Environmental stories

Iowa State University

With Iowa trees readying themselves for fall and the changing colors of leaves, look no further than Ames, Iowa for a new healthy seedling.  Bill Graves, Associate Dean of the Graduate College and Professor of Horticulture at Iowa State University, says he is excited about the Swamp White Oaks offered this year.  Graves loves to see people who enthusiastically purchase trees from ISU as well as discovering what becomes of those trees.


More than two dozen mayors from Mississippi River cities and towns gathered in Dubuque this week to talk about clean water and climate change. They are finding a unified voice to address issues important to communities from Bemidji, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico.

Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol is co-chair of the three-and-a-half year old effort called the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.

The project includes a strong push to reduce nutrient levels in the massive waterway.

Buol says Dubuque already has a 10-to-15 million-dollar plan to do just that.

Ann Froschauer / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If you’ve noticed more bats lately, you’re not alone.

“It’s the breeding season, so there’s a lot going on,” explains wildlife biologist Jim Pease.  “They are also getting ready to migrate. Bats have to build up a large fat reserve, so they are out doing lots of flying around and eating this time of year.”

Pease says bats are also more visible this time of year because of the change in air temperature between the indoors and outdoors.

“There’s lots of air flow this time of year and bats follow that air flow,” he says.

Lindsey Moon / Iowa Public Radio

Despite the fact that the legislature has increased state funding for water quality initiatives by millions of dollars since the 1980s, we haven't seen substantial improvements since then.

That’s according to Keith Schilling, who researches water for the Iowa Geological Survey.

“I recently looked at 50 rivers’ nitrate levels. Only six had changed since 1980, and those increased in nitrate concentration,” he says.

Talkin' Trash At UNI

Sep 2, 2015
IPR's Pat Blank

The director of the University of Northern Iowa’s physical plant has been talking trash, but that’s a good thing. Mike Zwanziger is overseeing a new mixed recycling program on campus that accepts everything except glass and Styrofoam using just two containers.

Clay Masters / IPR

  New figures from Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship show 1,800 Iowa farmers have taken advantage of $3.5 million in state money meant to reduce pollutants from their fields. The state’s largest water utility says the figures divert attention from Iowa’s slide toward accepting environmental mediocrity.

courtesy of Nathan Weiner

Nathan Weiner grew up in Iowa City, miles away from any naturally occurring wildfires. But after using controlled burns to restore Iowa landscape, he made his way out West.

"Whether it was burning a prairie or burning a woodland, we used prescribed fire to help that get back to its natural state, and once we started doing that, I just got bit by the fire bug, as they call it."

reynermedia / Flickr

Earlier this week, a new report by the US Department of Energy showed that costs continue to decline while turbine technology becomes more efficient. All of this, along with the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, means wind energy is having a moment.

Michael Leland

If  you’re paddling one of Iowa’s rivers, out for a walk, or even driving down a highway the sight of a big white bird passing overhead has become common, but that wasn’t always the case.

On this wildlife day edition of Talk of Iowa, Charity Nebbe sits down with wildlife biologist Jim Pease to discuss Iowa’s big white birds. These birds, including pelicans, great egrets and trumpeter swans, almost disappeared from the state, but are once again common.

Raptor Resource Project

The Decorah Eagles have lost the person who helped put them in the world's spotlight. The Raptor Resource Project's blog reports Bob Anderson passed away this morning.

Anderson's internet bird cam of the Decorah Eagles went live 2011. Almost overnight, the birds became one of the world's largest wildlife education programs. Former director of the MacBride Raptor Project in Solon Jodeane Cancilla says the eagles' bird cam was an important resource.

Joyce Russell/IPR

Representative of Iowa industries which emit more than 100 tons of material into the atmosphere each year were at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Air Quality Bureau today.

They’re weighing in on plans to raise their fees to better enforce the Federal  Clean Air Act. 

The DNR proposes a new $24,000 application fee for operating permits.   Also companies would pay more each year per ton of emissions.   

Bureau  Chief Catherine Fitzsimmons says with the new money, the DNR can hire more staff.  

Carla Kishinami

There are 10 species of woodpeckers in Iowa, and while woodpeckers are the type of birds that are sometimes heard but not seen, their drumming does have a purpose. Wildlife biologist Jim Pease explains that it’s like a song.

Andrew Fuller

Iowa State University Extension climatologist Elwynn Taylor says more than a hundred lightning-caused wildfires burning in Saskatchewan, Canada are giving Iowans some colorful-sky effects.

“Maybe the best thing to look at is the smoke that we’re seeing in the air, giving the sun that mid-day orange tint and the change in light characteristics,” he says. “The sunsets are red and the sunrise is redder than we would expect under normal conditions, typical of smoke in the air.”

Taylor isn’t, however, attributing the current rainy weather to the Canadian wildfires.

Iowa DNR

Trumpeter swans were abundant throughout Iowa in the 1800s, but pioneers commonly shot swans from the sky in fear of potential crop damage and they were harvested to near extinction by hunters. Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife technician Dave Hoffman says thanks to the help of volunteers, these majestic white birds were able to be reintroduced to the state in 1995 and continue making their comeback with more than 45 nesting pairs spotted last year.

David Clarke / Flickr

Last week, the Pope released an encyclical asserting climate change is a moral issue. Father Bud Grant, Catholic priest and professor of environmental ethics at St. Ambrose University, says the message of the encyclical is one of interconnectedness.

"That word 'related' is one of the most frequently used words in the entire document. And that means that if we tug at the environmental thread, we tug at the economic thread and the spiritual thread. They're all wound up together in that seamless garment."

USDA photo by Darin Leach / U.S. Department of Agriculture

The Earth has been through many changes. We can see the evidence when we study the geological record, but looking ahead is harder.

On this edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe explores the science of predicting climate change.  What do we know about the future of our planet, and how can we prepare for what is to come?

Joyce Russell/IPR

By a vote of seven to two, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission Tuesday sided with developers over environmentalists and homeowners when it comes to putting back topsoil after new homes and businesses go up.     

The new rules will no longer require at least four inches of topsoil.     

Federal rules require restoration of topsoil to prevent stormwater runoff, but developers say Iowa’s standard is too strict.      

Don Shall / Flickr

When looking at Iowa waterways, it's easy to overlook the furrier creatures--otters, mink, muskrats, and of course, beavers.  

"They are engineers, there's no question about it," says Jim Pease, wildlife expert.

Facilities management arborist at the University of Iowa, Andy Dahl, decided to take advantage of that engineering instinct.

"What they've actually done is help us open the vistas. They are almost the perfect employees," says Dahl. "They work the night shift, they don't call in sick; they're so efficient I'm afraid they may jump over me in the org chart."

Sam 17 / Flickr

Freda Sojka, CEO of Soothing Solutions, created Bug Soother in the wake of the 2008 floods, when gnats were bothering her five-month-old grandson. She had no idea that less than a decade later it'd be distributed throughout the world.

"If I'd known all that at the beginning, I might have named it differently. We're pretty stuck with the name now," she said with a laugh.

This Spring, Bug Soother launched in the UK. And Sojka is looking at other countries to introduce Bug Soother to; Panama is next on the list.

David Wade Couch / flickr

Though Iowa is known as an agricultural state,  more than 60 percent of Iowans live in cities, and the gulf between rural and urban Iowa is about much more than distance.

courtesy of Bill McKibben

Rapidly melting sea ice, crippling drought, violent storms--author and environmental activist Bill McKibben has been predicting these events for decades.  But now, he says, "We need to get serious about taking care of ourselves."  IPR's Charity Nebbe speaks with McKibben about what it will take to convince humanity to take action on climate change.  McKibben delivered the commencement address at Grinnell College on May 18.

Matthew Paulson / Flickr

Do the deer eat your hostas? Do raccoons share your sweet corn?

Humans and wild animals often clash because we need and want different things from the environment, but there are ways to successfully coexist with the creatures that wander the backyards and farms all across Iowa.

On this Wildlife Day edition of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with wildlife biologist Jim Pease about some principles of gardening with wildlife in mind.

Flickr / Sanofi Pasteur

Climate change is real and humans are contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere; that’s according to the fifth annual Iowa Climate Statement released Monday.

The statement contains signatures of 188 faculty and researchers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities. It warns that Iowans are experiencing negative health effects due to greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

Dan Farber / flickr

Former Vice President Al Gore is in Cedar Rapids this week as part of his Climate Reality Project, a tour meant to teach people how to “take on the climate crisis." Participants in the three day session are encouraged to give press interviews, communicate with government officials, and organize others in the effort against pollution.

Gore says he believes this year is a turning point in government action on climate change, and he believes the environment will be a key issue in the 2016 presidential election.

Colleen Chisman

As wild animals have adapted to our growing cities and towns, more and more people are encountering wildlife in their own backyards. What do you do if the wild animals you find are injured, orphaned, or displaced?

Julie Lesnik

Iowa State University primatologist Jill Pruetz studies the spear-wielding Savannah chimpanzees ofSenegal. Most recently, after documenting more than 300 tool-assisted hunts, the team found that while adult male chimps are the main hunters, it's the female chimps that hunt with tools more than males.

“It’s just another example of diversity in chimp behavior that we keep finding the longer we study wild chimps,” Pruetz says. “It is more the exception than the rule that you’ll find some sort of different behavior, even though we’ve studied chimps extensively.”

Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

  The founder of the advocacy group NextGen Climate made stops in Iowa on Earth Day to ask presidential hopefuls for their support of clean energy initiatives. The wealthy environmentalist plans to spend more time in the state during the 2016 election cycle.

Tom Steyer, a California hedge fund manager, is promising to continue work he started during last year’s Congressional campaigns.

The effort aims to get politicians and voters to pay more attention to environmental issues.

Clay Masters / IPR

  The state’s largest water utility is restarting its nitrate removal equipment because levels of the pollutant are spiking in the rivers Des Moines uses for drinking water. 

The Des Moines Water Works recently sued three northwest Iowa counties (Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties) saying water from agricultural drainage districts contributes to the high level of nitrates. 

reynermedia / Flickr

Evangelical Protestants are more likely than any other religious group to be climate change skeptics, according to a November 2014 report from the Public Religion Research Institute. But one Evangelical Christian disagrees. 

Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist and the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She says it's frustrating that people see religion and climate science as mutually exclusive.

Clay Masters / IPR

It’s that time of year when Midwest farmers are preparing to plant their crops. This year though more may be thinking about the water in their fields, that’s because a lawsuit by Iowa’s largest water utility is targeting the nitrates farms send downstream and polluting the Des Moines metro's drinking water sources. Local governments and big agriculture interest groups alike are now watching this lawsuit.