Ecological Monitoring Network

image of a quadrat plot and a plant ecologist assessing plant species abundance

Improving land use decision making and sustainable resource management through greater reliance on scientific knowledge

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources established the Ecological Monitoring Network in 2017 to track ecological change throughout the state. We will provide data on how the state’s native plant communities are changing in the face of new challenges, such as climate change, invasive species, and increasing habitat fragmentation. This effort is being led by the Minnesota Biological Survey, in collaboration with other DNR divisions and partners such as The Nature Conservancy, the University of Minnesota, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Why Monitor?

ecological monitoring in near Pembina, MN Habitat monitoring in Pembina Wildlife Management Area.

Minnesota’s native grasslands, wetlands, and forests provide recreation, timber, water filtration, habitat for wildlife and pollinators, flood protection, carbon storage, and other valuable ecosystem services to Minnesotans. These services are threatened by direct and indirect stressors, such as changes in climate and management, increases in non-native invasive species and pollution, and increased pressure on land and water use.

Bees and other insect pollinators are also facing similar environmental challenges, in addition to habitat loss and degradation and population declines related to parasites and disease. Pollinators are vital to maintaining the diversity and reproduction of flowering plants, which are essential components of grasslands, wetlands and forests. There is currently no comprehensive statewide monitoring network that consistently measures and evaluates changes in the vegetation that comprises native grasslands, wetlands, and forests. Without such information, it will be increasingly difficult to detect which factors are driving environmental changes.


ecological monitoring in near Kertsonville, MN Habitat monitoring near Kertsonville, MN.

  • Create a statewide vegetation monitoring network.
  • Provide information on the status and trends in structure, composition, and condition of native grasslands, wetlands, and forests. 
  • Design a scientifically rigorous monitoring approach that is fiscally responsible.
  • Provide information to managers and others in a timely manner so that inferences can be made about ecosystem health as a result of stressors.
  • Aid decision making by natural resource managers, legislators, local units of government, conservation organizations, and land owners to improve conservation, management, policy and land-use decisions.
  • Complement existing long-term monitoring projects in grasslands, wetlands and forests that span several agencies and organizations.
  • Design a monitoring network that can be used for research by ecologists, wildlife biologists, entomologists, and other scientists.   
  • Collect a baseline survey of selected groups of pollinating insect species occurring in targeted vegetation types and use this information to inform future monitoring of pollinators related to vegetation.


  • Assess current and long-term trends in vegetation composition, structure and condition within native grasslands, wetlands and forests.
  • Track long-term trends in magnitude and extent of browse on vegetation.
  • Document status and trends in non-native invasive plant species presence and cover.
  • Document plant community change by assigning plots to Minnesota native plant community types in the field and assess quality and condition of native plant communities over time.
  • Document status and trends in forest structure.
  • Track long-term trends in forest succession by tracking height and diameter (DBH) and by documenting tree mortality and regeneration.
  • Determine status and trends in the volume of coarse woody debris.
  • Track changes in canopy cover in forest stands.

Landscape Context

  • Determine relationships between landscape context (e.g., size of surrounding natural area and proximity of anthropogenic land use) and changes in native grassland, wetland, and forest vegetation.


  • Assess soil type and health in order to relate it to trends in grasslands, wetlands, and forests.
    • Qualitatively assess topographic position, aspect, and soil type at the onset of monitoring.
  • In upland forests, assess forest floor condition and compaction by documenting litter type and depth and amount of exposed bare soil. In addition, using a rapid assessment method, track impacts of earthworms using visual indicators to understand potential effects on vegetation or soil compaction.
  • In peatlands, document organic soil depth and depth to mineral soil and track status and trends in substrate as it relates to peat type, hummock height, and dominant bryophytes.


  • Assess hydrology and its relationships to trends in wetland vegetation.
    • Document long-term changes in hydrology in select sites that represent a spectrum of wetland types.
    • Assess status and trends of pH in wetland vegetation.

Pollinators and Other Wildlife

  • Collect baseline surveys of select groups of pollinating insect species occurring in targeted vegetation types.
  • Document high priority vegetation characteristics related to wildlife habitat (e.g. snags and depth of leaf litter).

Pests and Pathogens

  • Assess the extent and degree of known pest and pathogen outbreaks.  
Field Methods

Data are collected along three 45 meter parallel transects. Woody plants in the tree canopy and subcanopy layer are sampled in a 45 x 10 meter subplot centered along each transect. Woody plants and vines in the shrub layer, and groundlayer plants, are sampled in 24, 1 meter² quadrats (includes a small nested plot) placed every 5 meters along each transect.

Depending on the habitat, various other components are added that are not shown, such as deer browse and coarse woody debris metrics, water chemistry, or measurements of grassland structure. A few of the elements of this design are subject to change as we continue to refine our metrics to best capture the data.

EMN Background and Standard Operating Procedures


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Nathan Dahlberg, Project Coordinator
Ecological Monitoring Network
[email protected]

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). The Trust Fund is a permanent fund constitutionally established by the citizens of Minnesota to assist in the protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.

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