SNA Nature Notes - Winter 2023

minnesota department of natural resources

Nature Notes


Showy Lady's Slipper

Winter 2023

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


Fen Fly-in

By Shelley Hedtke, Northwest Region SNA Specialist; Becky Marty, Northwest Region Ecologist; Arika McGraw, Northeast Region SNA Naturalist and AmberBeth VanNingen, Northeast Region SNA Specialist 


This past summer SNA staff, along with DNR groundwater hydrologists and plant ecologists, got the opportunity to visit hard-to-reach spring fens found within some of our northern peatland SNAs. These sites are so difficult to reach staff had to be flown in by DNR helicopter, piloted by the fearless Grace Zeller. The goal of this project was to collect data on the documented spring fens embedded in remote northern peatlands to help clarify the technical criteria for spring fens. This was done by looking at the hydrology—what the water was doing—and the plant communities of the fens.

Helicopter Flies Off

MBS Plant Research Scientist Rebecca Holmstrom investigates a plant. In the background the DNR helicopter flies off with another crew to bring them to their next drop-off location. Photo by Arika McGraw.


Becky Marty, Northwest Regional Ecologist, states, “This was a complex project, balancing cloud ceilings with tree heights, heat and humidity with heat intolerances, juggling crew weights for ‘copter efficiency and safety, shifting crews around to balance skills and enhance knowledge, and pre-arranging flight suits and other safety equipment, hotel rooms, and field resources. Everyone involved stepped up, did their part, and supported each other. People did a great job.” Becky Marty knows exactly how much hard work it took to do this project. She did most of the planning and organizing.

Enjoy these photo highlights from our visits to these fens!


Day 1: Pine Creek Peatland SNA

Aerial of Spring Fens

View from the helicopter of narrow channels (spring fens) within the forested bogs of northern Minnesota peatlands. Photo by DNR staff.

Michele Walker and Shelley Hedtke

Shelley Hedtke | After some helicopter safety training on day one, we got up early the next morning to the possibility of a no-go flight due to rain. Luck was on our side as the rains held off to give us good flight and survey weather. Groundwater Hydrologist Michele Walker (left) and Northwest Regional SNA Specialist Shelley Hedtke (right) get ready for takeoff. Photo by Shelley Hedtke.

Shelley Hedtke

Shelley Hedtke| My job was to familiarize myself with Pine Creek Peatland Scientific and Natural Area, as this was my first visit to this remote, pristine peatland, and to document the water monitoring and plant survey work our groundwater hydrologist Michele Walker and MBS botanist Jeff Lee would do in the short time we spent at this beautiful peatland. Photo by Michele Walker.

Michele Walker

Groundwater Hydrologist Michele Walker is taking the pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen (HDO), oxidation reduction potential (ORP), and specific conductivity of the water here and will later collect water samples to analyze for calcium and alkalinity before we leave. Photo by Shelley Hedtke.

Jeff Lee

MBS Plant Ecologist Jeff Lee is recording orchids, cottongrass and other species on the Canadian border cut line. Photo by Shelley Hedtke.

Cottongrass, cinquefoil, mosses

Left, fluffy white cottongrass (Eriophorum sp.) showing how it got its name. Upper right, shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticose) and an insect pollinator. Lower right, mosses are a common ground cover in peatlands. Photos by Shelley Hedtke.

Landing helicopter

Time to go home! Pilot Grace Zeller landing the helicopter at the end of the first day. Photo by Shelley Hedtke.


Day 2: Lost River Peatland SNA

Grace Zeller

AmberBeth VanNingen |Monday, June 26 was my first day in the helicopter and on the ground, but our first site was not a guarantee. Because of the narrowness of the potential spring fen, we were not sure we would be able to land. But pilot Grace Zeller has the skill and experience, making it possible for us to explore this truly unique place. Photo by: DNR staff Photo by DNR staff.

Landed helicopter

Pilot Grace’s expert landing in small fen surrounded by trees. Photo by DNR staff.

Showy lady's slipper and bog wintergreen

AmberBeth VanNingen | As we got out of the helicopter and just into the trees, we found showy lady’s slippers (left), Minnesota’s state flower and a symbol of the SNA program, and I just knew it was going to be a good day. Right, bog wintergreen (Pyrola asarifolia) blooms in the forested peatland at the edge of the spring fen. Photos by AmberBeth VanNingen.

Crew plant survey

Crew surveying at Lost River Peatland SNA Photo by DNR staff.

Rose pogonia, bladderwort, and pitcher plant

Upper right, the vibrant pink flower of rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides). Upper left, the bright yellow flower of the carnivorous and aquatic bladderwort (Utricularia sp.). Bottom, the carnivorous purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) with a small insect trapped inside. Photos by AmberBeth VanNingen.


Day 3: Myrtle Lake Peatland SNA

Forested peatland

Forested peatland with a blanket of fog on the way to Myrtle Lake Peatland SNA. Photo by AmberBeth VanNingen.

Bird's eye view, sundew, grass-pink

Top, bird’s eye view of the spring fen area to be surveyed on day 3 at Myrtle Lake Peatland SNA. Lower left, close up of the carnivorous round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) giving a good view of its red, sticky tipped hairs used to trap insects. Lower right, a pair of vivid fuchsia tuberous grass-pink flowers (Calopogon bulbosa). Photos by Arika McGraw.

Becky Marty

Northwest Regional Ecologist Becky Marty looks out of the helicopter’s doorless frame. Photo by DNR staff.


AmberBeth VanNingen | The highlight for my second day (the third day of the survey) was getting to do a relevé (a plant survey method) with Becky. I love geeking out on plants with other people who also love geeking out on plants. Getting to do things I love with other people doing what they love is a highlight of my work in general. Photo by DNR staff.


Groundwater Hydrologist Rosalyn Krog showing a sample of the peat that makes peatlands so special. Peat is the partially decomposed plant matter that is formed when plant matter accumulates faster than it can decompose. Photo by Arika McGraw.


Group picture of one of Day 3's crews with pilot Graze Zeller in front of the trusty helicopter that got them to the fens and back. Photo by Arika McGraw.


“It was an excellent adventure – lots of good, detailed data collected on plants, the peat, and hydrology of these systems while friendships were strengthened as we dodged storms, Canada wildfire smoke and haze, and trees where we had intended to land. Grace Zeller, our pilot, was truly an excellent partner in all ways in this project.“ - Becky Marty, Northwest Regional Ecologist

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Sprague Creek Peatland SNA location map

Site Highlight: Sprague Creek Peatland SNA

By Shelley Hedtke, Northwest Region SNA Specialist

Minnesota’s Wetland Conservation Act of 1991 established protection for 18 ecologically important peatland areas in Minnesota’s northernmost counties. While these peatland SNAs are in fairly good to excellent ecological condition, a number of them have had hydrologic and vegetative impacts from past ditching efforts.

History of Disturbance
In the early 1900s, homesteaders began to settle in the peatland areas of the state, encouraged by real estate agents and counties who promoted the idea that if water was removed from the landscape, the soils would become productive farmland.
A large effort to drain the peatlands began in 1905 in Beltrami County and quickly expanded to Koochiching, Lake of the Woods and other counties over the next 20 some years. Ditches were dug in an attempt to drain the land for farming and for road construction.

The peatlands contain saturated organic soils which hold a lot of water and ditches would never be able to remove water off the landscape fast enough to drain them. The peat soils did not make productive farmland so the attempt to drain the peatlands failed. By 1931 many privately owned properties became tax delinquent leaving some counties near bankruptcy as a result in the loss of tax base and the high cost of bonds to construct the ditches.

These ditches have contributed to several ecological problems in peatland eco-systems including:

  • alteration of surface and groundwater flows and rates,
  • altered water tables that impact peatland plant and animal communities,
  • increased carbon dioxide and methane releases (greenhouse gases),
  • increased invasive species,
  • reduced water quality,
  • loss of biodiversity,
  • and the potential for increased wildfire.
Beaver Dam on Sprague Creek

Beaver dam in Sprague Creek ditch. Photo by Torin McCormack.


An Old Idea Comes Back to Life Through Legacy Funding
A big dream for peatland managers is nearing reality to restore a large portion of the drained Roseau Lake (part of the Roseau Lake Wildlife Management Area) in Roseau County.

This large, shallow lake was drained in the early 1900s for agricultural production, but its wet soils made farming difficult. Over the intervening years, landowners sold their property to Ducks Unlimited and the MN DNR for conservation.

Overarching goals for the lake restoration include increasing water storage in the lake basin to reduce flood damages downstream and creating shallow lake habitats for wildlife. However, a number of wetlands surrounding the old lake basin will be impacted by construction during the lake restoration project so a nearby site with enough restorable wetland acres had to be found to mitigate for the loss of those wetlands as required though the State’s Wetland Conservation Act of 1991 and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Sect. 404 wetland regulations.


This is where the Sprague Creek Peatland SNA comes into the picture. The SNA is located about 3 miles northeast of the drained Roseau Lake. It is around 830 acres and while relatively small by peatland SNA standards it contains rare spring fens and forested wetlands. The 8.5 miles of ditches in the SNA have affected the water movement and speed within the spring fen channels, which in their natural state, carried water slowly through the wetlands south of the SNA. Currently water from the spring fen channels flows into ditches within the SNA. The ditches then quickly move water into the Roseau River which runs westerly through the drained Roseau Lake basin.

As part of the Roseau Lake restoration project, the wetlands in Sprague Creek Peatland SNA will be rehabilitated by plugging ditches to reduce the flow of water being drained by the ditches. This should help restore the natural peatland hydrology and function, improve the native plant community condition, and reconnect the severed spring fen channel flows within the SNA. If successful, the project will also provide the necessary wetland mitigation credits needed for the Roseau Lake restoration project.


The Wetland Rehabilitation Process
To understand the impact ditching has had on the hydrology and vegetation in and around the SNA, a number of studies were conducted to compare before and after effects of ditch closure.

Vegetation surveys were conducted to:

  1. map the native plant communities in locations potentially affected by the ditches,
  2. create a plant species list,
  3. complete an assessment of the condition of the vegetation relative to ditch locations,
  4. and attempt to locate rare species that could be impacted by the ditch filling project.

In addition, 12 piezometers (water monitoring stations) were installed in and near the ditches within the SNA. This information helped us to understand how the ditches impact groundwater levels and flow directions as well as how effective the ditches are in transporting water out of the SNA. Peat was tested at these stations to see if it had degraded and if peat loss was attributed to ditching. Testing will help us understand how the surrounding soils may react after the ditches are closed.

Transects across the ditches at strategic locations provided a profile of peat depth and assessment of peat loss. Vegetation was surveyed for condition at these locations. This information will be used when filling ditch sections within the SNA to help maintain desired water table levels.

Staff from the Roseau River Watershed District and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources were involved in the development of the ditch closure design and specifications, and the overall plan for construction. Many other planning activities took place during the process to finalize this part of the Roseau Lake restoration. Much of the planning has been completed and we are ready to begin the construction phase of the ditch closure in Sprague Creek. This will be done when the ground is frozen and if all goes as planned may happen this winter.

Northwest Region SNA Program staff are excited to see the completion of this project in Sprague Creek. If we are lucky future monitoring will tell the story of a successful recovery of this beautiful peatland SNA. Lessons learned will be shared with the peatland conservation community and used to inform future ditch fill projects. We are also glad that when done it will help move the larger Roseau Lake basin restoration project one step closer to a successful completion.

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Visit the SNA Facebook page!


Staff Highlight: Haley Whitehouse


Haley Whitehouse is a new (since November 2023) SNA Management Specialist for DNR’s Central Region. Haley gets to help coordinate natural resource management and development activities on private and public lands, and will also get to work with a variety of volunteers and partners to accomplish SNA goals.

Haley Whitehouse

Haley Whitehouse surrounded by wild lupine. Photo courtesy of Haley Whitehouse.

Why do you do this work?
I had originally started out wanting to work with endangered and threated animals in some form and stumbled upon the SNA program. I realized this program would allow me to help manage land and conserve areas for a wide variety of species that are in need. I get the most joy out of knowing I get to make a direct impact on the land and feel like I am leaving this Earth a little better with each project I get to help tackle/complete.


What are the challenges of this line of work?
There are many challenges in this field. Physical, mental, and emotional. Physically, we do a lot of work with equipment and hand tools to accomplish our management objectives. This could mean hiking in long distances, operating equipment, and lifting heavy things. It is a challenge mentally because it sometimes feels like a losing battle with invasive species and can be a bit daunting to tackle a new project. It can also be a challenge to communicate effectively with co-workers and the public on the goals and activities that we have for an area. It can also be emotionally challenging because we all get invested in the areas we work in and it means a lot to all of us, especially me, when we get things accomplished that will make a big difference.


What is your favorite way to spend time outdoors (and why)?
I love getting to be behind the lens of my camera. I like looking at the land through a different view and getting to turn off the management side of my brain for a bit, which feels nice to do. I like to explore new places with my fiancé and that allows me to get to find new things to capture on my camera.


What do like to do outside of work?
I like to read, cook, bake, set puzzles, and cuddle with my kitty, George! I enjoy spending quality time with friends, family, and my fiancé. I also listen to a lot of podcasts and always looking for new ones, so if you see me around, feel free to share your favorite one with me!

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Make the DNR’s Rare Species Guide Even Better

Rare Species Guide


Please take this Minnesota DNR survey and help us improve the Rare Species Guide. The Guide is a dynamic, interactive resource for information on Minnesota's endangered, threatened, and special concern species. It includes profiles featuring the status, distribution, ecology, conservation, and management of our rarest animals and plants. The DNR wants to improve the guide…with your help! The survey will let us know how we can make the Guide even better!

Please take the survey now (less than 10 minutes). Thank you!

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Notes from Site Stewards


Site stewards monitor SNAs across Minnesota. Their observations provide valuable information to the SNA Program. Summer prairie visits were regularly reported, with a variety of observations and tasks completed.

  • Last month Stephen Saupe became the newest SNA site steward. He wasted no time making observations at his site, Rice Lake Savanna SNA. On a November 17 visit to walk the perimeter and through the middle of the site he noted few invasive species and hand-pulled just a few buckthorn. He also noted “the site is rich in poison ivy”!
  • Site steward Diane Newberry noted in a recent report that it has been fun to hike all around Mary Schmidt Crawford Woods SNA this fall and see much less first-year garlic mustard in the woods. ”Lots more hiking, lots less pulling!”
  • Martha McPheeters, Kawishiwi Pines SNA site steward, and Bill Tefft, Purvis Lake-Ober Foundation SNA site steward, were of incredible help to SNA staff on October 25. They all trekked about 0.75 miles through the woods, across a bog, and on a trail into the Kawishiwi Pines SNA to install a new wood-routed sign. They then retraced their steps back out with the broken sign.


Kawishiwi Pines SNA sign

The wood routed sign at Kawishiwi Pines SNA before, and a much improved version after. Photo by Martha McPheeters (above), SNA staff (below).

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SNA Events


Winter snows will hopefully be on tap in time for a few fun winter events scheduled in the coming months. Get those snowshoes ready! Check out the detail for each event on the SNA calendar.

Snowshoe events


01/20/24  Sunset Snowshoe  Chisholm Point Island SNA
02/09/24  Sunset Snowshoe  Burntside Islands 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).