Summer 2020
Minnesota Master Naturalist Susan Deetz gathers native mussels from the St. Croix River. Photography by Dennis Zerwas Jr.

Into the wild

Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteers further our understanding of the environment

Last summer, Susan Binkley waded into the waters of the St. Croix River in search of a Wabash pigtoe. This freshwater mussel, roughly 3 inches in diameter with a smooth yellow-brown outer shell, is found in several tributaries that empty into the Mississippi River, including the St. Croix, which forms a portion of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Like all bivalves, the Wabash pigtoe filters water through its gills, subsisting on algae and bacteria and leaving the water cleaner and clearer. More than 40 species of freshwater mussels thrive in the St. Croix, but they’re vanishing quickly worldwide for reasons scientists don’t fully understand.

Native mussels from the St. Croix River
Dennis Zerwas Jr.

Binkley donned a diving mask and ducked below the surface of the water, scanning the river bottom. Sometimes she dredged up a rock; sometimes she found an abandoned shell. “At first glance, this thing looks like just another rock, but when you flip it over there’s a whole other world inside,” says the graphic designer, who marveled at the iridescent lavender, pink, silver, and jade colors in a shell. “That’s what I love about nature. Sometimes the discovery is just mind-blowing.”

When Binkley found what appeared to be a Wabash pigtoe, she handed it to University of Minnesota researcher Mark Hove, ’87 B.A., for confirmation. Hove began studying freshwater mussels as an undergraduate and was hired as a researcher by the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences in 1990. In addition to his work at the U, he recently started working on a project for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to find out why the Wabash pigtoe, which has long thrived in Minnesota, is on the decline in Iowa, just one state away. (Some researchers theorize that agricultural chemicals are killing the mussels.)

Hove had recruited a dozen volunteers to help him with his field research last summer. The group of citizen scientists included graduate students, high school kids, retirees, and several folks—including Binkley—who had been certified as Master Naturalists through the University of Minnesota Extension.

“I’ve always been interested in the outdoors and in all kinds of nature, from plants to insects to animals,” Binkley says. She once worked as art director for Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine and did communications for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. But immersing herself in the Master Naturalist program proved eye-opening. “I thought I knew this stuff, but I was blown away by what I didn’t know.”

Binkley decided to assist Hove with his field research after touring his lab as part of her Master Naturalist coursework. “Mussels are critically endangered and disappearing quickly from our environment. Someone has to care, and Mark really does care,” Binkley says. “His passion was infectious. People signed up right there on the spot to help him with his project.”

Birds, bugs, biomes

Minnesota’s Master Naturalist program was launched in 2005 with the goal of creating “a corps of well-informed citizens dedicated to conservation education and service” in Minnesota. Twenty-two students enrolled in the first session, held at Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities. Last year, more than 400 people participated in Master Naturalist classes in a dozen locations across the state—making the program among the most popular Extension offerings.  

Volunteer Jim Howitz assists technician Sarah Stewart in taking measurements of a woodpecker at the U of M’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel, Minnesota.
Caitlin Potter
Master Naturalists removed 20 trailer loads of buckthorn in one day at Lac qui Parle Mission.
Amy Rager

“We get a lot of people who say, ‘This is what I wanted to do my whole life,’” says Amy Rager, the program’s director.

Many participants have a science background, but lack specific training in biology, ecology, or other topics covered in the Master Naturalist curriculum. Roughly 30 percent of participants have doctorates, and many are familiar with lab practices and protocols. “They’re curious and passionate about the outdoors, but they also bring skills to the table,” Rager says.

Students undergo 40 hours of classroom training, learning about Minnesota’s geology, climate, flora, fauna, and bugs. The curriculum is focused on the state’s biomes. Participants can choose from “Prairies and Potholes,” studying the tallgrass prairie, waterfowl, and glacial kettles that dominate the southwestern part of the state; “North Woods, Great Lakes,” which explores the cold, wet landscape of bogs, swamps, and bedrock in northern Minnesota; or “Big Woods, Big Rivers,” a biome that stretches like a sash across the center of the state and includes three of the state’s largest rivers. (The state’s fourth biome, officially known as tallgrass aspen parklands, covers 3 million acres in the far northwestern corner of the state. It’s included in “Big Woods, Big Rivers.”)

Only a portion of each course is classroom-based, however. Participants also take field trips to nature areas and research labs. After completing their coursework, Master Naturalists are required to complete 40 hours of volunteer work a year such as banding birds, counting bees, removing invasive species, and collecting specimens for projects like Hove’s mussel study.

“Many Master Naturalists form a bond with their instructors and become passionate advocates for the research,” Rager says. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Students pay $295 to cover the cost of classes and materials. Financial support also comes from gifts to the program’s endowment, which was seeded with funds from one of the program’s first participants. “There was a former 3M executive in our first class who told me I should set up a fund for the program,” Rager recalls. “I had no idea how to do that and wasn’t sure it was worth the effort. But he wrote a check for $100 and handed it to me, so I suddenly had no other choice!”

Gifts from donors now help pay for scholarships and other program needs. In addition, Rager has advised Extension programs in other states about how to use private gifts to help support their Master Naturalist programs.

Conservation corps

Conservation is never-ending work. Mining, farming, and other developments are a constant threat, and their impact on Minnesota’s landscape and its inhabitants can be dramatic—with potentially irreversible consequences. In the classroom and in the field, Minnesota’s Master Naturalists quickly realize that their contributions can play a critical role in preserving the state’s landscape and wildlife.

A volunteer bands a bird.
Terry Tollefson

John Arthur, a former board member of the Minneapolis chapter of the Audubon Society, knew a great deal about birds and fair bit about ecology before enrolling in the Master Naturalist program. “But I learned a lot about Minnesota’s geology and geography that I didn’t know,” he says.

As part of his Master Naturalist capstone project, he conducted a survey of moths at Boulder Lake Environmental Learning Center north of Duluth. “I was shocked by the variety of moths I was able to find and photograph,” Arthur says. He also took part in the Red-Headed Woodpecker Recovery Project at the U of M’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, a biological field station in East Bethel. 

Caitlin Potter, the education and community engagement coordinator at Cedar Creek, says Master Naturalists have played a significant role in furthering the center’s research and education programs. Participants have located nests for the red-headed woodpecker study, educated schoolkids on the value of bison in oak savannah management, and combed through millions of trail-camera photos.

Potter, who has taught two Master Naturalist classes, says she was astonished by her students’ enthusiasm and commitment. “I wasn’t really prepared for the community that would emerge from 40 hours of class time,” Potter says. “Part of my job was to embed students into a project so that they felt they were part of something bigger than themselves. They had a real desire to contribute—both during the class and after.”

Hove, the mussel researcher, says he had some key questions before he signed on to work with a cohort of Master Naturalists. “I wondered, ‘Is this going to pay off? Is this worthwhile?’ Lab work requires following precise protocols and careful recordkeeping,” he says. “But I’m glad I tried it. I had a great experience.”

The benefits even extended to Hove’s graduate students, who got to manage people and help run a large study. The variety of people within the Master Naturalist group also proved stimulating to Hove. “There were artists and nonscientists who made me think a little differently about my work,” he says. “The people in the program are really excited about the natural world. And I am, too—so the enthusiasm was mutually contagious.”

A few days after the field trip to the St. Croix, Binkley found herself in Hove’s lab, looking through a microscope. Her job was to search for and count the tiny organisms, including mussel larvae, that had attached themselves to minnows. “The first time you see a juvenile mussel, your heart leaps,” Binkley says. “Any baby is adorable, it doesn’t matter what species it is, but these tiny mussels—smaller than a pinhead—are just so cute!”

Binkley was equally surprised and delighted when she discovered that Hove had published his findings in a scientific paper and credited her and others who helped with the study.

“This is important work,” Binkley says. Her interest in the natural world, while initially strong, has grown—and her respect and support for researchers has also been strengthened by her experience as a Master Naturalist.

“Mussels are critically endangered around the world, but here in North America, we have the greatest diversity of mussels found anywhere. We have a natural treasure here, so we have a responsibility to pay attention and take care of that legacy.”

Freelance writer Joel Hoekstra lives in Minneapolis.