Survey maps our rare animals and plants

by Pete Olson

DNR botanist

Scott Zager, DNR botanist, is out in the woods and fields of Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Aitkin counties collecting data for the Minnesota County Biological Survey. One of the products of the survey will be a map for county residents to review and to begin discussions on the future of our wild lands.

Originally printed in the Kanabec Times, July 13, 2000.

There is a team of Department of Natural Resources biologists out there in remote areas of Kanabec County. They are searching trails, woods and wetlands this summer surveying rare animals, and native plant communities which inhabit our wild lands.

Scott Zager, plant ecologist for the Minnesota County Biological Survey(MCBS), says the county survey collects data on mature forests, wetlands, and other communities which host an abundance of wildlife. "The focus," says Zager, "is on landscapes that are natural, and the rare and native plants and animals characteristic of the area."

First, the team sent up members in airplanes to get an overview of the county. Then, armed with aerial survey information and infrared photo maps, biologists set out on the ground to look at rare species of plants. Plant ecologists are followed up by biologists who ply the trails and woods looking for rare examples of birds, frogs, salamanders, small mammals, or bats, and many more animals. The combined results of their surveys are plotted on computer generated maps. The purpose is to determine how much of the landscape is dominated by native vegetation. The survey also documents individual populations of plants and rare animals and notes what species occur together as communities.

Zager said that since the survey is a resource assessment, it is important that team members get on private as well as public lands. Obtaining landowner's permission to visit private land is very important to the survey. "We work on both public and private land - with permission - because we want to get a clear and complete picture of what's left" Zager said. For example, folks who own tracts along the Vasaloppet Trail have been very supportive by opening up their lands for the study. Zager added, "Without the inclusion of this large area, our data would not be complete. Some of the best natural areas are private tracts that have been in the same families for two or three generations or more."

Zager and mammalogist Gerda Nordquist recently took a few moments away from the survey to describe the work going on in Kanabec, Aitkin and Mille Lacs counties. They noted that the aerial photos provide the basis for their choice of locales. The various hues of colors on the photos are interpreted as forests, grasslands, wetlands or open water. The aerial infrared photos taken in early May show much detail, Zager explained. With these photos, they can determine the type of forest in an area as well as other kinds of communities such as meadows, marshes, bogs, etc. They can view the tree canopy to evaluate the age and density of the stand. For example, more mature white pine shows up as bright red, because evergreens photosynthesize before oaks and aspens leaf out.

Much of the work is ecological. The survey takes in all factors of vegetation, landscape, geology, climate, hydrology and more, so that the final product will truly consider all the county's features. "It is important to select areas that are representative of the natural landscape. Hopefully they are as least disturbed as possible, so that the natural plant and animal processes are visible" said Zager.

"Our main job is to find out what all the pieces of the puzzle are," Zager said. "We can't obtain a complete inventory but we do get a pretty good idea of the area's resources." A big part of the job for these biologists is to look for plants and animals that are considered endangered, threatened or of special concern. "We are interested in rare species because we want to determine their status in Minnesota: for example, what habitats are they found in? How abundant are they and how frequently do they occur?." "We work off what Scott has learned about vegetation," Nordquist noted. Zoologists know what animals to look for in the various types of cover and geology surveyed by botanists in the survey crew.

Key to the study is finding rare species and recording their occurrences. "The results of our efforts," said Nordquist, "are more like snapshots of the animals found in selected habitats in a county. While certainly this adds to the existing knowledge of where these animals occur and, perhaps, a better feel for their relative abundance in an area, we by no means provide a complete picture of all the animals that are present. Our primary focus ist o find the rare ones."

As animals of the wild tend to be elusive, Nordquist and other zoologists often identify birds, small mammals, and other animals by their calls and other signs they leave behind. Out in the field ahead of Nordquist and Zageron one particular day was a colleague who quietly worked the woodlands in search of birds that were tending their nests or flying about looking for feed. As part of her fascinating study, Nordquist points to a computer device that will hear and print out the almost imperceptible signals of bats that soar at night in search of insects. A printout from the portable "Anabat" ultrasonic bat detector zeroed in on a big brown bat and a hoary bat flying about the Rum River State Forest around 10 to 11 p.m., on the night of June 21. Evidence of the two bat species was added to the checklist of mammals for the Mille Lacs Uplands. The recording will be documentation of the presence of the winged mammals. Actual specimens collected by the Minnesota County Biological Survey are deposited into the permanent collection of the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota.

Zager explained further that Kanabec County is within the ecological area known as the Mille Lacs Uplands. Habitats within the Mille Lacs Uplands are more similar to one another than those in other ecological areas because they share the same soils, geology and plants. Therefore, each native plant community in Kanabec County has combinations of plants and other ecological features that would be expected based upon survey experience elsewhere in the Mille Lacs Uplands. Walking through the woods near the Vasaloppet trail, Zager pointed to the land formations, moraines and low spots that bear evidence to this day of tremendous glacial forces that occurred thousands of years before.

Kanabec County rests in a transitional zone between northern and southern plant and animal species. The survey is finding rare plants and animals that represent both areas. "This is a transition zone that is a gate way to the north," Zager said. Along with the hardwoods characteristic of southern forests, the team finds areas of evergreens, tamaracks and softwoods common to more northern Minnesota climes.

The end product of the diligent survey of Kanabec County's forests and open areas is a map that serves as a baseline. "The legacy of our work, to be useful, rests in the hands of the community," Zager commented." We are here for only a short period of time to discover the natural gems of an area before we move on to other counties. The information we collect remains for the people of the county to use as they see fit," Nordquist said.

The Minnesota County Biological Survey will deliver data on rare plants, rare animals and native plant communities to the Natural Heritage Program for its informational system databases. The Natural Heritage Program provides data, ecological interpretation and technical advice on the findings to public and private landowners to assist in land management and planning. The end product, of interest to local residents and public land managers alike, will also be found in the Natural Community and Rare Species maps, assessments, and project evaluations.

The survey is not aimed at repressing growth, but rather it is intended to give citizens information they need to make intelligent development decisions. It helps people decide where they want to live and how much land they will leave in a natural state. According to Zager, the expected outcome of this survey will be the questions local folks will want to ask: "what can we do to maintain the quality of outdoor life that we now enjoy? And how do we balance growth with maintaining the natural wonders of the county?" Zager stressed that their study has been helped greatly by folks who are their "eyes and ears." People who have found rare species may call in to aid the survey.

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