Research and monitoring

A researcher walks through a prairie with a clipboard
Inspecting porcupine grass in a dry prairie.

Parks and Trails lands have been important places for scientific research and monitoring for decades, in large part because they have:

  • Abundant and healthy native plant communities;
  • Rare and uncommon wildlife habitats; and
  • Intact and highly-functioning water resources.

For these reasons and many more, Minnesota's state parks and trails have been ideal places to study, monitor and learn about the natural world.



Old growth monitoring

Old growth forest once covered over 50% percent of Minnesota's forested regions. Today, only a small fraction remains.

The DNR has had an old growth forest policy since 1994 in order to identify, protect and maintain a viable statewide network of high-quality old growth forests on state lands. 

In 2020, the DNR developed an old growth monitoring program to monitor the status and condition of these old growth forests and to report on any forest management needs. 

In collaboration with other DNR divisions, Parks and Trails Division resource management program staff have been involved in this monitoring program from its inception - helping develop monitoring protocols, vetting and selecting sites and piloting fieldwork methodologies. Resource managers have conducted the majority of the on-the-ground fieldwork at these state park locations. 

The success of the monitoring program will make for higher quality old growth forest habitat for the plants, animals and fungi that rely on what little old growth forests we have left in Minnesota. 

Resource management staff approach an old growth forest monitoring site in Itasca State Park
An old growth monitoring site in Itasca State Park.

Grassland monitoring

The grassland monitoring team is a multi-agency group of grassland managers and scientists organized with the common goal of improving management of native prairie by using standardized protocols and pooling data in an adaptive management framework.

Several Minnesota state parks are the sites of long-term monitoring efforts by the team, including:

The grassland monitoring team is currently a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy.

Resource staff establish prairie monitoring transects.
Resource staff establish prairie monitoring transects.

Ecological monitoring network

Lands administered by the Parks and Trails Division are now part of another important long-term DNR study. In 2017, the Minnesota Biological Survey established the ecological monitoring network to track long-term ecological change in our forests, prairies, and wetlands.

To fully capture Minnesota's diverse habitats, the goal is to establish at least 600 permanent plots, to be resampled every seven to eight years.

Through monitoring, we hope to better understand how Minnesota is changing as a result of climate change, the introduction and spread of invasive species, loss of pollinators, habitat fragmentation, increasing use of land and water resources and other pressures.

Minnesota Biological Survey staff take field notes in a bog.
Minnesota Biological Survey staff take field notes in a bog.

Weather stations

The Parks and Trails Division has partnered with the Minnesota State Climatology Office to capture long-term weather and climate data.  Weather stations have been installed at multiple state park locations across the state.  These weather stations will allow the state climatology office to:

  1. Expand and improve Minnesota's long-term climate monitoring capabilities to aid in understanding of long-term climate change;
  2. Collect climatic data inputs for evapotranspiration monitoring that our partners and users will use to inform irrigation scheduling, planning and decision-making; and
  3. Improve the coverage and availability of real-time and archived climatic data. 

Weather station at Great River Bluffs State Park.
A weather station at Great River Bluffs State Park.

Long-term wetland hydrology monitoring network

Several Minnesota state park wetlands are part of a long-term DNR hydrology study. The hydrology monitoring network consists of 60 stations that will continuously record hydrology at selected wetlands, with the intent of operating through a range of climatic cycles.

It is very difficult to find wetlands with reference condition hydrology, but Minnesota's state parks support many areas with high quality wetlands and rare wetland types.

The data collected will be used to better inform DNR regulation and management of groundwater withdrawals and surface water management to help ensure protection of the quantity and quality of the state's wetlands. The full results of this effort will not be realized for many years, reflecting the long-term nature of the project.

Staff inspect a newly installed wetland monitoring station in a bog at Itasca State Park.
Inspecting a wetland monitoring station in an Itasca State Park bog.

Itasca Biological Station and laboratories

Established in 1909 within Itasca State Park, the Itasca Biological Station provides research opportunities for students to study in a relatively undisturbed environment. Over the past century, the station has attracted tens of thousands of students, teachers, and scientists. The Itasca station library holds more than 925 articles and dissertations, and 2,500 student papers based on research carried out at Itasca State Park.

Parks and Trails resource management staff often use this research to help make decisions, protect rare and endangered species, and anticipate climate change impacts to plant and animal communities.

Minnesota State University Moorhead Regional Science Center

Minnesota State University Moorhead's (MSUM) Regional Science Center strives to connect learning to the landscape by partnering and collaborating with Buffalo River State Park, The Nature Conservancy, the DNR Scientific and Natural Areas program and the MSUM Planetarium. We work together by providing access to the bluestem prairie complex, but the Regional Science Center's primary focus is on science and environmental education, field and research opportunities, and natural history programs for the general public. The center does not provide for picnics or camping, but you can find these services and more with our bluestem prairie partners.

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