SNA Nature Notes - Spring 2023

minnesota department of natural resources

Nature Notes


Showy Lady's Slipper

Spring 2023

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


Minnesota’s small mammals:

sometimes overlooked, but never ordinary

Morgan Sussman Fish and Wildlife Division Public Information Coordinator

Kelly Randall, SNA Statewide Outreach Coordinator


When you think of Minnesota’s mammals what comes to mind first? White-tailed deer, black bear, bison, or maybe a gray wolf? Or even a beaver, raccoon, or porcupine? While these larger mammals may be more visible on the landscape and in our imaginations, the variety of Minnesota’s smaller species out-number their larger cousins by far. These small mammals have a treasure trove of stories too, some that seem to be imaginary.

There are about 80 native mammal species currently found in Minnesota. Together, the larger mammal family groups such as deer, canines, felines, and bears make up only about 25 of the mammal species in the state. The nearly 70% remaining are small mammals in the mice, shrew, squirrel, gopher, and bat families. 

Next, let's find out a bit more about a couple of Minnesota’s not so ordinary small mammals.


The plains pocket gopher is a prairie miner

plains pocket gopher

A plains pocket gopher held up to show its digging claws. Photo courtesy of Paul Frese, Iowa DNR.

Digging in a bit deeper, both literally and figuratively let’s look at Minnesota gophers. The more common of the two gopher species of Minnesota, plains pocket gophers play an important role in grassland ecosystems. They move tons of soil every year, introducing more air into the soil – a natural rehabilitation method for soil that has been compacted by grazing livestock or agricultural machinery. They are highly adapted for digging. Their forearms have large sturdy claws, their front teeth grow continuously, and their lips close behind those teeth to keep dirt out of their mouth while excavating tunnels. Their tunnels capture snowmelt and rainfall, recharging groundwater and reducing erosion on the surface. Abandoned tunnels also provide habitat for other species, including ground squirrels, toads, snakes and even burrowing owls.


The northern grasshopper mouse is a wolf amongst mice

northern grasshopper mouse

A northern grasshopper mouse. Photo from jessealaney, iNaturalist.

Unlike their omnivorous cousins, northern grasshopper mice are hunters. They feast on grasshoppers (hence the name) and will also take down other mice and voles. In some states, they'll even eat scorpions. Grasshopper mice howl and form loose familial packs. Hmm, sounds like a wolf, doesn’t it? Biologists believe howling is used to communicate with pack-mates and warn off potential intruders to their territory. This species is territorial and aggressive toward other grasshopper mice, but forms strong bonds between mated pairs. Unlike most species of mice where only the female cares for young, both parents raise the litter. Northern grasshopper mice are typically found in prairies along the western edge of Minnesota. Learn more about this small but fierce predator.

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Location map of Chisholm Point Island SNA

Site Highlight: Chisholm Point Island SNA

AmberBeth VanNingen, Northeast Regional Specialist

Dedication: Chisholm Point Island SNA was established through the hard work of many in the area, including longtime advocate Randy McCarty. Randy lived across from the SNA and faithfully served as its volunteer site steward from 2003 until 2019. Randy passed away in 2020. The conservation community greatly misses his dedication, generosity, and general good nature. Randy would have been thrilled with the discoveries detailed below.


Scientific and Natural Areas are, in large part, known for protecting rare species and their habitats in Minnesota. With the completion of the Minnesota Biological Survey’s (MBS) statewide diversity assessment, it would be tempting to think all the rare species and habitat there is to find have been found. But natural areas don’t know that and still hold surprises, as SNA staff in the northeast discovered.

Chisholm Point Island SNA is a 28-acre island in Pokegama Lake near Grand Rapids. It was designated in 2002 through the efforts of the Greater Pokegama Lake Association. The site protects an old-growth northern maple-basswood forest with sugar maples over 200 years old. An interesting feature of the forest was the presence of Canada yew (Taxus canadensis), an uncommon shrub of high-quality hardwood forests in eastern Minnesota. “Was” is the key word, as the yew population on the island plummeted as deer populations increased over the last several years. To protect the yew and forest understory, archery deer hunting was added to the SNA’s allowed activities in 2006 and nylon exclosure fences were built in 2007 around the remaining yew clusters.

Nylon exclosure fence

Nylon exclosure fence on Chisholm Point Island SNA. Photo by Kelly Randall.


It was the monitoring and repair of these fences that brought SNA Regional Naturalist Arika McGraw and Regional SNA Specialist AmberBeth VanNingen to the island in 2020. They found two of the five fences to be so damaged (mostly fallen trees and branches) that they weren’t doing their job anymore and needed to be removed. Volunteer site steward Hans Kaldahl finished removing the two fences in the summer of 2021. That summer, Arika also surveyed the plant communities on the island. In addition to traditional naturalist duties of public outreach and programming, part of her job involves monitoring management, rare features, and site conditions on northeastern SNAs. SNA staff were curious about how effective the remaining fences would be and the condition of the forest on the site. The forest understory has been greatly affected by deer browse and non-native earthworms. As such, Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) dominates in many areas and biodiversity can be low. In short, it’s the last place you’d expect to find a state-listed rare species.

Pennsylvania sedge-covered knoll

Pennsylvania sedge-covered knoll at the SNA. Note the lack biodiversity (no shrubs or wildflowers) in the understory. Photo by Kelly Randall.


As it happens, Arika and AmberBeth had just had the opportunity to visit another hardwood forest with fellow DNR staff a few weeks before. This site in Pine County is locally known for its salamander and fern populations and they got top-notch, hands-on training on fern identification. So, when Arika came across a small, unassuming fern at Chisholm Point Island, she knew it was likely something special. She took photos, checked with MBS staff, and sure enough, she had located the first recorded state-listed plant at this SNA! Arika, AmberBeth, and MBS ecologist Rebecca Holmstrom and her intern returned to the island in 2022 to better document the extent of this and related species. The data from these surveys are being processed and will help prioritize protection and management on the site.

Chisholm Point Island can only be reached from Pokegama Lake. The nearest public water access is located at Golf Course Road, approximately a half mile southeast of the SNA. The best landing areas are on the sandy shores of the southern tip or in the middle “saddle” of the island. Beware! Both areas harbor western poison ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii). Access in the winter might include snowshoe, ski, or snowmobile, but note motorized vehicles are not allowed on the SNA. Deer hunting by archery is only allowed during the regular season to control deer populations.

Because of the sensitive nature of state-listed rare species on such a small island, their exact identity and location are protected and not named in this article.

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Visit the SNA Facebook page!


Staff Highlight: Matt Johnson


Since January 2023, Matt Johnson has been working through the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa program, serving as the Communications Outreach Specialist for the SNA Program. His primary focus is on social media marketing and content creation (writing, photography, etc.)

Matt Johnson

Photo courtesy of Matt Johnson


What is the best part about your job (and why)?
Working through the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa, I am serving as the Communications Outreach Specialist for the SNA Program. I primarily focus on social media marketing and content creation (writing, photography, etc.)


What gets you excited about your work (and why)?
The most exciting part of my work is the variety. While on the surface, it may seem like my job is rather structured, there are always new twists and turns that keep it interesting. When it comes to working with social media, there are constantly new events to promote and interesting things to highlight. I also enjoy looking at the analytics for the posts in order to find out what kind of content the audience likes, in order to tailor future posts to their tastes. When it comes to my other tasks, such as content creation, I simply enjoy working within a variety of mediums; writing, editing, and photography are all interests of mine, so it is really exciting that I get to do them all to varying degrees.


What is your favorite way to spend time outdoors (and why)?
Growing up, I spent quite a bit of time outdoors. I have memories of my family taking camping trips, going fishing, and generally just playing with neighborhood friends outside. As I grew up, I admittedly become less outdoorsy, but I still always enjoy taking long walks or riding my bike. I have found that those activities, in addition to being physically healthy, are also great for my mental health. There is just something so refreshing about being outside.

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4 The Outdoors

4 The Outdoors is a shared vision for funding the future of outdoor recreation and conservation in Minnesota. You can help by talking to your friends, family, and DNR and elected officials about what you love in Minnesota’s natural places and why stable funding for these resources is important to you.

4 the outdoors

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Research Roundup




Scientific research is encouraged on SNAs to advance the knowledge of natural systems. Each year the Scientific and Natural Areas Program reviews between 60 to 75 applications for research and other activities needing a special permit, most of which are permitted after review by SNA management staff at a local and statewide level. Some applications are also reviewed by Minnesota State Parks and Trails and The Nature Conservancy. So far in 2023, 23 applications have been reviewed, including a handful of special use permits such as piping plover nest protection and a permit that covers naturalist activities on SNAs. Projects that have been issued a permit this year include:

  • Assessing a New Tool for Early Detection of Endangered Turtles on Proposed Transportation Projects (eDNA detection for endangered species). Research institution: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • LiDAR Plot Based Inventory (ground truthing of recently collected high density LiDAR). Research institution: MN DNR Resource Assessment
  • Soil Health Benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program. Research institution: University of North Dakota

New proposals are welcomed year-round, and the SNA Program encourages researchers, including university professors and independent scientists, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, to apply early. An application this spring for work proposed for 2023 should be sent in right away, to provide time for review and any needed follow-up before the busy filed season begins. All researchers must submit a completed research application. Please note review of application may take 30 days or more.

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Notes from Site Stewards


Site stewards monitor SNAs across Minnesota. Their observations provide valuable information to the SNA Program. From the reports below it appears January was a good month for hearty stewards to get out to sites and make some observations! 


  • At Hemlock Ravine SNA, site steward Jerry Zimny spent time in late January making minor repairs to the deer exclosure (tall fence) that helps protect the young hemlock trees at this SNA. He noted “with the snow being two - three feet deep, the small trees are covered and protected from predators.”
  • On January 8 Julie Snartland, site steward at Quarry Park SNA, reported a few intrepid skiers had skied all of the trails in the SNA. Quarry Park is one of the few SNAs that have trails, which connect to the adjacent Stearns County Quarry Park and Nature Preserve.
  • Martha McPheeters, trekked into Kawishiwi Pines SNA on January 2 which is no small feat as it’s few miles from the nearest road into the site. Martha got a wintery photo of the broken wood-routed entry sign draped in snow. A new sign has been order and SNA staff are planning to replace it this year.


Kawishiwi Pine SNA entry sign

Kawishiwi Pines SNA’s broken wood-routed entry sign. Photo by Martha McPheeters.

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Share your SNA photos on our flickr group!

SNA Events


Looking for a fun way to give back this spring? Get out and help on stewardship projects on an SNA at one of these events.  A full up-to-date list can be found on the SNA events calendar.

Spring events


03/25/2023 March Stewardship Project Lost Valley Prairie SNA

04/22/2023 April Stewardship Project Lost Valley Prairie SNA

05/20/2023 May Stewardship Project Lost Valley Prairie SNA

06/04/2023 Buckthorn Pull Moose Mountain SNA

06/10/2023 Sumac Removal Grey Cloud Dunes SNA

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).