The Life of a Biologist at a Wetland Management District
Sara Vacek, FWS Scholar and wildlife biologist at Morris Wetland Management District in Minnesota. Photo Credit: Melissa Ahlering

Sara Vacek is our latest FWS Scholar. Sara is a wildlife biologist at Morris Wetland Management District (WMD) in Minnesota, where she focuses on managing and restoring tallgrass prairies and prairie wetland habitats. Her areas of expertise also include avian ecology, particularly waterfowl, and inventory and monitoring. She grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota and “feels very lucky to be working and living in the prairie region of my home state.” Like many Minnesotans, her family enjoyed outdoor activities like camping, birdwatching, fishing, and canoeing. Sara attended Lawrence University in Wisconsin and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with an emphasis on environmental studies. She later went to South Dakota State University and worked as a research assistant, where she studied wetland mitigation and wetland assessment. There she completed a master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries sciences. Sara was selected for the Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) and was a biologist trainee at the Morris WMD in western Minnesota. After graduate school, she was hired at Morris WMD and has been there ever since.   

As a wildlife biologist, Sara spends her time coordinating the district’s biology program, which includes inventory and monitoring, research, and planning. She works hard to integrate the management and biology programs at her station. Her surveys and research are directly tied to priority resources and management activities, and as a result the WMD’s management decisions are well grounded in science. Sara’s favorite thing about her job is her role as a liaison between science and management worlds. She values “making connections and facilitating communication between those two groups because it ensures that we are making science-based management decisions, and our research partners are addressing important management questions. I also love that I get to spend so much time in the field, being outside and having time to observe and learn about our prairies and wetlands and the wildlife that depend on them.”    

Sara is conducting a belt transect survey for the Grassland Monitoring Team. Photo Credit: Lauren Dennhardt/USFWS 

In addition to Sara’s regular duties, she also helps coordinate two large, multi-station adaptive management programs: Native Prairie Adaptive Management and the Grassland Monitoring Team. Each of these brings together many stations and agencies with goals of learning together what management practices best maintain and enhance native plant communities in their native prairies. They provide state-based management recommendations to land managers. She shares, “While their scope brings many challenges, these have been rewarding projects to work on.” They have developed some fantastic partnerships and improved collaboration across many land management offices. The projects have both been going for over 10 years, meaning they also can start using long-term data sets.   

A successful example of long-term research involving multiple agencies is outlined in the paper “Cooperatively improving tallgrass prairie with adaptive management”.  Overall, the research shows the cover of native plants increased for low-quality sites, and among the management practices considered, they found that burning most effectively enhanced the native prairie plant community and increased the dominance of native indicator species (Ahlering et al 2020).  

Using the same data, the Grassland Monitoring Team published an article titled, “Invasive species do not exploit early growing seasons in burned tallgrass prairies.” Invasive species management is key to the conservation of critically threatened native prairie ecosystems. Prescribed burning is a useful management tool to increase native diversity. The result of their research shows the effects of burning on plant communities were largely unaltered by the timing of the growing season and that prescribed burning will likely continue to be a useful conservation tool in the context of earlier growing season starts. Changes to growing season timing will not be a primary mechanism driving increased invasion due to climate change climate change
Climate change includes both global warming driven by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century humans have had an unprecedented impact on Earth's climate system and caused change on a global scale.

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in these ecosystems (Ratcliffe et al 2022).   

Sara’s publication list is a good reflection of the life of a biologist at a wetland management district wetland management district
A wetland management district is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office that manages waterfowl production areas in one or more counties. Waterfowl production areas are small natural wetlands and grasslands that provide breeding, resting and nesting habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, grassland birds and other wildlife. The Fish and Wildlife Service acquires waterfowl production areas under the authority of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, primarily using funds from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps. The Refuge System’s 38 wetland management districts comprise thousands of waterfowl production areas – almost all in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains.

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. Often she and her colleagues are asking questions about the effectiveness of management practices on priority wildlife species, such as bird response to tree removal from prairies seen in the Journal of Applied Ecology, “Grassland birds demonstrate delayed response to large-scale tree removal in central North America.” 

Conducting wet meadow plant community monitoring at one of Morris WMD’s 250 waterfowl production areas. Photo credit: Fred Harris/MN DNR 

Her station routinely purchases new Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs), which means they do a lot of habitat restoration and thus have explored best practices for prairie reconstruction. Check out her most recent article titled, “Belowground mutualisms to support prairie reconstruction -improving prairie habitat using mycorrhizal inoculum,” which discusses increased connectivity among remnant prairies that is critically important to the conservation of pollinators.   

Finally, wetland management districts are very complex stations to manage. Morris WMD has 250 waterfowl production areas, encompassing over 55,000 acres, and scattered across an 8-county area. Prioritizing where they apply their limited management resources is very important, so they have developed a GIS-based model to help them determine which WPAs have the highest potential for meeting their habitat objectives (Rohweder et al 2015). For more information on prioritizing conservation planning read Sara’s article titled, “Case study of assigning conservation value to dispersed habitat units for conservation planning.” 

Sara Vacek teaches a prairie plant identification workshop, photo taken by Megan Benage/ MN DNR. 

Prairie ecosystems provide essential habitat for native plants and wildlife. This type of landscape produces food, cover, and nesting sites for a wide variety of wildlife. Whether it’s blue-winged teal migrating to their nesting grounds in the spring time, blazing stars blooming in the summer, monarch butterflies beginning their migration south in the fall, or seeing otter tracks in the fall snow, through out each season, Morris WMD always has something to see.  

To learn more about Sara Vacek’s research on managing and restoring tall grass prairies and prairie wetland habitats, check out her articles linked in the story. The USFWS Library is celebrating our Service scientists who are committed to science excellence and the work of conservation through the FWS Scholar series. If you are an FWS employee who has recently published peer-reviewed scientific literature and would like share your research with others, let us know at!  

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Biologists (USFWS)
Scientific personnel (USFWS)