As wildlife management enters the 21st century the need for accurate information about our ecosystem is greater than ever.
The human population continues to grow while the space we share with wildlife is finite. How best to manage this space is the primary concern of today's wildlife managers.
A Brainerd resident is helping the Minnesota DNR in its quest for more effective ecosystem management. Steve Piepgras, a 1991 graduate of Brainerd High School, is one of three DNR employees statewide whose job is to create highly detailed, easy-to-read maps the DNR can use for its various projects.
Some maps show the ranges of specific mammal, bird or plant species. Others show the boundaries of Wildlife Management Areas, the locations of radio-collared deer, land parcels the DNR hopes to acquire and where bear bait stations are located in the Brainerd area. An upcoming map will show the known locations of prairie chickens and will be used by DNR officers when they conduct the spring survey.
'I would like to work here full time, but I've been told the odds are against it. I'm holding out and hoping. A lot of people see the need for what I do but it's all a matter of funding and I have no control over that.' -- Steve Piepgras Creates maps for DNR projects
"I enjoy the variety," Piepgras said of his work. "Even though I'm not directly involved in these projects I learn a lot just by looking at the data and mapping it."
"Resource assessment" is the term the DNR uses to describe Piepgras' work. He also could be called the accountant for wildlife. Before the DNR can begin a project it must know everything it can about the wildlife that inhabits the project area. Piepgras' maps provide that information.
Steve Piepgras (left) and Gary Drotts looked over a map Piepgras made for the DNR. It shows the location of lakes that would be suitable for waterfowl restoration projects. (Dispatch Photo by Vince Meyer)
"They're at the base of everything we do," said Gary Drotts, the DNR's Brainerd area Wildlife Supervisor. "With these maps we know we're working in the right spot and in a cost-effective way."
Currently, Piepgras is creating a map that will identify shallow lakes with the potential to produce good waterfowl habitat and wild rice crops. He began by identifying all the lakes in Minnesota that are 50 acres or larger with a maximum depth of less than 16 feet. Next he will determine which of these lakes have been drained or tiled, which have dams and which have historically been good for waterfowl.
With this information Piepgras will create a map for DNR waterfowl managers to use in the field. Other groups, such as Ducks Unlimited or the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, also may eventually use the map.
To make his maps Piepgras uses Geographic Information Systems, or GIS. The system can create several kinds of maps. Some show specific points where an animal, bird or plant species is located while others show its overall range. The physical size of a lake or river also can be accurately plotted.
This map shows the range of the Blanding's turtle, which presently is listed as a "special concern" species by the DNR. Steve Piepgras created this map using Geographic Information Systems.
To create a range map of the Blanding's turtle -- a species currently classified as "special concern" by the DNR -- Piepgras first plotted the specific geographic points where people reported seeing a Blanding's turtle. When the points were plotted Piepgras connected the dots, resulting in the map you see on this page.
"In the past five or six years GIS has become a lot more user friendly," he said. "It's the same as what's happened with computers. They used to use punch cards but today it's all point and click."
Piepgras' work on the Blanding's turtle helped him earn his master's degree in biology from the University of North Dakota. He now is working on a graduate certificate in GIS at St. Cloud State University.
Despite his qualifications, Piepgras and the DNR soon may part ways. His position is temporary and Drotts said he isn't sure whether the money will be available to retain him.
"The public wants to see ground projects, they want to see dirt move," Drotts said. "It's hard to convince people we need money for computers and staff."
Piepgras accepts his tenuous status.
"I would like to work here full time," he said, "but I've been told the odds are against it. I'm holding out and hoping. A lot of people see the need for what I do but it's all a matter of funding and I have no control over that."
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