Resiliency and vulnerability of Apostle Islands coastal wetlands

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The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore supports several types of coastal and interior wetlands including lagoons, bogs, freshwater estuaries, marshes and peatlands that provide many important ecological functions.

We investigated wetland hydrology, geomorphology, vegetation, macro-invertebrates, and fish to identify communities or wetland types that are most at risk of climate-related impacts.

The interaction between Lake Superior water levels and hydrologic connectivity between the wetlands and the lake influence how these wetlands will respond to changing conditions.

For example, the hydrology of wetlands located behind semipermanent sand barriers responds quickly to intense rain events whereas wetlands with open connections to Lake Superior are influenced more by storm and seiche-driven fluctuations than heavy precipitation events.

Floral and faunal communities inhabiting the park’s coastal wetlands must be adapted to these different water level patterns. Because various climate related drivers (e.g., storm and seiche intensity vs. intense precipitation events) are at play, the park’s wetlands will likely respond in differing ways. For example, as lake levels shifted from a 15-year below-average period (1998-2013) to above-average depths in 2014, the plant community response was more dynamic among coastal wetland types lacking a sphagnum peat mat.

The Lakeshore’s peatlands have so far exhibited resilience to changes in hydrology, but sustained monitoring may capture a time lag in peatland response. The relatively remote location of Apostle Island wetlands makes them important reference systems, though climaterelated factors are likely to alter these systems in unique ways. 

Presenter biographies

Dr. Matt Cooper and Dr. Sarah Johnson

Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater
Innovation, Northland College

Matt Cooper is a Research Assistant Professor at Central Michigan University and teaching faculty at Muskegon Community College.

Matt received his BS and MS from Grand Valley State University and PhD from the University of Notre Dame.

He has worked in Great Lakes coastal wetlands for many years and is one of the project managers for the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program, a long-term program funded by the US EPA that is tracking the condition of over 1,000 wetlands across the Great Lakes.

Sarah Johnson is an Associate Professor of Natural Resources, the Sigurd Olson Professor of Natural Sciences, and faculty affiliate with the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College.

Sarah received a PhD in Botany from UW-Madison and has worked in the Great Lakes region or in coastal systems for 20 years, starting with an internship with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

She is a plant ecologist who researches vegetation change and teaches field botany, wetlands, and other natural history courses.

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Not-so-great expectations: a vulnerability assessment for terrestrial ecosystems in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

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How might climate change affect Apostle Islands National Lakeshore? It’s a simple question with lots of potential answers! This presentation will describe a recently published climate change vulnerability assessment for the terrestrial ecosystems throughout the park.

Peggy Burkman will describe why the park felt it was necessary to complete this vulnerability assessment, and she’ll also cover some of the important context of the Apostle Islands landscape that might cause climate change to play out differently than on the mainland. Stephen Handler will explain how the assessment was completed and share some of the results and remaining questions. 

Click to access Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Terrestrial Ecosystems at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Click to access Park Service page on climate change.

Additional reading

Click to access Invasive Plant Management in the Apostle Islands

Click to access Formation of the Stockton Island Tombolo; A 6,000 Year Process

Click to access Bees on the Brink Research at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Presenter biographies

Stephen Handler, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science

Stephen Handler is a climate change specialist with the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station and Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science.

His main role with NIACS is to coordinate the Northwoods Climate Change Response Framework, which involves building partnerships, assessing climate change risk, and working with forest managers and landowners to develop real-world projects to adapt and prepare for future change. Stephen moved to Houghton, MI, in 2011 and loves being a Yooper. 

Peggy Burkman, Apostle Islands NL

Peggy Burkman is the Biologist at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (2002) with former experience as a wildlife biologist, fire ecologist, and landscape ecologist in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service.

Peggy coordinates several long-term monitoring projects in the park, works with researchers to address various questions, and maintains healthy vegetation through exotic plant management and restoration efforts. She fell in love with Lake Superior during her youth and has spent her life in the Great Lakes.

Questions and anaswers

“If you could look into your crystal ball, 50 years from now, what major differences would you expect to see, given that the lake is warming and shorelines are being reshaped faster.”

I tend to think first about the on-going trend toward warming winters, so that’s what I imagine when I look into my crystal ball. Right now, the Apostle Islands and other areas in the lake-effect snow belt are still consistently cold enough during the winter to receive plenty of lake-effect snow. In fact, as the lake has warmed over the past 40 years and lake ice has declined, areas like the Keweenaw Peninsula and northern Wisconsin are actually experiencing more total snowfall during the winter. But this feels a bit like Wiley Coyote running out over the cliff edge. At some point we will cross that threshold where more of our winter precip is delivered as rain and sleet, and consistent snowfall will most likely be constricted to the middle of winter. I hope I’m wrong about this because I love winter and northern ecosystems depend on winter. But that’s what I expect, and we need to be thinking about this change when we plan for the future.
Stephen Handler

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Are the Apostle Islands a refugia for a recently re-colonized forest carnivore? American martens on the Apostle Islands

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Rapid environmental change is reshaping ecosystems and driving species loss globally. Carnivore populations have declined and retracted rapidly and have been the target of numerous translocation projects.

Identifying refuges, locations that are resistant to environmental change, should improve population recovery and persistence. American martens (Martes americana) were extirpated across much of the Great Lakes region by the 1930s and, despite multiple translocations beginning in the 1950s, martens remain of regional conservation concern.

Surprisingly, martens were rediscovered in 2014 on the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior after a putative absence of >40 years. To identify the source of martens to the islands and understand connectivity to the mainland, we collected genetic data on martens from the archipelago and from all regional reintroduction sites.

In total, we genotyped 483 individual martens, 43 of which inhabited the Apostle Islands. Martens on the Apostle Islands were abundant (densities 0.42-1.46/km2) and genetically like mainland sub-populations. We detected some regional gene flow, but in an unexpected direction: individuals moving from the islands to the mainland. Our findings suggest that the Apostle Islands were naturally recolonized by progeny of translocated individuals and now act as a source back to the reintroduction sites on the mainland.

We propose that the Apostle Islands, given its protection from disturbance, complex forest structure, reduced carnivore competition, and maintenance of historical snowpack conditions make this region a potential refugia for a forest carnivore.

Presenter biography

Matt Smith, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, UW Madison

Matt Smith

Matt Smith is a graduate research assistant in the Pauli lab at the University of Wisconsin where his dissertation research focuses on understanding the ecology of martens on the Apostle Islands.

Broadly, he is interested in understanding how environmental change impacts population dynamics, genetics, and connectivity, in addition to, understanding the role biotic interactions play in species persistence.

His current project on the Apostle Islands has reconstructed the colonization history of martens to the islands and future work will address population viability and how marten diet is shaped by competitive interactions. He employs a variety of techniques but has focused on applying noninvasive genetic methods to address questions in conservation biology.

American marten

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Longitudinal trends and ecology of the small mammal community of the Apostle Islands NL

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As part of the first ever comprehensive survey of the mammal community of the Apostle Islands archipelago, we documented changes in distribution of small mammals since the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970.

Using recent data, we also described trends in abundance and multiple aspects of small mammal species ecology. We trapped small mammals from 20 of the 22 islands of the archipelago (2017-2020) and compared those results to historical (1961- 2004) records. Small mammal community diversity was driven by island size and less so by island isolation, regardless of variation over time.

Since the establishment of the Lakeshore, Microtus pennsylvanicus distribution declined significantly, while Sorex cinereus distribution increased significantly, and Peromsyscus spp. colonized at least three islands, potentially through human-facilitated dispersal (i.e., boating, kayaking). Myodes gapperi remained widespread and abundant, making them an ecologically important aspect of the archipelago’s mammal community.

Habitat, parasitism, predation, and Myodes gapperi abundance and body condition interact to shape the ecology of Myodes gapperi within the archipelago.

Canada yew, Taxus canadensis, appears to play an important role in shaping these ecological interactions. Long-term changes in small mammal populations across the archipelago likely reflect reduction of human extractive activities following the establishment of the national lakeshore and the corresponding succession of vegetative communities.

Our work suggests that the small mammal communities of the archipelago have changed since the establishment of the national lakeshore 50 years ago. Moreover, island size appears to be an important factor mitigating small mammal community dynamics over time, and Canada yew may be an important habitat feature for small mammal species of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. 

Presenter biography

Dr. Erik Olson, Northland College

Erik Olson

Erik Olson is Associate Professor of Natural Resources at Northland College.

Erik received his MS and PhD from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and his BS from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.

Currently, his research focuses on three projects: 1) Canopy Ecology of Temperate Forests – a project examining the habitat-use of the upper canopy, 2) JaguarOsa – a long-term wildlife monitoring project in two Costa Rican National Parks, and 3) Great Lakes Island Ecology – focusing on the ecology of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore archipelago.

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New insights into the dynamics of Apostle Islands carnivore communities

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While protected areas are often considered strongholds for wildlife populations, recent research in protected areas has highlighted that both human activity (i.e. presence) and footprint (i.e. structures) can influence wildlife.

To determine how human activity and footprint affect the spatiotemporal activity of wildlife on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, we monitored the carnivore community for five years (2014-2018) using camera traps.

We found that all structure types had a negative impact on carnivore community relative abundance, except for campgrounds, which were positively related. However, the community level response was likely driven by the response of individual carnivore species, especially those that were most common (e.g., black bears).

Responses of individual carnivore species to anthropogenic structures varied depending on structure type, with canids and mustelids generally exhibiting negative associations with most human structures.

When examining the seasonal effects of human activity and footprint (i.e., when park visitation is relatively high or low), we found differences between the seasonal and aseasonal models, suggesting that seasonal variation in human activity influences carnivore activity.

We also compared carnivore nocturnality along a gradient of anthropogenic activity, but our results indicate that the carnivore community did not become more nocturnal with increasing anthropogenic activity as expected. However, the carnivore community did display spatial avoidance of current, historical, and private anthropogenic structures, and that avoidance was intensified when park visitors were more prevalent. Our study indicates that human footprint and seasonal variation in activity can influence wildlife activity within protected areas. 

Presenter biographies

Tim Van Deelen and Morgan Farmer (presenter), University of Wisconsin – Madison

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is a professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology and has worked there since 2004. Tim is also faculty director for GreenHouse, an undergraduate learning community interested in sustainable living housed in a dorm named for Aldo Leopold and is chair of the Environmental Conservation master’s degree program in UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

Prior to this, Tim worked as a research scientist for the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He is a 1995 Ph.D. graduate of Michigan State University’s department of Fisheries and Wildlife with a master’s degree from the University of Montana and a bachelor’s degree from Calvin College.

Tim’s professional interest is the conservation of wildlife populations in the face of human influences and he has worked on several species including black bears, wolves, deer, badgers, sandhill cranes, turkeys, and flying squirrels.

With his background in working for state management agencies, Tim also brings expertise to designing and using monitoring systems that bridge the gap between researchers and the information needs of conservation agencies. Tim collaborates with an active group of graduate students and is author/coauthor of >90 peer reviewed papers and book chapters on various aspects of wildlife biology. 

Morgan Farmer

Morgan Farmer is a PhD student working with Dr. Tim Van Deelen and Dr. David Drake on the UW Urban Canid Project.

She first started working with coyotes during her undergraduate at the University of California – Berkeley, where she completed an independent senior thesis looking at how habitat use of urban coyotes was affected by habitat characteristics and recreation.

After completing her undergraduate education, she moved to Wisconsin to complete a MS degree at UW – Madison with Dr. Tim Van Deelen. Her research focused on competition and island biogeography as drivers of spatiotemporal activity and the effects of anthropogenic activity and structures on the carnivore community of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Her current research focuses on urban canids and their interactions with each other, their environment, and with humans.

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Amphibians of the Apostle Islands

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This presentation will review the amphibian diversity and biogeography in the Apostle Islands, and describe the park’s acoustic monitoring program.

The Apostles support 6 species of salamanders and 7-9 species of frogs. One species (Common Mudpuppy) is restricted to Lake Superior and its river mouths. Amphibian diversity on the islands is influenced by available habitat, island size, and colonization events.

Some species like Central Newt and Mink Frog are restricted to islands with lagoons. The distribution of Eastern Red-backed Salamander is particularly interesting in being absent from many islands with suitable habitat. The acoustic monitoring program was established in 2014 and is tracking phenology, occupancy and abundance metrics at 10 sites.

So far no significant trends have emerged but Cope’s Gray Treefrog and Northern Leopard Frog are the rarest species, and Boreal Chorus Frog remains unconfirmed.

Presenter biography

Gary Casper, Great Lakes Ecological Services

Gary Casper

Gary Casper has been studying amphibians in the Lake Superior Basin for over 30 years.

He helped develop and continues to analyze data for the Apostle Islands amphibian monitoring program.

Gary has two university affiliations, is an editor for two scientific journals, and has an extensive publishing record. His latest book is a Field Guide to the Amphibian Eggs and Larvae of the Great Lakes.

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Past, present, and future of piping plovers in the Apostle Islands

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Piping plovers were first documented nesting on Long Island in the Apostle Islands in 1974, and one to two pairs continued to nest on Long Island through 1983. Then, after an absence of 15 years that coincided with a regional collapse of the population, a rebound started in 1998, but with no more than one pair recorded nesting in the Apostle Islands most years until 2006.

Coinciding with a regional resurgence of the population, breeding numbers in the Apostles began to increase. From 2006 to 2020, three to six pairs of piping plovers have nested in the Apostle Islands, with pairs fanning out to two additional islands as high water levels and severe storms have eroded available breeding habitat on Long Island.

Partnerships with tribal, state, and federal officials have been key to monitoring piping plovers in the islands.

Presenter biography

Sumner Matteson, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Sumner Matteson has worked for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the past 40 years as a non-game biologist, conservation biologist, and avian ecologist. He wrote the state’s recovery plan for the Trumpeter Swan and directed the reintroduction of Trumpeter Swans in the state for 25 years. He has also focused much of his career on the ecology and management colonial waterbirds, including all four of the state’s endangered terns.

In the Apostle Islands, he has conducted colonial waterbird and shorebird surveys on all the islands (and along the Wisconsin shore of Lake Superior) every 5 years since 1974. During this period, he first discovered Piping Plovers nesting on Long Island and Chequamegon Point (in 1974) and has returned annually to document their occurrence there while observing a small increase in nesting numbers and distribution in the AINL. His talk will focus on the conservation history and future of this beach and dune obligate in the islands. 

Sumner Matteson
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A singing wilderness: Songbirds of the Apostle Islands

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People have been describing bird populations in the Apostle Islands since at least the early 1940s.

The first real count of breeding birds occurred in 1977, then the National Park Service began formal monitoring in 1990. There have been slight changes in monitoring methods since that time, but the top three most abundant species have stayed fairly consistent.

The most current analyses show the national lakeshore maintains high species diversity and a greater number of increasing species than decreasing ones.

These are all good signs, but monitoring helps us keep an ear out for troubling changes in the island soundtrack. 

Presenter biography

Ted Gostomski, National Park Service, Great Lakes Inventory & Monitoring Network

Ted Gostomski coordinates songbird monitoring at nine national park units in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan for the NPS Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network. His involvement with bird surveys in the Apostle Islands began in 1996 and he continues to conduct the survey on the Mainland Trail every year.

Questions and answers

How is climate change, and the accompanying warming of Lake Superior expected to affect bird populations in the islands?

One report assessed climate change vulnerability of 46 migratory bird species that breed in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region (UMGL), incorporating the risks posed specifically by climate change (changes in moisture and temperature) and background risk (factors unrelated to climate change such as habitat loss and small population size that may predispose a species to climate vulnerability). Among ten species for whom background risk appeared to be the main factor driving vulnerability, two are songbirds that nest in the Apostle Islands: Swainson’s Thrush and Black-throated Blue Warbler. For another 14 species, climate change appeared to be most important factor raising vulnerability; eight of those are songbirds that nest in the islands: Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Canada Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, and Baltimore Oriole. Will these species be affected here or on their wintering grounds? Breeding season climate change was most important for American Redstarts (moisture) and Canada Warblers (temperature). Non-breeding season climate change was most important for Black-and-white Warblers (moisture), Nashville Warblers (moisture), Yellow Warblers (moisture), Indigo Buntings (moisture), and Savannah Sparrows (moisture). Baltimore Orioles are vulnerable to both breeding and non-breeding season climate change, specifically changes in moisture (i.e., increasingly dry conditions). 

How will these things affect the bird populations in the Apostle Islands? How will the birds respond? What changes will we see? The answers are species-specific, depending on each species’ capacity to adapt to whatever changes may come. The authors of this report determined adaptive capacity by scoring each species’ migration strategy (whether and how far a species migrates), breeding habitat specialization, breeding diet specialization, breeding site fidelity, nonbreeding habitat specialization, and non-breeding diet specialization. That’s a lot to consider, but the species listed above are the ones we will watch for the answers. 
Good references:  

Marra, P.P., L.A. Culp, A.L. Scarpignato, and E.B. Cohen. 2014. Full annual cycle climate change vulnerability assessment for migratory birds of the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Migratory Bird Center, Washington, D.C.

Matthews, S., R. O’Connor, L.R. Iverson, and A.M. Prasad. 2004. Atlas of climate change effects in 150 bird species of the Eastern United States. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-318. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station.  

Wu J.X., C.B. Wilsey, L. Taylor, and G.W. Schuurman. 2018. Projected avifaunal responses to climate change across the U.S. National Park System. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0190557.

— Ted Gostomski
Science Writer/BiologistNational Park ServiceGreat Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network

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Gaylord Nelson: mover, shaker, deal-maker

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Gaylord Nelson, who served both as Senator from Wisconsin and Governor of the state, is often described as “the father of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.”

The characterization is apt, but barely scratches the surface in conveying the difficulties involved in transforming a dream dating to the late nineteenth century to reality in the turbulent 1960s.

During eight years of proposals and counter-proposals, debate, maneuver, and compromise, Nelson faced and overcame obstacles including procedural bottlenecks, local resistance, Native American suspicion, and a National Park Service that often seemed indifferent at best to the idea.

As one close observer noted, the creation of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore “involved the presidential administrations of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, resulted in twelve bills and bill drafts being written and rewritten… and produced thousands of pages of congressional testimony and hearing records.”

The phrase “professional politician” has become a common reproach in modern campaign rhetoric, but a reassessment of the term may be in order. Without Gaylord Nelson’s unmatched political acumen and years of commitment to public service, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore would not exist. 

Recording of this presentation is not available.

Presenter biography

Bob Mackreth, NPS(retired), Apostle Islands NL

Bob Mackreth

Bob Mackreth retired as Cultural Resource Management Specialist at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 2005 after a 27-year NPS career.

He is currently active as a Executive Board member of the Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy and the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. 

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Apostle Islands National Lakeshore reopens island camping for summer 2021

Bayfield, WI – (National Park Service) Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health authorities, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is reopening access to island camping, including group, individual, and primitive zone camping today.  

To protect the health of those who work and visit national parks, face masks are required on NPS-administered lands where physical distancing cannot be maintained and in all NPS facilities. With the support of public health professionals, park operations will be regularly evaluated and adjusted based on local conditions.  

Reservations for all camping must be made in advance through or park visitor centers.   

Campsites within the park have size limits and specific reservation timelines:  

  • Individual Campsites: $15/site/night. 1-7 people. Reservations can be made up to 30 days before the first night of your trip. Amenities include tables, bearproof food lockers and nearby privies.  
  • Primitive Zone Camping: $15/site/night. 1-5 people. Reservations can be made up to 30 days before the first night of your trip. Noprivies, tables or food lockers and specific guidelines to what areas are available on each island.  
  • Group Campsites: $30/site/night. Limited to 8-14 people. Reservations can be made for the rest of the calendar year. Amenities include tables, bearproof food lockers and nearby privies.  

There is no car or RV camping within Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Campsites within the national lakeshore must be reached by boat, except for the Mainland 1 campsite, which can also be accessed by hiking 6 miles.   

variety of state park and private campgrounds with facilities for car and RV camping are available in the Bayfield area and on Madeline Island. Madeline Island is not part of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and access is by private boat or ferry.  

Due to the advanced nature of kayaking and varying weather conditions on Lake Superior, proper planning is required. Kayakers with little or no experience on Lake Superior are encouraged to go with professional guides authorized to operate within the park. If you need boat transportation, private water taxis are available from many companies authorized to provide services in the park.  

We ask the public to recreate responsibly and plan their visit in advance to protect the safety of themselves and park staff. As conditions are subject to change, visitors should check the park’s website and social media channels for details on operations before they visit. For more details, visit our website:

For information about the Apostle Islands 50th Anniversary, visit our website at Send 50th Anniversary inquiries via email to To add an event to the 2021 Anniversary calendar, become a sponsor, or partner with “Friends” to create an anniversary logoed product, visit the website for Friends of the Apostle Islands  

For more information about Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, please visit our website at or call (715) 779-3398. Join Apostle Island’s online conversations on Facebook: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore  and YouTube: ApostleIslandsNPS.