SNA Nature Notes - Fall 2015

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Fall 2015

A Peatland Tutorial

Photo of volunteers collecting prairie seed

By AmberBeth VanNingen, Northeast Region SNA Ecologist

Minnesota's Northwoods are famous for a wealth of beautiful lakes and forest. But they also harbor a less recognized treasure: the largest peatlands in the United States (outside of Alaska). But what is a peatland? Is that different than a swamp? Can I visit them? What will I find if I can?

About 55 people gathered at Vermilion Community College in Ely, MN as part of the Ely Field Naturalists Summer Nature Nights Program to find out the answers to those questions and more. The Ely Field Naturalists are a group who enjoy experiencing, sharing, teaching, and learning about nature in Northeast Minnesota. Meetings are held monthly during most of the year, but in the summer weekly programs are presented. Ely Field Naturalist member and SNA volunteer site steward Norma Malinowski had the idea of bringing in an expert in peatlands for one of these programs and to couple it with a field trip to an area peatland. On July 8, Dr. John Pastor from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the Natural Resources Research Institute presented a lecture on what peatlands are and shared his research. Participants learned that peatlands have at least one meter of organic peat while swamps have less than that and generally have more mud. Within peatlands you can find bogs and fens. Bogs are characterized by a carpet of sphagnum moss and evergreen plants such as Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) and bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia var. polifolia). Black spruce (Picea mariana) and tamarack (Larix laricina), sometimes stunted, usually grow in bogs. Bogs receive their water supply only from rain. Fens receive water from both rain and ground water. Fens have more standing water than bogs and are dominated by sedges. Dr. Pastor has studied many aspects of peatlands, including their possible responses to climate change. He is a strong advocate of letting peatlands "just be" so they continue to function as intact ecosystems.

Photo of volunteer removing invasives from prairie

Armed with this knowledge, the next morning fifteen intrepid adventurers slogged their way into the Lost Lake Peatland, the majority of which is in the Lost Lake Peatland SNA. Eighteen peatland SNAs like Lost Lake were designated in 1991 as part of Minnesota's Wetland Conservation Act. These peatlands possess unique values, are representative of the peatland diversity in Minnesota and deemed worthy of protection, that is, being allowed to "just be." Peatland Watershed Protection Areas surrounding the core peatlands SNAs were also identified as important to hydrology of these ecosystems. While some of these peatlands are remote, Lost Lake is easily accessible if you don't mind getting a little wet. The group entered the peatland along a snowmobile trail and immediately got to see characteristics of a bog. The ground was covered with sphagnum and a rich host of plants such as sundews (Drosera spp.), marsh cinquefoil (Potentilla palustris), buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), and scheuchzeria (Scheuchzeria palustris). Bog coppers (Lycaena epixanthe) like the one in the adjacent photo flitted from plant to plant. The group continued on, even as the ground (and our feet!) got wetter and wetter as we hiked to a transition area. The trees, mostly black spruce and tamarack, which had been lining the trail, fell away and the ground cover changed from sphagnum to sedges and standing water. Besides a variety of sedges, seaside arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima), bladderworts (Utricularia spp.), and an orchid, Loesel's twayblade (Listera loeselii), were found. In fact, the group identified six different orchid species on the trip: dragon's mouth (Arethusa bulbosa), rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides), tuberous grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus var. tuberosus), small green wood orchid (Platanthera clavellata), ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera), and the Loesel's twayblade. Several bird species were heard as well, including a sighting of the elusive Le Conte's sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii). What was absent from the peatland that morning was biting insects, an observation numerous participants noted on the way back through the bog.

If you would like to explore a peatland for yourself, there are seventeen peatland SNAs open to the public. A GPS, detailed topographic maps, plenty of water, and sun and bug protection are highly recommended for a trip into any peatland. Learn more about peatlands online. Please note that not all land within peatland SNAs are administered by the DNR. Respect private property.



A Second Salute to Volunteers

Photo of volunteers collecting prairie seed

By Kelly Randall, SNA Outreach Coordinator

I recently ran across an article in the SNA Volunteer Newsletter, the predecessor to Nature Notes, the current SNA newsletter (which you are reading right now). Contributor Marilyn Anderson extoled the virtues of volunteering in Salute to SNA Volunteers from the fall 1997 issue. What fascinated me were the changes that have occurred in volunteer and stewardship for the SNA program. Yet much remains the same.

The article begins, "Each year since 1993, dozens of volunteers have collected seeds, planted native species, destroyed encroaching exotics, cut brush, and cleaned trails. They shrug off demanding schedules and capricious weather to do what the SNAs need to have done." Today those tasks are still the mainstay of the work put forth by SNA volunteers and stewards.

What has changed significantly is the numbers. Numbers of volunteers, numbers of sites with stewards, and number of hours spent working on tasks. In Anderson’s article she listed about 60 volunteers/stewards and 16 sites that had stewards. Fast forward and since the beginning of 2015 we have had well over a hundred volunteers helping out at over 20 volunteer events. We have also had in the neighborhood of 75 educational events for visitors to learn more about SNAs. Back in the late 1990’s very few, if any, educational events were promoted on SNAs.

Truly astounding is the skyrocketing number of sites with stewards. Today, 127 SNAs have at least one site steward! To put it another way stewards are making regular visits, reporting observations or problems, and working with staff on management tasks on roughly 80% of Minnesota’s SNAs. All I can say to that is "Wow, we have come a long way."

Another interesting tidbit was of the 16 sites that had stewards in 1997, 4 sites still have the same stewards today, almost 20 years later!

Finally, as Anderson stated in her salute "Minnesota's SNAs are a priceless resource. Volunteers and stewards play a direct role in their protection and preservation" We sincerely thank all those who volunteer with SNAs. If you'd like to get involved learn more about how you can volunteer on SNAs, and bring a friend.



SNA Events

Photo of volunteer removing invasives from prairie

A full list is available on the SNA Events Calendar.



Butternut Valley Prairie SNA

Guided Walk


Grey Cloud Dunes SNA

Volunteer Project: Invasive Removal


Helen Allison Savanna SNA

Volunteer Project: Cut and Stack Invasive Scotch Pine




Site Highlight: Butternut Valley Prairie

Photo of late summer wildflowers at Butternut Valley Prairie

If it is true that good things come in little packages then Butternut Valley Prairie is certainly a good thing. At just over 11 acres it takes the number 7 spot of Minnesota’s smallest Scientific and Natural Areas. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for in the surprisingly wide array of prairie wildflowers and grasses. The flora put on impressive displays here from spring through fall.

This site has had very little disturbance, fortunately has never been cultivated, and therefore is in outstanding condition. Regular haying and seed harvest combined with seasonal burns have been the only activities and have contributed to keeping the site in tip-top shape.

Located about half an hour west of Mankato, half an hour south of New Ulm, and less than 2 hours from the Twin Cities it is worth the drive to visit. If you do visit please be sure to brush off shoes before entering and leaving Butternut Valley Prairie. There are very few invasive species at this special place, and shoes can carry seeds of the problem plants that we want to keep out. This is especially true of the wild parsnip found in the ditch adjacent to the SNA! Want to find out more? Mark your calendar now and come out on September 26 to attend a guided hike with ecologist Veronika Phillips.




Notes from Site Stewards

Photo of young prairie chicken at Felton Prairie SNA

Site stewards monitor SNAs across Minnesota. Their observations provide invaluable information to the SNA Program. Here are some interesting notes from reports:

  • Sprague Creek Peatland SNA is about as far north as you can get in Minnesota! It is on the Canadian border, roughly ten miles from Roseau, Minnesota. This summer Lee "Scott" Wiberg decided to take on stewardship of this remote site. His first foray into the peatland as steward was on August 8th to familiarize himself with the area and some of its plant life.
  • Another new steward, Rebecca Smith, spent quality time at her site, Twin Valley Prairie SNA on August 21. She observed a variety of late season wildflowers in bloom and noted an ongoing bee pollination study on the site.
  • Bright yellow sunflowers and goldenrod greeted site steward Zeb Lamp at Felton Prairie SNA on August 23. To add to the bright scene a buck in velvet jumped up from his hiding place and a group of young prairie chicken were seen (see photo above).

Thanks for all the work you do for SNAs stewards!



Nature Notes is the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas quarterly e-newsletter (archive online). It seeks to increase interest, understanding and support of natural areas while promoting involvement in the protection of these special places. Contact us at


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).