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Researchers pore through dusty records, modern databases to identify every creature and plant in Minnesota

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Some of the records are in journals filed away in cabinets of small universities across the state. Some are in the hand-scribbled notes that priests and nuns used a century ago to teach about Minnesota’s plants. Others are in the meticulously kept collections, computers and notebooks of professors, bird watchers and botanists.

Now the goal is to get all known records of every living thing that’s been found in Minnesota into a single public online database — the Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas.

“There might be a specimen of a very rare thing in some of these smaller collections,” said George Weiblen, the science director of the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum. “That’s where we find these little gems. The answers to some of our big questions are potentially sitting in a cabinet somewhere, and now is the time to get them, before we lose a lot of these old notebooks.”

Weiblen and other researchers with the Bell Museum are painstakingly expanding the atlas to include the collections and biodiversity records of other colleges, agencies and nonprofit groups across the state. This month they began adding thousands of insect, plant and animal records from Concordia College and Minnesota State University Moorhead.

When it’s finished, the atlas will be the most comprehensive record of living things in the state and offer biologists and wildlife managers a powerful tool to find out where and why species are struggling the most, and where they are thriving.

The work comes as the world faces a mass extinction crisis, as countless species in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest are being lost to habitat destruction, climate change and pesticides.

The biodiversity atlas doesn’t just show what’s been lost; it can be used to map out how certain species are spreading and predict where plants and animals are going to be in the near future, Weiblen said.

“Our environment is changing faster than ever before in human history,” he said. “Change is challenging for all of us. We don’t like change. We don’t like things we can’t control. But those are two of the most fundamental aspects of nature. So we’re going to need to adapt.”

The online atlas was created in 2016 with the digitization of the Bell Museum’s vast records in St. Paul. It’s now grown to more than 650,000 records of plants and animals, ranging from beetles and minnows to moose and bear.

It’s already helped scientists understand one of the region’s more drastic die-offs.

In 2019, researchers at the College of William and Mary in Virginia used the atlas, along with similar databases in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest, to find out when the massive decline of monarch butterflies began. The leading theory at the time had been that herbicides used on genetically modified crops over the last few decades killed off the milkweed that monarch caterpillars needed to survive.

But researchers found that Minnesota’s milkweed has been steadily disappearing since the 1940s, long before modified crops became widely used. The consolidation of smaller farms and the loss of farmland to development most likely are the main factors in the decline of monarchs, the study concluded.

“It’s research like that that really helps us decide where we need to focus our efforts here,” Weiblen said.

The collections at Concordia College and Minnesota State Moorhead will help fill in a gap in the atlas of western Minnesota species, especially insects.

Concordia has collected more than 4,500 specimens of insects, including tiger beetles, a wide variety of bees and other prairie natives, said Joseph Whittaker, a biologist and professor at Concordia.

“The great thing about this is that it makes these collections and this data really approachable for the public,” he said. “It will help scientists who need to find specific specimens to study genetics, and it’s going to help third-grade teachers and students and just interested people find the spread of rare species, and learn more about what’s in their backyard.”

While the atlas does show species in decline, it also shows an impressive resilience in wildlife, Weiblen said.

Minnesota’s recent history shows how quickly species can bounce back if given the right attention, he said, pointing to the recovery of eagles, wolves and peregrine falcons.

Sometimes the solutions are relatively simple and cheap.

Digging out a series of shallow oxbow ponds a few feet deep and less than 100 yards long seems to have entirely saved one of Minnesota’s most endangered fish — the Topeka shiner.

The towering old cottonwood trees that have been dying off in the Mississippi River’s flood plains are starting to come back. All it took was digging small trenches to provide a fresh layer of silt for seedlings to take root, Weiblen said.

“Sometimes we just have to pay attention, we just have to get out there and look at stuff,” he said.

The hope is the atlas will encourage more people to start logging what they see and when, and to keep adding more observations.



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Trump, GOP weaponize Minnesota Freedom Fund in attacks on Kamala Harris

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What began as a small charitable nonprofit founded by a University of Minnesota business school student has again become ammunition for attacks against Kamala Harris’s record on crime.

A day after Joe Biden bowed out from the presidential race, as Donald Trump’s campaign recalibrated its attacks on Harris as the Democrat frontrunner, Minnesota Trump Campaign Chair and U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer posted on X that Harris once supported “a bail fund for Minnesota criminals who should have stayed behind bars. One convict she sprung from prison killed a man after Kamala helped release him.”

Fox News followed with a headline saying the “Kamala Harris-backed” organization has “put murderers, rapists back on streets.”

And on Tuesday, Trump’s official war room account posted a photo of Harris to X alongside a mugshot of Jaleel Stallings, a Minneapolis man the account describes as being “charged with the attempted murder of two police officers” in 2020.

“[Harris] raised money to bail Stallings out of jail,” read the caption. “Kamala Harris is radically liberal and dangerously incompetent.”

The post fails to mention Stallings was found not guilty by a jury — or that one of the arresting officers was convicted of assault for beating him up.

These political attacks—some misleading or false—stem from a Harris social media post four years ago. After George Floyd’s murder, the Vice President encouraged her followers to help arrested protestors by donating to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a Minneapolis-based non-profit that pays criminal and immigration bonds for people in Twin Cities jails and detention facilities.

The Freedom Fund was started in fall 2016 by Simon Cecil, then a graduate student completing dual master’s degrees in business and public policy. In the beginning, Cecil had a meager $10,000, half from a University of Minnesota grant program and the rest from an ideas competition. Cecil paid bails capped at $1,000 in the early days—some as low as $50—for people accused of committing low-level crimes.

The fund has since ballooned into a multi-million-dollar organization, largely after a deluge of donations in 2020, and become perennial fodder for attacks on Harris and other Democrats.

Since its inception, the Freedom Fund has posted criminal bail for 2,537 people who were charged and awaiting trial in jail, and another 463 immigration bonds, according to data provided by organization as of May 2024. The bail fund’s staff describe its mission as a way to level the playing field in the system of cash bail in America, where impoverished people sit in jail when they are presumed innocent because they can’t pay nominal fees.

“That’s one of our core beliefs that motivates our work: everyone, regardless of wealth, is entitled to this presumption of innocence,” said Freedom Fund spokesperson Noble Frank.

Harris’s tweet from 2020 is the extent of her support for the organization, said Frank. “We’ve had no connection with her other than that.”

Some of the people bailed out by the Freedom Fund have gone on to commit violent crimes while on release, such as George Howard, who was convicted in a deadly road rage shooting after the organization helped secure his release.

Frank said these cases are rare, and critics mischaracterize the bail fund’s role in the system to link it to Harris. Contrary to Emmer’s tweet, the Freedom Fund does not—and could not—arrange the release of people who have been found guilty of a crime and are serving prison sentences. Bail is only available to people who are awaiting trial for pending charges, and who have been granted the opportunity for bail by a judge.

Emmer did not respond to a request for an interview about his remarks.

Frank said the organization now places limits on who it will bail out, such as not paying for the same person in a year period. Staff also evaluates court appearance history, criminal past and factors like mental illness or risk of losing employment and housing in determining whether to post a person’s bond.

Frank said about one-third of the people bailed out by the Freedom Fund have ultimately been exonerated. That includes Stallings.

In 2020, a jury exonerated Stallings after body-camera video showed Minneapolis officers firing projectiles at him without warning from an unmarked vehicle five days after Floyd’s murder. Stallings, who was standing in a parking lot, returned fire with a licensed gun in what he later described as an act of self defense. The officers brutally beat and arrested him.

Then-Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said later that police “grossly misled” his office on the evidence. The city paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit with Stallings.

Bail in the United States dates back the nation’s founding, and so do bail funds.

The first was started by Declaration of Independence-signer Benjamin Rush, who helped people navigate the bail system so they didn’t have to linger in jail awaiting trial, said Kellen Funk, a legal historian who teaches a seminar on bail at Columbia Law School.

Throughout the 19th Century, charitable groups often raised money to pay bail for what they believed were unjust charges. Funk cited examples of abolitionists collecting funds to bail out an operator of the Underground Railroad in Maryland. After the Civil War, he said, a group raised $100,000 to bail out Confederate leader Jefferson Davis.

“This political trick has a long history,” said Funk. “But it’s always been the case that the law of bail is rather indifferent to the source.”

Back then, bail usually did not have money attached to it; in most cases, it was simply a pledge to return to court, said Funk. In the 20th Century, courts in the United States began using money more broadly as an incentive for people to appear. If they did return to court, the money was returned in full. This led to the rise of the commercial bondsman, a for-profit enterprise that charges a fee for posting cash bail.

As the criminal justice system has changed over the centuries, this is where bail reformers say it has gone very wrong. The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits “excessive” bail. Yet 34 percent of Americans charged with crimes linger in jail pretrial for no other reason than they can’t afford to pay, according to a 2016 report by the Harvard Law School.

“Many low-level offenders are being held simply because they cannot afford the money amount up front,” Funk said. “They’re presumed innocent. No evidence has come in. Very often the evidence is exonerating when it comes in, but people will even plead guilty for crimes they did not commit just to end their pretrial detention.”

Modern-era bail funds have emerged as a Band-Aid to close this gap, said Funk. Some municipalities, including New York City and the state of New Jersey, have dramatically curtailed the use of cash bail.

In recent years, lack of transparency around Minnesota’s bail system has fueled criticisms across the criminal spectrum.

The Trump campaign first attacked the Freedom Fund in 2020 for its role in bailing out people arrested after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd, leading to Minnesota Republicans pushing a bill that would require more publicly available information as to who is posting the bond. Months later, when an anonymous benefactor paid Chauvin’s bail, hundreds marched down Minneapolis streets in protest of his release.

This week, MAGA Inc., a Trump super PAC, posted to X that a person arrested for rioting in 2020 was bailed out by the Freedom Fund and charged with murder. The Freedom Fund said they have no record of such a case.

Frank said the Freedom Fund has been inundated with unwanted attention as the attacks are revived on the national stage.

“The work that we do is unpopular,” Frank said, “especially during an election cycle.”



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Rapidan Dam Store to move to new location in downtown Mankato

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The Rapidan Dam Store, a restaurant southwest of Mankato that was demolished after flooding in June overran the nearby dam, may soon have a new home.

The Hruska family that has owned the store since 1972 is in the final stages of talks that would reopen the restaurant temporarily in a location in downtown Mankato, the family and a local realtor said.

The deal is finalized but still needs approvals from the city, said David Hruska, co-owner of the restaurant. The restaurant, known for its burgers and pies, would reopen on South Front Street, at the former location of the Wagon Wheel café.

“It’s close, but it’s got a couple steps to go before that’s done,” said Hruska, who owns the store along with his sister Jenny Barnes.

The Rapidan Dam Store was demolished in June by Blue Earth County officials as a safety measure following flooding on the Blue Earth River. The flooding, the second worst measured on the river, overran the nearby dam and swept away the Hruska family’s home, along with a playground, trees and other debris.

The family received approximately $40,000 for the building and still owns the land, which has shrunk due to the flood scouring away the bedrock near the river.

The final terms for the Rapidan Dam Store to move into the new location have been signed as of Tuesday afternoon, said Dain Fisher, a Mankato realtor and friend of the Hruskas who has been helping them relocate.

“It’s going to be exciting for the Dam Store to be in the heart of Mankato,” Fisher said Tuesday. The remaining steps involve approval by the city, he added.

A spokesman for Mankato city government confirmed the Hruska family is going through approval processes to move their business. The next steps are a planning commission meeting Wednesday and a city council meeting on Aug. 12, said Paul David, communications director for Mankato.

Use of the old Wagon Wheel location would be donated to the family for $1 for four months, said Kyle Smith of the Tailwind Group, which owns the building.

The family would have to pay their own expenses at the space, which has been vacant for several years, Smith said Tuesday.

The Wagon Wheel location will probably need a new floor and replacement ceiling tiles, as well as a professional cleaning, Hruska said.

The Rapidan Dam Store could reopen by the end of August at the earliest, Hruska said, adding that September is more likely.



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Pedestrian struck and killed by Metro Transit train in St. Paul

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A pedestrian was struck and killed by a Metro Transit Green Line light-rail train in St. Paul on Tuesday.

The incident occurred shortly after 3:30 p.m. near the intersection of University Avenue and Syndicate Street N., just east of Hamline Avenue, according to Nikki Muehlhausen, a spokesperson for the Metro Transit Police Department.

The pedestrian was pronounced dead at the scene, she said, and an investigation is underway.

No other information was available.

Buses were replacing trains between the Fairview Avenue and Western Avenue stations while the scene was being cleared, Muehlhausen said.



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