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The Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center (UMESC) was founded in 1959 as a laboratory dedicated to the development of chemical agents for the control of common carp.

The UMESC was originally named the Fish Control Laboratory, associated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Bureau of Sport Fisheries. The UMESC tested and screened thousands of pesticides for possible use in Federal and State fishery management projects. The UMESC was responsible for developing guidelines for testing pesticide toxicity, effectiveness, and safety (for fish, the environment, and humans). Within a few years this work was expanded to include therapeutic and anesthetic drugs, and disinfectants.

In 1968, UMESC’s mission was expanded to include chemical and biological research into the control of sea lamprey in the Great Lakes. The UMESC supplied technical assistance and research to support the binational (US and Canada) Great Lakes Fishery Commission’s highly successful Sea Lamprey Control Program. By controlling population levels of sea lamprey, the restoration of commercial and sport fisheries was possible.

History of UMESC
History of UMESC(Public domain.)

During the 1970’s, the UMESC was relocated to a new laboratory and office complex located on La Crosse’s French Island. At this time two other FWS research groups became colocated at UMESC. The expanded research activities at the laboratory included the ecology of large rivers, fish, and wildlife; the effects of commercial navigation; and environmental contaminants. In 1978 the building was renamed the National Fisheries Research Laboratory.

In 1986, Congress authorized the Environmental Management Program (EMP) for the Upper Mississippi River (UMR). The Long Term Resource Monitoring (LTRM) component of the EMP was administered by the FWS Environmental Management Technical Center (EMTC) as a Federal-State partnership program. The LTRM monitors the health and status of the UMR, analyzes data to better understand how the UMR functions, forecasts potential future river conditions, and provides river managers and researchers access to data in a timely fashion. The EMTC was located in a facility in Onalaska, Wisconsin

In 1994, the Department of the Interior (DOI) reorganized the FWS and other DOI agencies. Both UMESC and the EMTC were taken out of the FWS and placed in the newly created National Biological Service (NBS). It was also decided that UMESC’s mission should be expanded to officially include all research programs that were co-located at UMESC. The UMESC was now renamed the Upper Mississippi Science Center.

 In 1996, the NBS was dissolved. All NBS science centers and the EMTC became a part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In 1998, UMESC’s current name was adopted (Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center). In 1999 the USGS expanded the mission of UMESC again, and officially merged UMESC with the EMTC. In 2004, the UMESC’s Onalaska office was closed and everyone relocated to UMESC’s French Island facility.

Today UMESC is a science center with a diverse mission that conducts research and monitoring activities in 20+ states and Canada. Through the LTRM the UMESC has six Federal-state cooperative field stations, operated by the Illinois Natural History Survey, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Minnesota DNR, Missouri Department of Conservation, and Wisconsin DNR. In all, nearly 150 people currently work at UMESC and its field stations.

The UMESC is located on 65 acres of federally owned land. 

It has a 70,000 square-foot research facility that contains state-of-the-art laboratories, 50+ experimental ponds and raceways, and a sophisticated water handling and treatment facility that allows for work with a variety of aquatic chemicals, fish, and wildlife species (including invasive species and fish diseases).

During UMESC’s 50-year history, while its name and organization structure have changed several times, the Center’s mission has remained clear. Provide the scientific information needed by resource managers, researchers, decision makers, and the public; to protect, enhance, and restore the ecosystems in the Upper Mississippi River Basin, the Midwest, and the world. Current research and monitoring programs include:

  1. Understanding large rivers and how they support humans, ecosystems, and economies
  2. Developing maps (Mississippi River, National Parks), visualization tools and decision aides for resource managers
  3. Controlling aquatic invasive species
  4. Developing chemicals and drugs to maintain healthy fish
  5. Restoring threatened and endangered species (amphibians, fish, mussels and birds)
  6. Determining contaminant effects on wildlife, as sentinels for human health (terrestrial, aquatic)