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In the Field With . . .

Steve Hirsch DNR Division of Ecological Resources


The DNR is integrating Ecological Resources and Waters into a new division focused on watersheds. The new division will monitor and promote ecosystem health, rare resources, and biodiversity in addition to promoting sustainable use of surface water and ground water.

Q What drove the move to combine the two divisions?

A big part of it was trying to address the interrelationship between what happens on the land and what happens in the water. We've been aware of the need to take more of a watershed approach for a long time, but the incremental improvement we've been making in integrating resource management isn't going to be enough to address some of the big challenges coming down the pike, like climate change, invasive species, and population growth. So we really felt we needed to take a big step.

What we're looking for is to build on the strengths of each division and to blend the science of hydrology and ecology. We can enhance the programs of both divisions by looking at ways to make the regulatory programs more effective and delivery of information to other units of government and other groups more effective, so that people make better land-use decisions in the long run.

Q How do scientists identify ecosystems in need of protection or restoration?

The [Minnesota] County Biological Survey is the systematic survey we do county by county in the state to identify rare resources -- both aquatic and terrestrial. This provides the baseline information for areas that have threatened and endangered species, rare plant communities, and other unique features. Another example would be our rivers and streams programs, which look at river systems in a holistic way to determine what changes are needed to restore habitat.

Q Your division has completed work on ambitious statewide projects. How does the DNR put such projects to use?

Tomorrow's Habitat for the Wild and Rare is a strategic plan for addressing wildlife species in greatest conservation need. Some of them are already listed as threatened, endangered, or special concern. Others are species where the trends could be problematic if existing land use and practices continue. What we focus on is: What are the key habitats that need to be protected or restored in order to make sure the trend for these species doesn't continue down the wrong path? That's one example.

The Rare Species Guide, which was recently published online, is the state's authoritative reference on Minnesota's endangered, threatened, and special-concern species. This information is extremely valuable for the department when it's planning its projects, but also for local units of government and nonprofit organizations as they look at ways to protect these species in the face of development or to improve these species by habitat restoration projects.

Q What big projects is the division working on now?

We have a huge expansion of our invasive species program: a budget increase from $2.3 million annually in fiscal year 2007 to currently about $4.9 million annually. We're also starting to ramp up our Clean Water Legacy program. We're working on environmental impact statements for three mining projects right now: Polymet, which would be the first copper-nickel mining in Minnesota, and the Keetac and Mesabi Nugget projects as well.

Q Tell us about any recent highlights or surprising finds.

The Minnesota County Biological Survey is always good for surprising finds. This past year they found the first Itasca County location of Blanding's turtles. They also found populations of ram's head orchids in Hubbard County in a wildlife management area and on county-owned land. In southwestern Minnesota, they found 100 new locations of rare plants and rock outcrops, which [Minnesota Conservation Volunteer] recently featured in an article by Fred Harris. Another recent highlight is designation of Seminary Fen as a scientific and natural area. This is an outstanding resource that we were able to preserve within the metro area, which I think is a huge accomplishment.

Find the DNR's recently published Rare Species Guide.

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