell does the community not get?” he said. “This is why we have to close school...This is my plea: you guys are being absurd as a community. If you want sports to continue, you have to step up.”

Board member Jennifer Windels agreed.

She said when it was decided to transition to distance learning, she appreciated seeing district officials being proactive.

“Staff asked us to be proactive,” she said. “If we can continue to (operate in-person) safely, I’m supportive of that... Those kids need to be in school safely. If we reduce gatherings, we can significantly turn numbers around in two weeks.”

Board to meet Monday

The board will meet in special session Monday to determine if sports would continue should the district move to a distance learning model.

As of press time, Walz made no announcement about continuing youth sports in Minnesota, although it was rumored he could during a 6 p.m. live address Wednesday.

“My personal opinion is if we’re not in school, we don’t have extracurricular activities,” Saxton said. “And to elaborate on that a little more, I’m pretty disappointed in the (Falls Recreation Commission) Board’s decision today to continue athletics despite what the school would do.”

Also Monday, the International Falls City Council rejected a motion by Mayor Harley Droba to encourage the Rec Commission to adopt a policy to cancel all Rec sports when school sports are canceled.

With the commission’s action, Rec sports can go on as long as it does not use school property, Droba said.

“I disagree with that as a parent and as part of the governing body of the Rec Commission, however that is the decision they made today and I stand with Rec Board on it,” he sad

In addition, Councilor Joe Krause voiced concern about the lack of notice to councilors and the public about the Rec Commission meeting called Friday and held Monday.

Meanwhile, Saxton said he felt the Rec Commission’s action sent a “terrible message” and felt its leaders should have supported the school board on whatever decision it made.

“I will do everything legislatively I can now to make that ruling overturn,” he said.

Murray said going forward, he’d like more background information, followed by adequate discussion, before making decisions.

“I really need guidance from superintendent, which we get,” he said. “We need to get together and talk about. I can’t go by what we talked about last September... our government doesn’t do always the right thing and locally, things are different. Don’t be disappointed in the Rec Board for that. We are doing what we think are best for the kids and that’s why that decision was made... we weren’t trying to defy the board, we were trying to do what’s best for the kids.”


Bronco football

Overall record 3-4

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RLMC adds offsite testing location
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Rainy Lake Medical Center patients who need a COVID-19 test will no longer get swabbed in the hospital parking lot.

Instead, patients will report — by appointment only — to the former Top 10 Video building, located at 1229 Third St., International Falls.

RLMC CEO Robb Pastor said protocol to receive a test remains the same, and walk-ins will not be accepted. Once patients arrive at the site for their scheduled test, they will be given instructions on how to proceed before entering the building. Call 218-598-5158 for an appointment.

In addition to the safety of testing within a building, the move comes as Koochiching County sees an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Pastor said hospital staff is performing about 20-30 tests daily, noting how testing evolved since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

“Our ability to test has increased significantly,” he said.

With that, however, comes challenges.

Pastor said Rainy Lake Medical Center receives a weekly allotment of rapid tests, which are performed in house. Because the supply is limited, criteria needed to be developed for who qualifies for those tests.

“Sometimes we get calls from the community and they’re unhappy when they don’t meet our criteria for the quick test,” Pastor said, adding those tests are reserved for hospital employees, surgical patients, teachers, law enforcement officers and EMS personnel. “We reserve them for those groups as long as we have enough.”

COVID fatigue

As the pandemic enters its ninth month, Pastor acknowledged COVID fatigue, a term used to describe the lingering tiredness that is constant and limiting caused by all that is and has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That fatigue has likely been the force behind negative interactions from community members to hospital staff.

“We’re finding people are hitting the end of the rope,” Pastor said. “While we get that, (staff) is doing the best they can.”

He urged community members to show compassion toward RLMC staff, who have been on the COVID frontlines since March.

“My main goals are to keep employees safe and keep the community safe,” Pastor said. “The things we are doing are for the protection of our staff and ultimately the community. We’re doing everything we can to ensure we’re here for anyone who needs us.”

Avoiding layoffs

The health care industry, like so many others, has felt the impact of the pandemic through layoffs, furloughs, facility closures and more.

Pastor said the RLMC board of directors, along with the facility’s executive team, made it a priority early on to avoid workforce reductions.

“With everything going on, we didn’t want to have people worry about work and if they’d still have a job,” he said.

The facility has been able to take advantage of various programs to continue that goal, and Pastor expressed pride in keeping staff employed.

The dedication and effort returned by staff shows.

Earlier this year, Rainy Lake Medical Center was surveyed on its infection prevention in COVD-19, along with other state mandated surveys, resulting in no citations. Pastor referred to the accomplishment as “unheard of,” putting into context that he’s never worked in a facility that didn’t receive any citations from various surveys.

“Even though COVID is consuming a lot of our time, it hasn’t taken our eye off all the other things we need to be doing,” he said.

On that note, he urged patients not to delay necessary medical care.

“We want anyone to come in and get the services they need,” Pastor said. “When in doubt, we want you to come.”