A Century of Science

Classroom of students learning in the forest.There are no "U of M" logos on our forests, national parks, boulevards or homes that credit a panorama, eagle nest, or ski trail to "university research." Yet the impact of our scientific endeavor on natural resources is significant. This publication celebrates and documents a century of contributions by researchers within the University of Minnesota College of Natural Resources.

The College's programs began in 1903, a time when citizens were concerned about fire prevention and reforestation of the vast pine forests of northern Minnesota.

Our wildlife and fish resources were threatened by over-harvest and habitat loss from a growing human population.

Researchers in a boat on a lake.

It was an uncertain time, but visionary leaders turned concern into hopeful concepts: bag limits for hunting and fishing, land set-asides for conservation, replanting and repopulating nature, establishment of parks.

U of M wildlife investigations helped restore bald eagle populations. Our scientific pursuit to understand complex human-nature interactions has yielded many positive outcomes:

  • Forest ecology studies led to restoration of pre-European pine stands
  • We grow twice as much timber as we harvest
  • Lands converted to agricultural production are being returned to forests
  • Lakes and rivers are healthier than a generation ago
  • New tax policies were developed to help sustain family forest lands
  • After decades of study we know the key factors that control ruffed grouse survival and abundance

Beauty shot lake in Minnesota.Yet, there is so much we do not understand. U of M researchers are investigating the effects of trace amounts of human estrogen on fish. We struggle with policy decisions related to wildlife habitat loss from an ever-expanding human population. We're learning more about the effects of global warming on forest biodiversity. And, U of M natural resource scientists are informed leaders in the movement to better understand the risks of introducing genetically modified organisms. 

Minnesota is a unique place to study these environmental issues, situated at the confluence of three great ecological biomes: western prairies, northern boreal forests, and southern hardwood forests and oak savanna. Water flows from three major watersheds: the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and the Red-Rainy Rivers flowing north to Hudson Bay. So, what we learn here on this varied landscape is beneficial to a wide swath of North America and beyond.

Small boy, running through forest.The future of natural world discovery faces another challenge: public funding for this research is on the wane. Unlike the fields of medicine, technology, or agriculture, there is no private sector tradition of funding research to improve wildlife, water, forests, fisheries, or recreation. Add to this the longevity of trees and wildlife, plus gradual environmental changes, and it is obvious that progress in natural resources can take decades or even generations to realize. Stable, long-term funding is essential.

The vast majority of the discoveries in this publication were funded with tax dollars through the University of Minnesota's Agricultural Experiment Station. For a century U of M College of Natural Resources students have worked side-by-side with teachers on research projects such as those highlighted on the following pages. Their acquired knowledge and familiarity with research techniques will help future generations deal with local, national, and global resource issues.

Nothing to Grouse About

A 1928 proposal from preeminent naturalist Aldo Leopold launched game management research at the University, but not without caution on the part of University president Coffman. The proposal suggested the University undertake a demonstration of natural quail farming, and accept a fellowship and research support from the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer's Institute. Coffman was skeptical: "They want more quail so that more arms and ammunition can be sold. The University has no interest in the project for that purpose."

Grouse in a tree at sunset.Leopold convinced Coffman that the University would not be dealing directly with a "commercial concern" because the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey would select the research fellow and administer the funds. Then Leopold suggested pheasants or ruffed grouse would be more appropriate subjects for a Minnesota study, and Coffman agreed. And so June 1, 1929, marked the start of what is recognized internationally as an outstanding upland game investigation, with ruffed grouse research at the Cloquet Forestry Center continuing to this day.

Researchers set out to determine the factors responsible for fluctuations in abundance of the birds. In the 1930s, the first grouse researcher, Ralph King, developed a technique still commonly referred to as the "King Census Method." In the '60s and '70s, forest management for grouse changed based on Gordon Gullion's determinations that quaking aspen is the most critical species for the bird and that a mix of aspen sizes within a relatively small area constitutes optimum habitat. Gullion showed that crowded younger trees provide protection for the birds whereas the flower buds of mature male aspen are the primary winter food source.

Along with habitat understanding came prescriptions for the commercial harvest and successful regeneration of aspen—not a valuable timber resource at first, but today the one of the most widely harvested species in Minnesota. The hunt for grouse knowledge became more complex near the end of the last century, and serves as an example of how natural resource issues are interrelated, and that research-based knowledge is essential to make good decisions.

With the link established between ruffed grouse and aspen, questions of forest management became more important to wildlife managers. University expertise in forest ecology, modeling forest growth, remote sensing of woodlands, logging methods that minimize wetland disturbance, weighing competing social demands, and developing public policy all contributed to the 1990s discussion of Minnesota's future forests. Research on the ruffed grouse continues, in the context of those issues and of increasing societal expectations of having more information and more say in how natural resources are managed. That is the role of the University of Minnesota, to provide the means to generate knowledge and make informed decisions on whatever natural resource challenges come to the front.

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