On the North Shore, many hands work to help a dying forest

Credit to Cody Nelson of MPR News for the original article: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/07/25/north-shore-forest-restoration-white-pine

From bugs to invasive species to hotter temps, a host of factors are laying waste to Minnesota’s northeastern forests.

Emily Krulc, center, and her Minnesota Conservation Corps crew take a lunch break.

Emily Krulc, center, and her Minnesota Conservation Corps crew take a lunch break while planting white pine seedlings in the Moose Creek area near Schroeder, Minn., on June 24.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Northern Minnesota once boasted stands of massive white and red pine — giants that lived up to 350 years, with trunks 4 or 5 feet in diameter.

When they were logged out, trees with shorter life spans, like birch, took their place. Now, those trees are dying off.

What’s the answer? For now, it’s plant more trees.

“There’s so much destruction,” said Emily Krulc as she and her Minnesota Conservation Corps team planted white pine seedlings on a recent, wet day in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. “How can we find a balance between our needs, human needs, and also still caring for the lands that essentially [are] going to be what sustains us?”

White gloves hold a tiny pine tree.

A Minnesota Conservation Corps member loosens the dirt from a white pine seedling before planting it in the Moose Creek watershed near Schroeder.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Efforts to restore Minnesota’s iconic forests face numerous obstacles — from invasive species competing for space to deer eating tree seedlings before they get a chance to grow. But they’re crucial to the Arrowhead region’s ability to continue providing environmental and economic benefits for decades to come.

Planting is the painstaking, unheralded work that will give the forests a chance.

‘We have to get out there and make it happen’

Krulc and her team descended on a football field-sized patch of forestland west of Schroeder, Minn., to plant 350 tree seedlings — mostly white pine — one morning last month.

Using planter bars and chainsaws to clear out any undesired growth, they planted a tree every 10 to 12 feet. Figuring out exactly where to plant a tree is something of a guessing game.

“Humans don’t always know where trees want to go,” Krulc said, “so we’re kind of doing our best to guess you know where these white pines might like to grow and getting them in the ground.”

Sometimes it works best to plant a baby tree among fallen branches lying on the ground, she said. Other times, trees just go where the soil is soft enough to get them in the ground.

When the seedlings get a little older, workers plan to install fencing around the tree or attach bud caps, paper stapled over the top of the tree. These measures protect the young trees from hungry deer.

The Conservation Corps crew was working on land owned by the Rajala Woods Foundation, a nonprofit established by the electrical utility Minnesota Power.

A creek and a foggy forest in the background.

Water flows down Moose Creek near Schroeder. Twelve-hundred acres along Moose Creek are owned by the Rajala Woods Foundation.
Evan Frost | MPR News

This 1,200-acre plot sits along Moose Creek, about a 30-minute drive inland from Lake Superior. The landscape is a thick, relatively young forest. Utility towers stand out above the trees, slinging wires above the trees.

“If you look around, you’re challenged to see any white pine or red pine or jack pine,” said Kurt Anderson, the foundation’s chair.

Anderson’s job is to change that. Rajala Woods is in the early stages of a project to plant 3 million white pine and other trees with long lifespans in forests in central and northeastern Minnesota.

A blonde man with a bear and a hat looks right out of frame.

Kurt Anderson of the Rajala Woods Foundation, left, watches a trout feed in Moose Creek.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Its namesake, Jack Rajala, was a white pine advocate who planted some 3 million trees in his own lifetime. He also made his living from the timber industry that was responsible for cutting most of the trees in the first place.

Logging of the huge white pine began in Minnesota in the mid-19th century.

Many white and red pine were harvested and sent to market in the following decades. “At that time the forest supply of these long-lived tree species seemed inexhaustible. And that obviously wasn’t the case,” Anderson said.

Some major wildfires and droughts took a toll on the woods, too.

As the forest grew back, it was different. Birch and other trees with shorter life spans, like aspen and balsam fir, became abundant. Long-lived pines, more scarce.

Anderson said people realized white pine preservation and restoration needed attention as early as the 1920s. But early efforts to restore white pine backfired.

“White pine was brought over to Europe to grow in some nurseries to bring back over here,” Anderson said, “and during that overseas trip, blister rust was introduced to white pine.”

Blister rust, a fungus that can infect and kill white pine, became a veritable enemy. So did a growing population of whitetail deer, which found an ideal habitat in forests that had been cleared out by logging.

Modern forest restorers have learned from past mistakes. In 1997, Rajala published a guidebook for how he believed restoration should happen.

“If we want to bring [the white pine] back, we have to do far more than wait for it to just happen —we have to get out there and make it happen,” Rajala wrote in “Bringing Back the White Pine.”

A car with a canoe on top drives past a tall tree.

A large white pine stands over Highway 61 on the North Shore on June 25.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Today, Anderson said, the short-lived tree species are reaching the end of their lifespan. That explains the declining birch stands along Lake Superior.

As this continues, he said a worst-case scenario means an unrecognizable forest.

“You end up with a scrubland, a brush scrubland that doesn’t provide a lot of ecological benefit. It doesn’t provide a lot of economic benefit,” Anderson said. “There’s not much timber there to harvest, it doesn’t host a lot of wildlife habitat.”

Some scientists have projected a savanna-like habitat in northeast Minnesota’s Arrowhead region.

Jim Manolis, forest conservation program director at The Nature Conservancy, said a “perfect storm of factors” are leading to this dying forest — from bugs to invasive species to hotter temperatures to the deer.

“Forests along the North Shore are dying,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say there’s hundreds of thousands of acres that are in poor condition and need some help.”

While there’s no measurement on exactly how much forest is dying or at risk, Manolis said, the Nature Conservancy is working on a comprehensive map using lidar and other data sources.

Forest advocates say there’s hope for the white pine, but not without a lot of human intervention.

“We have to be a little smarter as a society about trying to think out not just 50 years in advance,” Anderson said, “but maybe 150 years in advance.”

This forward thinking would prime the forest to withstand climate change and economic changes. It’d also make it a continued haven for nature lovers, and the creatures that keep them coming back.

‘You can feel the age of a forest’

A man is seen standing in water through dense brush.
Shawn Perich prepares to fly fish in a creek off of the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais, Minn. on June 25.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Shawn Perich caught his first brook trout at age 4 and was instantly hooked on fishing.

When he’s fly-fishing, Perich switches off the outside world.

“There’s really nothing else going on for me except being here in the river and feeling the current wrapping around me as I wade in the stream,” he said, “and just being entirely focused on where I’m placing that fly and whether I can get a fish to strike.”

Perich has fished for trout across North America, he said, but he always finds himself drawn back to the North Shore.

He lives with his dog, Rainy, in Hovland, Minn., and works as a publisher of Northern Wilds magazine.

He caught two brook trout in as many casts one recent morning. Then he pulled in several more of the color-spotted golden fish, releasing each back to the stream.

“They’re so pretty, it’s just hard to keep ‘em,” he said after pulling in a fish.

A fish with a hook in its mouth leaps out of the water.

A brook trout leaps out of the water after biting a fly in a creek down the Gunflint Trail near Grand Marais.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A seasoned angler, Perich knows what makes a good home for brook trout.

For one, they need cool water — he said one brook felt like an “ice cube” once out of the stream. And that cool water comes from shade.

Tall, old trees like the white pine can provide shade for these Lake Superior tributaries their entire length through the forest.

Being in a stand of white pine that could be centuries old feels different, Perich said. And indescribable.

“That’s a hard thing to put into words, really,” he said. “But you can feel the age of a forest. When you walk into a standard white pine you can tell you’re in a special place.”

Tiny scissors cut fishing line off of a fly lure.

Perich ties a fly onto his line while fishing.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Perich recognizes the forest will never return to how it was before Europeans arrived. It’s critical that forest restoration efforts continue to look forward, he said.

Even if current restoration projects succeed, the forest won’t be what it used to be. But, planners hope, it’ll be a diverse, healthy forest that’s more resistant to climate change and one that resembles the nature Minnesotans cherish.

“The land was here before us, the land will probably be here after us. And we have to work with nature,” Perich said. “And nature itself really hasn’t changed that much over that period of time.

“And if we can continue to perpetuate what’s here, what’s supposed to be here, I don’t know if there’s anything better we can do.”

 

 

DNR seeks input on managing Mille Lacs fishery

Credit to Kirsti Marohn of MPR News for the article: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/07/16/dnr-seeks-input-on-mille-lacs-lake-management

Mille Lacs Lake

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is using acoustic telemetry technology to study the walleye population on Lake Mille Lacs. Researchers launched the study from Shah-bush-kung Bay in Vineland, Minn., in July 2018.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2018

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is gathering public input on its first management plan for Lake Mille Lacs.

About two dozen people gathered at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park Tuesday evening to hear about the lake’s changing fish population and share their opinions about how it should be managed.

DNR fisheries chief Tom Heinrich said the agency’s goal is to get input from anglers, business owners and others with an interest in the lake’s fishery. A draft plan is expected to be complete by this fall or winter.

It will be the first such management plan for Mille Lacs, which is co-managed by eight Ojibwe bands that retain fishing rights on the lake. The DNR has completed similar plans for other large Minnesota lakes.

The DNR sets the amount of fish anglers are permitted to harvest each year, using estimates of the number of fish in the lake. In recent years, anglers on Mille Lacs have faced tighter restrictions on when and whether they’re allowed to keep walleye they catch as the DNR has sought to boost the walleye population.

Heinrich said a management plan should help reduce surprise regulations.

“The types of management actions that we’re going to take on the lake are going to be much more predictable than they’ve been in the past,” he said. “Without any really clear guidance, we don’t really know how people want us to manage things.”

Heinrich said there are several factors behind the lake’s changing fishery. Among them is the fact that water clarity on the lake has improved over the past few decades. It began in the 1990s, likely due to sewage treatment improvements.

It happened again after zebra mussels infested the lake in 2005. Increased clarity is a problem for walleye, because the fish prefer low light and cooler water. But zebra mussels are filter feeders: They clear the water and strain out microscopic algae important to the food web.

Beyond walleye, which Mille Lacs has become known for, Heinrich said the lake’s smallmouth bass population has increased, and northern pike also remain plentiful. But yellow perch numbers are very low.

Heinrich said the management plan won’t just focus on the lake’s signature fish.

“We recognize that walleye are the big player on Mille Lacs Lake and probably always will be,” he said. “But this plan is really designed to give us some guidance in how we manage a variety of fish species.”

A similar community meeting was held last week in Brainerd, Minn. The DNR’s third and final meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Indian Mounds Regional Park pavilion in St. Paul.

People who can’t attend one of the meetings can fill out an online questionnaire on the DNR’s website.

 

Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas Program Biodiversity

Credit to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for their report: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/snap/biodiversity.html

Prairie wildflowers at Mound Prairie SNA with wooded bluffland landscape in the background

Determining the best candidates for Natural Area protection is a complex process. Natural area conservation planning focuses on areas of high biodiversity. We use the following tools, concepts and resources to evaluate and manage sites.

The value of biodiversity (the variety of life and its processes)

Minnesota’s biodiversity has evolved over millennia into complex ecosystems. A myriad of species interact with each other and environmental factors such as soils, topography, hydrology and climate within these ecosystems.

Preserving biodiversity has benefits (ecosystem services) such as:

  • Maintaining healthy, stable plant and animal populations
  • Protecting genetic diversity
  • Protecting water and soil resources
  • Filtering pollution and nutrient recycling
  • Contributing to climate stability and carbon storage
  • Recovering from catastrophic events
  • Providing sources for food, medicine and other products
  • Research, education and monitoring
  • Recreation, tourism and inspiration

In areas where biodiversity is threatened, losing species can affect the ecosystem’s ability to function properly and provide these services. Maintaining biodiversity reduces voids and the entire ecosystem maintains a higher degree of resilience.

Conservation planning for natural areas focuses on areas of high biodiversity as well as habitats for rare species.

Resilience as a strategy

Resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to cope with disturbance. Resilience is critical to reducing climate change and fragmentation from land development. As climate change affects ecosystems they will face increasing vulnerability. An effective strategy at easing these negative impacts is to build resilience into native communities by:

  • Creating large protected areas and corridors to provide pathways for species to migrate to more suitable habitats
  • Preserving a greater variety of habitats for desirable species

The SNA program is using both strategies for resilience to maintain Minnesota’s biodiversity.

Biodiversity significance rankings

Biodiversity significance is a ranking based on the size and condition of native plant communities and how they fit in an ecological landscape. It also includes the presence or absence of rare species populations. The rankings are ‘outstanding’, ‘high’, ‘moderate’ and ‘below’. Ecologists with the Minnesota Biological Survey determine this status. This ranking is used to help prioritize Natural Area protection efforts.

Minnesota’s Ecological Classification System (ECS)

Ecological landscape classifications are used to identify, describe, and map progressively smaller areas of land with increasingly uniform ecological features. Minnesota’s Ecological Classification System (ECS) uses biotic and environmental factors, including climate, geology, topography, soils, hydrology and vegetation.

The largest units of the ECS are provinces and are defined primarily by climate. Minnesota has four provinces. Provinces are divided into 10 sections based on glacial deposits, topography and plant distributions. The 26 subsections of the ECS are further refined by local vegetation, especially trees, among other factors. Individual Scientific and Natural Areas note the subsection in which they are located. Native plant communities are a finer grading of the classification system.

Minnesota’s Native Plant Communities

Local groupings of trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs that interact with each other and their environment are called native plant communities and are characterized by the kinds and quantities of species they contain. They form recognizable units, such as oak savannas, pine forests, cattail marshes and other communities that tend to repeat over space and time.

Plant communities are subject to change. They form in response to climate and nutrients, as well as catastrophic flooding and fires. In the absence of change, they can be fairly stable over time. However they can also develop into something complete new. For example, a beaver dam can cause significant flooding and as a result, over a period of time, a new community will form in the flooded area. Places where native species have been largely replaced are no longer considered native plant communities.

Native plant communities serve as the basis for evaluating Scientific and Natural Area priorities. The Minnesota Biological Survey has identified, surveyed, and prioritized communities and rare species for research and conservation. Minnesota’s Native Plant Community Classification serves as a standard for ecologists to identify and assess communities. Some individual Scientific and Natural Areas have detail maps showing their native plant communities

Minnesota’s Rare Species

Rare species, are defined under Minnesota law as endangered, threatened, or of special concern. The DNR identifies which species are at greatest risk of disappearance. The law restricts harming those species that are designated as endangered or threatened. Natural Areas protect critical habitat for these rare species.

DNR commissioner: Connection to outdoors critical to health, conservation

Credit to Kirsti Marohn at MPR News: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2019/06/18/dnr-commissioner-connection-to-outdoors-critical-to-health-conservation

Bucks such as this wide-racked whitetail will be the target of deer hunters across the Minnesota on Saturday, Nov. 4, when the state’s firearms deer season opens. (Photo/ Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

The commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources told a group of lake advocates on Tuesday that it’s her personal mission to connect more people with the outdoors.

Sarah Strommen spoke at the “Water Connects Us All” conference in Walker, Minn., organized by the nonprofit Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. The two-day conference focused on challenges facing the state’s natural resources, including climate change, aquatic invasive species and threats to water quality, as well as possible solutions.

Strommen highlighted Minnesota’s changing demographics, noting that the state’s population is getting older, more urban and diverse. But she said youth and families aren’t using state parks and other recreation facilities as much because of a lack of time or experience, concerns about safety or language barriers.

Strommen said people’s connection to nature is critical for the long-term protection of the state’s natural resources, its economy and residents’ well-being.

“The reality is that people who work to protect these resources, the main factor that motivates people is that personal connection or personal experience,” she said.

Strommen also said there’s a wealth of research showing the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in nature. Even just a few minutes a day spent in an urban park can lower stress and anxiety levels, she said.

Referring to the increased use of technology among kids and teens, Strommen said she was glad her son was fishing at their nearby family cabin while she was at the conference.

“I feel really fortunate that my kid is outside right now. He’s not on the screen,” she said. “But that is not the norm. I’m very well aware that I am raising a child who does not match the activities of his peers.”

But Strommen said there is also growing concern about obesity and interest in a healthy, active lifestyle. People’s motivation for using parks and trails is changing — with exercise now a leading reason, Strommen said. She said the DNR is trying to reach those people to promote activities like stand-up paddle boarding, fat-tire bike events and trail runs.

Strommen said the DNR also is updating older state parks and facilities while keeping hard-to-reach groups in mind, by adding things like Wi-Fi and better access for people with disabilities.

“I know that’s like the worst thing for some people to hear is that you can access Wi-Fi in our campgrounds,” she said. “But the reality is there are a lot of people that cannot leave their job if they can’t connect. And if they don’t feel like they can leave their job, they just won’t go camping, and they won’t take their family.”

All signs point to a great deer season in Minnesota 2017

Ready for Deer Opener? Here’s the Deer Season outlook for 2017 whitebirchresort.net
BEMIDJI, Minn. — John Williams likes to use a pendulum analogy when talking about deer populations in northwest Minnesota, and right now, the pendulum is swinging from “not enough deer” to “too many deer” in several areas, the longtime wildlife manager says.

That should translate into good hunting opportunities when Minnesota’s firearms deer season opens Saturday, Nov. 4—a full six days before North Dakota’s deer gun season, which opens at noon Friday, Nov. 10.
“In some places, we do have some issues with too many deer already,” said Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. “We’re going to have to keep our finger on that. That pendulum swings pretty fast when it’s in the middle of a swing like that, and I think we’re there in a couple of spots.”

One of those spots is Permit Area 241, Williams said, a large block of prime deer habitat that runs along U.S. Highway 10 from Detroit Lakes southeast to Staples and north to the Park Rapids area. The permit area is one of only a handful across the state to fall under the “Intensive” management designation, where hunters can purchase tags to take as many as three deer.
“It’s absolute classic deer habitat in that transition zone” from prairie to forest, Williams said.

On the grow

Another mild winter on top of the previous two mild winters largely has enabled deer populations to be at or near goal levels in most permit areas, DNR officials say—in turn moving the pendulum toward abundance.

Fawn production also was good this year, another indication of does coming through the winter in good health.

Almost without exception, deer limits in permit areas across northwest Minnesota are one level more liberal than last year, Williams said. Some permit areas moved from a designation of Lottery, which requires hunters to apply in advance to shoot an antlerless deer, to a Hunter Choice designation that allows a hunter to use one license to shoot either a buck or antlerless deer.

Other permit areas changed designations from Hunter Choice to Managed. In permit areas designated as Managed, hunters can take two deer through use of a regular license and a bonus antlerless permit. Permit areas that stayed in the Lottery designation this year may have more permits available than in previous years.

“People are expecting a good deer season, and I believe they’ll get one, too,” Williams said. “There are places (where) we might be in that area where we’re going to have to start pushing back and looking to drop deer toward goal as opposed to raising deer toward goal.”
In that context, managers will keep an eye on this year’s deer season, he said.
“If we have good weather, I’m anticipating a pretty doggone good statewide harvest,” Williams said. “I’m not going to stick my neck out and say how much, but I’m expecting to see a significant increase over what last year’s figure was. “And then we’ll have to see how the winter goes for what we might be suggesting for the coming year after this.” bemidjipioneer.com

DNR expects increase

In a news release, Paul Telander, DNR wildlife chief, said the department expects hunters will shoot about 200,000 whitetails by the time the state’s final deer season closes Sunday, Dec. 31.

Hunters last year shot 173,213 deer between the firearm, archery and muzzleloader seasons—well below the record harvest of 290,525 in 2003, but similar to the most recent 20-year average of 205,959, Telander said.

The firearms season is by far the most popular option for Minnesota deer hunters, and hunters last year purchased 372,645 firearms deer licenses and shot 144,470 deer for a success rate of 32 percent, the DNR said. About 61 percent of those deer were antlered bucks.

Before 2000, hunters shot more than 200,000 deer only four times between the three seasons, he said.

“The high harvests in the early 2000s occurred at a time when the over-riding harvest strategy was to reduce the deer population so it wouldn’t grow out of control, as had happened in certain eastern states, and to address certain environmental, economic and social concerns,” Telander said in the news release. “Deer harvests in excess of 225,000 occurred only once in the 1990s.

“Going further back, the harvests in the 1970s never topped 100,000. The harvests in the 1980s were under 150,000. Today, there’s growing discussion in the hunting community as to what’s a reasonable harvest target, and that’s a good conversation to have.”

One thing’s for sure: If the extended weather forecast holds, hunters in northwest Minnesota won’t encounter the balmy temperatures they experienced for last year’s firearms deer opener. According to Intellicast, the extended forecast in Bemidji calls for a high of 35 degrees and a 60 percent chance of light snow for Saturday’s opener.

Season dates

Here’s a look at dates for Minnesota’s firearms deer season. More Info: dnr.state.mn.us

• Nov. 4-19: 100 series permit areas.

• Nov. 4-12: 200 series permit areas.

• Nov. 4-12: 300 series Season A.

• Nov. 18-26: 300 series Season B.