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State government shutdown: DNR couple takes it easy as wildlife, fisheries jobs remain on hold

From left, Christine Herwig adjusts the collar of her Nubian goat as her husband, Brian Herwig, helps keep the goat steady. The Herwigs have been laid off for nearly two weeks from their jobs with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. They now have plenty of time to play with their four goats on their farm east of Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

Keeping an eye on ring-necked ducklings is normally what Christine Herwig would be doing on a day like today. Her husband, Brian Herwig, would typically be testing the water in nearby lakes or sampling for fish.

These days, however, the Herwigs have been at home, weeding their garden, fixing their goat pen and occasionally listening to the news. Both were employees of the Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji and are now laid off as the government shutdown continues.

Diving ducks

Christine worked as a natural resource specialist at the DNR's wetland wildlife populations and research group in Bemidji. Her job was tracking ring-necked ducks on lakes in the Bemidji area.

With help from summer interns, Christine was part of a research team which spent the last three summers looking for ring-necked ducks - what lakes they use, where they build nests, what the nests are made of, how many eggs the hens lay, the number of ducklings that survive and where the ducklings go after leaving the nest.

But in the middle of the fourth field season, the research team's project was shut down. This is frustrating, Christine said, because she and others had put in six weeks' worth of effort in tracking these birds.

"We search about 12 hours to find one nest," she said. "We have low sample sizes, so it takes a long time to do the research."

The waterfowl project began after wildlife researchers looked at results from ongoing waterfowl surveys that started several decades ago. The surveys indicated the number of ring-necked ducks was declining in the Bemidji area.

"There's concern from my group that maybe something is going on with ring-necks," Christine said.

Ring-necked ducks can be found on northern, small, wooded lakes or ponds during the migration season. The birds dive to eat their food and rely on aquatic plants as well as some snails, water insects and small fish.

These ducks are important, Christine said, because they are one of the most common birds that hunters and birdwatchers can encounter in this area. They are also one of only a few species of waterfowl that can tolerate wooded areas, she added.

By the time the state government reopens, Christine said it is unlikely she will know what happened to the ducks her team was previously tracking.

While she can relocate the nests and look for evidence that eggs were hatched, she will not know how many ducklings survived.

"We have five birds that we aren't going to really know what happens to their ducklings," she said.

If the government shutdown continues into early August, another research opportunity might be delayed or cut short. Christine plans to partake in a study that looks for parasites that affect lesser and greater scaup, waterfowl which are also called "bluebills."

"There's an invasive snail that carries a worm-like parasite," Christine said. "When these ducks eat the snails, the parasite imbeds into their intestinal lining and can cause these birds to bleed to death."

Putting the ring-necked duck project on hold is difficult to grasp, Christine explained, because of the amount of time she has put into finding the ducks and locating their nests.

"There's a good chance we'll be able to use some of the data from this year, but we won't have a comparable year from the previous years," she said.

Some of the interns she has worked with, she added, are struggling to stay in Bemidji because of money issues.

"They are renting places and it's hard when the money is not coming in," Christine said. "But some of them need this experience in order to graduate and so it's really sad to see them anxious and nervous about losing the experience."

Shallow lakes

Brian has worked for the DNR's fisheries research unit in the division of fish and wildlife in Bemidji for 11 years.

This is the third summer he has helped coordinate research at a regional level as part of a statewide study on smaller lakes (about 15 feet deep or less).

Brian is one of several DNR employees and researchers from other organizations who are taking part in the three-year study which looks at roughly 150 lakes in the state.

"Northern Minnesota lakes look different than lakes in the southwest part of the state," Brian said. "We're trying to look at various influences such as climate change, agriculture, fertilizer and urbanization on these lakes."

This third and final season of pond research has been cut short due to the government shutdown. This affects many people, Brian said.

The shallow lakes study is a widespread, collaborative project, he explained, which involves more than just the DNR. Brian has traveled to Itasca State Park, the Chippewa National Forest and the Red Lake Indian Reservation to sample lakes. Various state and non-state officials have assisted with this research.

With the third and final field season now interrupted, Brian said he is concerned about what effect the shutdown will have on the study's end results.

"If it goes much more than beyond this week, I doubt we'll be able to visit some sites one more time," Brian said.

Shallow lakes and ponds are important, Brian said, because many species of wildlife depend on them for survival.

Having three solid years of research collected is critical, he added. Due to funding issues, the research must be completed in three years.

"I'm disappointed because we have a lot invested in it," Brian said. "I feel worse for the interns, especially those we brought in from other states. By early August, some may have to go home."

Money concerns

For the last two weeks, Brian and Christine have kept busy taking care of home projects that would have likely sat on the back burner.

But money is a big concern for them. In the past two years the couple purchased a house, new vehicles, and a handful of goats and chickens. Right now they have enough to get by, Christine said, but only for a few weeks.

Both have applied to receive unemployment benefits and Christine, especially, is keeping a careful eye on their spending.

"We're worried because we don't know how long it will last," she added.

Christine said she may even consider looking for a part-time job if the shutdown continues for months.

Despite their shutdown woes, Brian and Christine both agreed their dog and farm animals have been appreciative of the extra attention they have been receiving from their owners.