SNA Nature Notes - Summer 2021

minnesota department of natural resources

Nature Notes


Showy Lady's Slipper

Summer 2021

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Nature Notes is the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas quarterly newsletter. Here's what's in store this issue!


What Makes for a Great SNA?

Kris Hennig, Acting SNA Statewide Acquisition Coordinator


Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) protect areas of biological, ecological, and geological significance across Minnesota. If you are reading this, you already know SNAs are special places, filled with the wild and rare, but perhaps you have wondered what makes a site “significant” enough to become an SNA. What criteria does the SNA program consider when looking to protect a new property? Strategically, to protect what remains, the SNA program uses five key criteria to prioritize a candidate SNA. So, what makes for a great SNA?

prairie and oak trees

At River Terrace Prairie SNA, a diverse dry sand gravel prairie and one of the largest known populations of kittentails (Besseya bullii) in Minnesota make this site significant. Photo © Craig Thiesen.


Diverse Habitat with Rare Species

Perhaps most importantly, the diversity and quality of the habitat, and occurrence of rare species are the first two filters considered. To prioritize sites, the SNA program relies heavily upon data collected by the Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS). This information, identifying locations with rare or significant plant and animal populations, and rare or outstanding examples of native plant communities provides the backbone to what makes a great SNA. Protection of these sites is important as they are often the most ecologically intact, provide the best habitat, and are the most resilient to disturbances like invasive species or climate change.


Size and Quality

As a long-term goal, the SNA program seeks to protect at least five examples of each native plant community within each ecological subsection (Minnesota has 26 subsections). By prioritizing the largest and highest quality examples of native plant communities in these areas, the SNA program is ensuring that Minnesota’s natural heritage persists long into the future.


  • Natural landscapes with one or more native plant communities that connect to each other
  • Native plant communities (particularly large and high quality examples) that are not currently protected as an SNA
  • Larger properties that consist mostly of native plant communities
aspen parkland

Lake Bronson Parkland is a 243 acre site in Kittson County. It protects a high quality piece of the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands. This SNA sits within a larger area of high biodiversity as well, making it a good site for protection. Photo by Kelly Randall.


Nearby Protected Land

The SNA program also prioritizes protecting land near other public lands or in biodiversity hotspots. This builds up what conservationists refer to as “conservation cores” where wildlife can thrive. To identify these areas, the SNA program uses multiple plans, largely based off MBS data, including SNAs Marxan mapping effort, the DNRs Wildlife Action Plan, and the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan. These plans map key locations where high levels of biodiversity currently exist and often include existing public lands such as other SNAs, Wildlife Management Areas, Regional Parks, and State Forest lands.  


  • Property adjacent to an already existing SNA
  • Property near other public lands with native plant communities (Wildlife Management Areas, State Forests)
  • Property in high biodiversity areas, whether in public ownership or not

Few Management Needs

It takes a lot of work to enhance a poor quality natural area. It is always easier and cheaper to protect high quality sites with fewer management needs. The SNA program prioritizes sites with few invasive species and few, if any, degraded areas such as former agricultural fields or building sites.

Eventually, any given SNA will need land management of some form. Purchasing sites that have good, legal access for management efforts is an important part of SNA protection. It’s also important to consider what is next to the property, because neighboring properties can impact how management is conducted. For instance, it can be particularly challenging to conduct a prescribed burn near an airport or highway.


  • Few immediate management needs
  • Good, legal access
  • Sites away from residential developments, airports, highways, etc. that could restrict management activities
prescribed fire crew on a burn

Land managers conduct a prescribed burn at Gneiss Outcrops SNA. Sites that can accommodate more affordable management techniques, like fire, make them better candidates for SNAs. Photo © ColdSnap Photography.

Interested Landowners

As sites that meet the above considerations become ever rarer, all of Minnesota benefits from private landowners who recognize when these features exist on their property and have an interest to protect them. In the end, the SNA program can only conserve those natural landscapes with a willing and interested landowner. In addition to receiving a fair market value for a sale of land to the SNA program, selling or donating land for conservation is one of the finest legacies a person can leave to future generations. SNAs are extraordinary lands where native plants and animals can thrive, rare species receive the strongest of protections, and where Minnesotan’s can truly experience the rich natural heritage our State offers. With each addition to the SNA program’s network of protected places, this Minnesota legacy grows.


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A Crash Course in Wildflower Identification


Arika Preas, SNA Northeast Regional Naturalist


A Guide for Your Journey

Before you leave your house, you will want to properly arm yourself with a great plant guide. When choosing your guide make sure to choose one for the region you’ll be exploring. For example, a west coast specific guide will not be very helpful in Minnesota. Next, pick one organized in a way that is comfortable for you. Most flower guides are arranged by flower color or shape but more advanced ones may be organized by family and genus. Some classic go-to guides include Peterson, Newcomb’s and The Audubon Society guides. Online guides include Minnesota Wildflowers and the Seek app by iNaturalist.


Some Nitty Gritty of Plant ID

A professor once told me that “a scientist’s favorite pastime is to give everything a name.” What this means for you is that there is a lot of vocabulary when it comes to plant identification. Your guide should have a glossary that defines any terms that it uses. I will go over some of the basic flower terminology to get you started.

Let’s start with the basic flower shape. Your everyday, daisy-like flowers are aptly named regular flowers. When looking at these flowers you will want to pay attention to how many petals they have, as this can be very helpful information. Native phlox and invasive dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) look very similar but phlox has five petals and dame’s Rocket only has four. Then you have the more unique bell and tubular flowers that will have their petals fused together to create their namesake shape. Irregular flowers, such as lady’s slipper orchids, have differently shaped petals on the same flower. Last but not least are indistinct flowers, these have no recognizable petals, such as Pussytoes’ flowers.

Some plants have distinct clusters of flowers. Depending on their arrangement, each type of cluster (called an inflorescence) has its own name. Umbels remind me of umbrellas. An example of this is the invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota). Both spike and raceme inflorescences’ are made up of flowers attached along the length and to the end of the stem. The difference between them is that flowers in a raceme are attached to the stem via a stalk and spike flowers are attached directly with no stalk. If you find a flower that looks similar to a raceme but with multi-branching flower stalks, that is called a panicle. The flowers of larger golden rods like Canada goldenrod (Solidago candensis) or tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), are arranged in a panicle inflorescence.

The terms I have defined so far are just a sample of flower terminology (and don’t get me started on leaf vocabulary where you have words like spathulate and oblanceolate) but this is a good beginning to get you started. Don’t worry, even if you only remember one word I went over, your skills have already grown. To this day I still use the glossary in the back of my field guides.


What is blooming now?

Below are a few flowers that may be blooming now. I have included their key identifying features using some of the vocabulary you just learned.


Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) at Oronoco Prairie SNA. A group of white, regular, five petal flowers in an umbel inflorescence with fern-like leaves. Photo © Terri Dugan, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)


Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) at Moose Mountain SNA. A group of pink, regular, four petal flowers in a raceme inflorescence with long and narrow leaves that have milky white midrib (center vein). Photo © Elizabeth McLaughlin, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)


Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) at Iona’s Beach SNA. A group of purple, bell-shaped flowers in a raceme with heart-shaped basal leaves and linear stem leaves. Photo © naturegeek168, some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

Lead Plant

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens) at Mille Lacs Moraine SNA. A group of purple, tubular flowers in a spike with pinnately compound leaves (a leaf divided into smaller leaflets along a central stalk) covered in grey wooly hairs. Photo by David Minor.


Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus). A group of white, regular, five petal flowers in a panicle with large palmate lobed leaves (several lobes that radiate from one point). Photo by Michael Lee.

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Connect with Minnesota’s Wild Places ❤︎


collage of outdoor activities


Planning a visit to the great outdoors this month? We have hand-picked a list of SNA recommendations for visiting that have good access, nearby amenities, and some even have trails!


Visit the SNA Facebook page!

location in northwestern MN

Site Highlight: Bluestem Prairie SNA


Paula J Comeau, Northwest Region SNA/Park Naturalist, with contributions from Charlotte Roy, Wildlife Research Scientist


Summer has arrived at the Bluestem Prairie SNA in Clay County MN, and the landscape is alive with sounds of birds and insects. In addition, color is brightening the landscape as the prairie flowers of 2021 have pushed through the litter of 2020 and are beginning to bloom. As this beautiful and tranquil space reminds us every year begins anew, let’s take a few minutes to reflect on how this large remnant of native prairie has survived the past to continue to inform and inspire the future.


bee on flower

A bumblebee on Large Beardtongue (Penstemon grandifloras) at Bluestem Prairie SNA. Photo by Paula Comeau.


This area of Clay County is part of the original homelands of the Dakota and Assiniboine people, and artifacts from pre-European settlement are regular finds for archeologists and anthropologists. As European settlers moved across North America, the area became an extension of John Henry Smyser and his wife Mary’s homestead. They allowed their pedigreed horses and cattle to graze the area that would become the SNA, which fortunately kept the area from being plowed and preserved the rich prairie plant and animal diversity.

As native prairies were lost to mining, agricultural, and urban expansion, a variety of people and organizations began to actively protect those that remained. Notably, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Department of Natural Resources of Minnesota (MN DNR) have developed a partnership to actively manage the remaining remnants and to restore critical areas back into native prairie at Bluestem Prairie and elsewhere in the state. In Clay County alone, The Nature Conservancy protects 6568 acres, including Bluestem Prairie SNA and the Blazing Star unit of Felton Prairie SNA. These sites are designated as SNAs by the MN DNR, but are owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. MN DNR, Division of Parks and Trails at Buffalo River State Park, also owns and manages a small portion of the Bluestem Prairie Complex. These SNAs protect habitats for many threatened and endangered species, such as the Dakota Skipper Butterfly and, the species most people visit the Bluestem Prairie to see,  the charismatic Greater Prairie-Chicken.

Bluestem Prairie attracts people from all walks of life every year to experience the “booming grounds” or lek sites of the Greater Prairie-Chicken. For those willing to brave the cold and early mornings of spring, TNC sets up viewing blinds for birders of all ages to watch males dance in hopes of impressing a female. Viewing the dance of the Greater Prairie-Chicken is becoming a rare opportunity as their specific habitat requirements become harder to find due to habitat loss.


prairie chickens at sunrise

Male and female greater prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) on the lek at Bluestem Prairie SNA. Photo by Carrol Henderson.


Greater Prairie-Chickens have co-existed with grazing animals on the prairie for generations, and much of their habitats are naturally managed through the presence of grazers. Since the removal of bison from the landscape, brush encroachment and invasive species are altering many remnant prairies. Bluestem is not immune from this encroachment. It has been many years since wild or domestic grazers have dominated the site. Historically, prescribed fire and invasive species management have been used to prevent encroachment on many SNAs. However, new research on the impacts of grazing may provide another tool for conserving natural spaces. It is the hope of multiple agencies that grazing will mimic the impacts of bison on the landscape and help keep the prairie healthy.

Currently, DNR Wildlife Researcher, Charlotte Roy, is working with biologists at TNC and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), as well as DNR Wildlife Managers to study the effects of conservation grazing on the reproductive success of Greater Prairie-Chickens. These birds are used as an indicator species for the tallgrass prairie because they need large areas of prairie with diverse heights and vegetation structure.  If a prairie is diverse enough to support Prairie-Chickens, it should support other bird species with fewer habitat requirements. For this reason, Greater Prairie-Chickens were selected to evaluate wildlife responses to conservation grazing.  This study utilizes conservation grazing on 10 sites, including Twin Valley SNA, and other properties managed by TNC, USFWS, and DNR. Researchers are assessing how Greater Prairie-Chickens use the grazed areas throughout the nesting and brood-rearing seasons to better understand how prairie chickens and grazers co-exist. Research projects such as this allow us to better understand how the prairie functioned in the past. This provides insight into how we can more effectively manage these areas in the future.


rainbow over a dark sky

Rainbow over Bluestem Prairie SNA. Photo by Paula Comeau.


As Bluestem moves into full summer bloom, its stunning natural beauty stands a testament to the impressive prairie landscape that once dominated the center of North America. Hopefully, with the efforts of many researchers and land managers, it will stand testament for many generations to come.

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SNA Virtual Hike Videos

Notes from Site Stewards


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

  • Site steward Diane Newberry has visited Mary Schmidt Crawford Woods SNA multiple times this season to remove invasive species and scout. In the April 26th week alone, Diane pulled garlic mustard for 14 hours. She admired blooming spring wildflowers and wildlife during her visits as well.  
  • New steward, Joe Grussing, made his first visit to Des Moines River SNA on May 5th and observations included invasive species present and site facilities condition. On a positive note, he did spot some round-headed bush clover on-site.
  • Kristina Bourne, the site steward for Moose Mountain SNA, made several helpful observations on site conditions this season. She noted vegetation damage from snowmobiles, litter (including a Christmas tree), and management projects including scots pine removal and bee survey equipment.
  • Zumbro Falls Woods SNA stewards, Jack and Laura Isenor, visited the SNA on April 18th and inspected the boundary sign and other site conditions. They did some bird watching, and Jack, who wants to be a park ranger when he grows up, submitted a report on the ticks they found at the SNA. “They almost took over our body. And it was scary”, he noted. Though in the end, they “took them off”. Remember to check for ticks when you are out in nature this summer!
a prairie on a sunny day

Joe Grussing, the new steward for Des Moines River SNA, visited the site in May. Photo by Joe Grussing.


Thanks for all the work you do, SNA stewards!

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Share your SNA photos on our flickr group!

SNA Events


This summer we are excited to have several events lined up, both in-person and “self-guided!” Check out the SNA Events page for the most up-to-date event information.

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Nature Notes is the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas quarterly 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 directly 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).