Steve Apfelbaum has spent a lot of time in the canoe country, although most of it was for the birds. Since 1975, he and research partner Alan Haney have studied how plant and bird communities reassemble following a wildfire.
“We’re trying to understand how fire affects the abundance and distribution of native plants and birds,” he said.
Their research began in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park and expanded to include forest management practices in the Superior National Forest. Over the years, they’ve looked at what happens in the woods not only in the aftermath of fire, but also after logging, the establishment of pine plantations and following a major windstorm.
The only constant in the great boreal forest is change. While various tree species may live for decades or even centuries, eventually fire, wind or human activity topples the trees so the forest can begin anew.This process of forest succession in the canoe country was extensively studied by researchers such as the late Dr. Myron Heinselman, who shared his knowledge of forest history with Apfelbaum and Haney when they were getting started.
The pair selected monitoring sites that ranged from recent burns to old growth. Then they collected data on the plant and bird life on the sites and watched how those populations changed over time. Apfelbaum says they now have one of the longest term studies and data sets of this information on the planet.
“We’ve learned an awful lot about what is happening in the interior of the wilderness,” Apfelbaum said.
Major changes have occurred in the canoe country since 1975. One has been the change in the overall abundance of neotropical birds, which are species that nest in the north and winter in the tropics. Apfelbaum mentioned two birds, the Blackburnian and Cape May warblers, which are in decline in the canoe country and elsewhere. Both species forage in the treetops for insects. A possible reason for their decline is more widespread pesticide spraying in Canada to control spruce budworms.
The increasing fire frequency has affected birds, too. For instance, Nashville warblers prefer younger and wetter forest habitat. Their population has expanded following fires as they move into areas once dominated by the treetop-loving Blackburnian and Cape May warblers. Those species will return as the trees grow older.
The researchers have also found many native wildlife species spend a lot of time in the vicinity of 1- to 5-year-old fire scars. Goshawks mostly nest within a half mile of recent burns, where they find good hunting for a favored prey—ruffed grouse. The grouse are attracted to burns because they feed heavily on the seeds of fringe bindweed, which is one of the first plants to appear following a fire.
Apfelbaum said researchers thought they would find more bones from male ruffed grouse near goshawk nests, because the males are often visible near their drumming logs, where they rapidly beat their wings to attract females. Instead, they discovered so many grouse are drawn to the burns to feed that goshawks pick off the females first.
They’ve also learned moose play an important role in forest succession. Apfelbaum likened the massive animals to mowing machines, because they browse heavily on aspen and mountain maple saplings that are among the first trees to sprout after a fire. Moose do such a good job of nipping back these fast-growing deciduous trees that they create openings where pine and spruce seedlings have a chance to grow. It’s an example, he says, of how landscape ecology relates to all wildlife species.
While Apfelbaum and Haney have spent plenty of time in the wilderness, they were by no means alone in their efforts. Over the years the men were joined by numerous University of Wisconsin students, because Haney was a forest ecology professor at US Stevens Point and Apfelbaum, chairman of Applied Ecological Services, has frequently taught there. While the actual research work was often bug-ridden and physically challenging, the research teams also had some fun—though it was often unintended. The two men have compiled essays about their humorous experiences in an unpublished manuscript.
Over the years, the pair collaborated with Minnesota researchers, but Apfelbaum said their interest in wilderness research seems to come and go. He has, however, made many friends among the folks who have been vital to the protection of the canoe country. Early on, he had the good fortune to spend lots of time with the late Sigurd Olson, the author and wilderness activist. In fact, he recalls being in the high school gymnasium in Ely with Olson on the night when some of the townsfolk burned him in effigy. Helpful in the early years of the project was the late Quetico Provincial Park naturalist, Shawn Walshe. He also counts among his friends such familiar canoe country names as wilderness advocate Nelson French, former Superior National Forest wildlife biologist Ed Lindquist and recently retired Superior National Forest supervisor Jim Sanders.
Now Apfelbaum and Haney have reached a crossroads. It is time for them to pass the research baton. Haney is 70 and Apfelbaum is reaching 60. They would like to see their giant database of wilderness ecology research continue to grow after they retire.
“We’re trying to find partners in the region to continue the research,” Apfelbaum says.
Although he didn’t say it, their body of research may have growing significance as time goes on. The canoe country appears to be in the midst of significant ecological change. Other researchers, such as the University of Minnesota’s Lee Frelich, say vegetation is beginning to shift to reflect a warming climate. Wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent. Moose, the iconic species of the canoe country, are experiencing a steep, inexplicable decline.
Perhaps all of the above are temporary trends. But the only way we can identify a temporary trend or an ecological change is if we have a long term data set with which to compare the present situation. We can only hope a new generation of researchers will pick up their paddles and continue Haney and Apfelbaum’s work.