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Living on the edge: monitoring prairie-forest dynamics

Steve and Nancy Potter live on 80 idyllic acres just west of Long Prairie. They came to the area to live at Camphill Village, a 500-acre biodynamic farm comprised of a community of people, some with special needs, who live and work together caring for each other and the earth. Eventually the Potters yearned for their own farm and found the perfect place to grow vegetables, plant trees and raise their two kids, Sam and Ruth.

Two years ago, Ruth worked as a research assistant for Pete Wyckoff, a University of Minnesota Morris professor who is directing a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) project titled: Life at the margins-impacts of climate change and herbivory on tree population dynamics at the prairie-forest ecotone. The mixed blessing was that as the team was preparing to set up their research plots, the state shut down state parks. Unable to get into the state parks at that key time, Wyckoff jumped at the suggestion of including Ruth’s parents’ farm in the project.

The Potters have been connected to research gathering for many years. They are official National Weather Service observers, measuring and documenting year-round precipitation and temperatures. They also are part of the cloned lilac project, an effort by the USA National Phenology Network to monitor climate change throughout Minnesota and the rest of the country. Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and year-to-year variations in climate.

The lilacs are a specific variety, Syringa x chinensis, Red Rothomagensis, planted by phenologists to assure they are observing genetically identical plants throughout the research area. They then monitor when the lilacs bud, leaf out, begin to bloom, are at full bloom, and when the bloom is over. The lilacs are very dependent on climatic conditions to bloom. Monitoring when they reach each stage tells something about yearly differences and long-term trends. This year they bloomed almost a month later than last year. But last year was unusually early. While those differences are significant in their own ways, the trend over many years will tell a better story on climate change.

The Potters also monitor maples and basswoods in a similar project. Their landscape is punctuated with tree tubes, blooming lilacs, gardens and trails leading to Wyckoff’s four sets of deer exclosures.

Like those at the other sites across the state, a wire mesh pen 4-feet high excludes the deer while allowing seedlings planted by the team (5,000 of them statewide) to grow. Seedlings planted outside the exclosures are also checked for growth as well as for deer nibbling damage. Electronic probes, both inside and outside but near the exclosures measure light, air temperature, soil moisture and soil temperature.

The Potter’s land is the only nonpublic land in the project. Other sites include: Camden State Park (Marshall), Sibley State Park (Willmar), Glacial Lakes State Park (Starbuck), Niemackl Lake Park (Herman), Ginseng Road Farm (the Potter’s farm near Long Prairie), Maplewood State Park (Pelican Rapids) and Buffalo River State Park (Moorhead).

Wyckoff’s research team, paid with a combination of NSF and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) funds, works five days a week crossing the state to collect data, which will be analyzed and compiled into reports and peer reviewed papers to be presented at conferences or published. This year’s team includes: Stacy Buscher, a biology and pre-med student who loves being outside. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a job;” Aaron Goemann, an environmental science major who plans to go on to grad school for planetary science; and Heidi Swanson, a biology major who will be a junior in the fall. Spending so much time outdoors is new for her, having grown up in the metro area. Alayna Johnson came from the north woods of Wisconsin to earn a biology and environmental studies degree at the Morris campus. She hopes to eventually work with environmental policy and research on a reservation.

The students appreciate their opportunity to work with a professor on a research project, even when it means swatting mosquitoes and picking woodticks as they trek through the woods with bundles of little flags to mark deer scat. Another job is to count worms.

Wyckoff said that earthworms are not native to Minnesota and that they have a detrimental effect on woodlands. “Woods are already fluffy. When earthworms eat the leaf duff, what they poop out is more dense. They actually increase the density of the soil and expose the crowns of roots at the base of large trees.” Counting worms helps researchers determine their effect on woodlands.

Stacy has assisted with worm counts and explained how they find the worms. “We mix hot mustard seed with water and pour it over a measured area. The worms just come popping out of the ground because it burns their skin. We preserve them in alcohol and take them back to the lab to identify the species and document their size.” Nightcrawlers are the most common species, though European or Asian worms inhabit parts of western Minnesota. Worms have been introduced when fishermen dump their leftover bait outside, a practice discouraged by those who see the negative impact on the environment. Wyckoff said the mustard treatment is a good way to get worms for bait, too. No digging involved.

Wyckoff is a native of the Twin Cities and earned his undergraduate degree in forest ecology at Drew University. After getting his Ph.D. at Duke University, he taught in North Carolina for a couple of years then settled in Morris with his biochemist wife, Timna, in the fall of 2001. His areas of expertise are community and ecosystems ecology and the impact of climate change on forests. His research interests, exhibited in his current work, include: 1) quantifying the relationship between light and tree growth, 2)  impacts of invasive buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) on Minnesota forests, and 3) the impact of climate change on growth, mortality and regeneration of trees at Minnesota’s prairie-forest border. Though buckthorn is among the seedlings planted in the study, it can only be transplanted from other sites within state parks since buckthorn is non-native and highly invasive. A permit is required to work with it, and Wyckoff has promised to grub it out when the research is complete.

The one clear finding of the project so far concerns buckthorn. The working hypothesis is that buckthorn, is aided by deer. Deer don’t eat buckthorn but when they browse on other shrubs and trees, the buckthorn is given a growth advantage.

Though the same research team may not be back next year, Wyckoff and interested students will return for the next few summers to continue to monitor the research areas and learn more about the impact of climate change and deer populations on Minnesota’s prairie-forest margins. The Potters are sure to continue to be part of the auxiliary team as they monitor the weather, the trees and, of course, the lilacs.

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