Helping wildlife navigate a changing landscape

June 5, 2019

Researchers use new state funding to understand spruce grouse movement as an indicator of wildlife response to the northward shift of Minnesota’s boreal forests

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA, MAY 2019 --- Scientists from the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are using funds from the Environment and Natural Resources Fund to perform research that will improve timber harvest planning in ways that are compatible with conservation of wildlife populations. The funds, approved by the Minnesota Legislature, are for roughly $300,000 over the next three years (until June 2022).

The study aims to decipher how the composition, arrangement, and size of boreal forest stands influence wildlife movement and thus promote the incorporation of wildlife needs into forest planning. Scientists have predicted that the spruce‐fir forest will shift entirely north of the US border as summers become warmer and drought sets in due to climate change—but how will the forests’ inhabitants adapt?

As these shifts occur, maintaining habitat patches close enough to each other to allow wildlife to move successfully between patches will be essential to maintaining sustainable populations and allowing wildlife to inhabit new areas in a changing landscape. The research will provide data on how close forest patches of similar composition should be to each other in order to accommodate even the most short‐ranging wildlife.

“We live in a changing world,” says Julia Ponder, DVM, MPH, executive director at The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. “Being able to predict how wildlife will be impacted by climate change and the natural resource utilization of timber will help us with vital decision-making and allow us to mitigate challenges to species like spruce grouse.”

Species most likely to be adversely impacted by landscape change and fragmentation are those with limited movement capabilities or tendencies to make short movements. Spruce grouses only use about 200 acres of black spruce, jack pine, and tamarack trees each year. As a result, the researchers will focus on spruce grouses, making them the sentinel species to reflect connectivity issues among the dispersed areas where these trees are most prevalent.

The team will examine forest characteristics in both the individual patches of trees and at a large scale using geographic information system mapping software. This data will be used to understand how wildlife use and move between boreal forest areas that vary in size, composition, and arrangement.

Then, the researchers will capture 70 spruce grouse and attach transmitters to them. This way, scientists can monitor spruce grouse movements before, during, and after timber harvest. The team will determine if spruce grouse move to the nearest conifer forest stand, or farther, and whether there is substantial mortality risk of moving in an unfamiliar place.

Lastly, the team will collect nearly 300 spruce grouse pellet samples to obtain genetic material. They will use the DNA to identify long-term barriers to movement between boreal forest clusters.  In December 2022, the researchers will make their recommendations on how best to harvest timber in boreal forests in a way that enables wildlife movement.

“The Minnesota Legislature has helped us further our college's mission by supporting this work," says Molly McCue, DVM, MS, PhD, interim associate dean for research at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. "They have emboldened our talented researchers to help solve some of the issues faced by Minnesota, and we are incredibly grateful for their investment in our work.”


Julia Ponder, DVM, MPH, associate professor at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and executive director of The Raptor Center,, 612-624-3431