Take a Walk on the Wild Side to Find Invisible Ecology on Campus

by Irene Arholekas

Across the Kent State campus, there are hundreds of species sprawled across 900 acres, not including the airport and stadium.  It is home to a wide variety of natural habitats, including wetlands, lakes and forests.  While most casual walkers cannot fail to notice the ubiquitous black squirrels, they do not see the interconnected ecosystem of urban wilderness within walking distance of class.   If one takes a walk on the wild side, it becomes clear there are more than just black squirrels on campus.

The Center for Ecology and Natural Resources (CERN), according to its website, oversees 17 field sites on and near the KSU campus, ranging in size from 1-77 acres, including several bogs, a fen, and several mixed woodland properties, all with varying amounts of urban impact.  Their signature, Jennings Woods, a 74-acre property of temperate forest, near Ravenna, is an example of the complexity of natural landscapes in Northeast Ohio. Graduate students use Jennings Woods for field research as the forest represents a number of interacting habitats, from upland forest dotted with vernal pools, to thick, swampy bottomland forest, to riparian forest alternating between steep banks and sandy dunes.

Where to Take a Walk on the Wild side on Kent State Campus
by Irene Arholekas
*Prairie: walk to the left of the Rec Center entrance and follow the boundary of the prairie. A commemorative plaque explains the diversity of wildlife in the prairie. (Keep your eye out for the family of groundhogs by the volley ball pit behind the swimming pool.)
*The Portage Trail: entrance is between the Child Care Center and WKSU. The boardwalk trail meanders through a vibrant wetland home to songbirds, ducks, musk rats, beavers, and the bull horn of frogs. Footpaths are also available that penetrate into the heart of the wilderness.
*Morgan Woods: Across from Summit East parking lot, take Burnett Road half way to the footpath and turn right. Push through the undergrowth, search out the lake, and walk the perimeter where you can observe turtles, red-wing blackbirds, and other species.
*Herrick Fen Nature Preserve: Take Seasons Road 2.2 miles to a gravel lane on the left (east) side just past a railroad crossing to the gravel parking lot on right. The one-mile boardwalk to and from the parking lot where you can treasure hunt for fen plants and seeps, including the Bayberry and the round-leaved sundew, a tiny carnivorous plant that grows on sphagnum moss.

There is even a natural preserve on campus managed in conjunction with the Natural Conservancy, the Herrick Fen Nature Preserve. According to the Nature Conservancy’s website, the preserve provides habitat for over two dozen state-listed species, the most important of which include the tamarack fen, the only native conifer in Ohio that sheds its needles each year and the bayberry, a state endangered plant found in only three locations in Ohio.  It even boasts the round-leaved sundew, a tiny carnivorous plant that grows on sphagnum moss.  The preserve features an easy, one-mile trail to and from the parking lot (with 700 ft of wheelchair-accessible boardwalk).

Anyone who takes a walk or jogs around the Student Rec Center on the campus cannot miss the Kent State Prairie Preserve. “ “A special consultant designed this short and long term prairie,” Heather White, head manager of grounds at Kent, said, “when the Rec Center was built in 2001-2002.  Every spring it is burned to eradicate weeds and other invasive species by the Kent Fire Department to preserve its natural character.  The prairie was designed to evoke the original landscape native to Ohio and the Great Plain states.”

The Arbor Day Foundation has designated Kent State as a Tree-Campus USA University for its dedication to campus forestry management and environmental stewardship.   Although there are over 200 Tree-Campus schools at present, Kent State was one of the first nine to ever make that designation, according to White.

“The University relies on local nurseries, mostly from Lake County,” White said, “to cultivate the commercially grown plants that make up its extensive grounds.  These were chosen based on considerations of their resistance to pests and ease of maintenance. With time, however, the man-made environment has evolved into a living ecosystem.”

“Once established the university grounds does not maintain any of the wildlife that might find its way on campus,” White said.  “Whatever wildlife has manifested on campus is because it has found something that can sustain it.”

Dan Ross, who said he would prefer to be known as “the dirt guy” and teaches Wilderness, Urban Wilderness, and ecology classes as part of CENR, takes a hands-on approach to teaching wildlife management with his students.  He is a key contact for the CENR’s efforts to inventory the diverse landscapes on the Kent State campus.  Students in his classes have been compiling data sets since 2011 using a GPS and photography the old fashioned way, “the boots on the ground” approach as Ross terms it.

Ten-point buck captured on webcam by Dan Ross's Wilderness class, used with permission.

Ten-point buck captured on webcam by Dan Ross’s Wilderness class, used with permission.

Each student in his class compiles detailed reports about a specific land area and studies targeted wildlife.  Their goal is to create a detailed geospatial database to store environmental data that can then be used for temporal studies, conservancy, and sustainability projects.  Webcams that track wildlife have been installed in at least three locations in the area Ross terms “the wilderness area” along the Portage Hike-Bike Trail.

Melissa Davis, from the department of biology, takes the reports from Ross’s classes and converts them into detailed land cover maps.   These will then have an educational function since Ross and his team plan to include physical environmental markers with ink spots that correspond to specific points on that geospatial map.  The public can then scan the spots using their smartphones to see pictures of wildlife and read about the richness of the landscape.

Ross estimates there are approximately 300 acres of wilderness sites on Kent’s central campus. He also says there are at least 30 different types of natural habitats.   He has documented several species across kingdoms.  These include salamanders, snakes, cicadas, beavers, coyotes, bald and golden eagles, groundhogs, barn owls, red tails, red-shoulder hawk, ospreys, turkeys and even bears.  The campus is especially rich with birds as on any given day, a student can spot swallows, bats, blue jays, cardinals, and other songbirds.

Beaver hard at work. Courtesy of Wilderness class of KSU

Beaver hard at work. Dan Ross’s Wilderness class. Used with permission.

“Migratory bird species such as Canadian geese, mallards, pintails, wood ducks, teals are also common because aquaceous species like rushes in the wetlands provide food and cover,” cites Ross.

“Wildlife has much more ability than we give it credit for to adapting to our urban situations.”

He attributes the resurgence of wildlife into urban areas to the increased woodland canopy cover since the 1960s when farmland was converted into suburban areas.  Ross cautions against the tendency to humanize wild species, however, and urges people to keep a healthy respect and awe for wild creatures.

“You might see ‘Fluffy’ as cute, but that coyote is eyeing it as a food source,” Ross said.

Another project Ross and White have collaborated on is an inventory of the trees on campus.  Ross created an Urban Forestry course two years ago in conjunction with the outreach requirements of the Tree Campus USA designation.  In a similar way, students from that course identify, record, and inventory the various tree types on campus with GPS locations and plug the data into a database.   A tech tool, called iTree from the US Department of Forestry, then tabulates various variables for the tree, including storm-water runoff and cost savings.

“One species that has easily adapted to campus is deer,” White said.  They can be seen not only in the early morning and late evening, but have been spotted as foraging in day light while classes are in session.

“You could say we have a deer problem on campus.”

Several facilities and grounds personnel have remarked about “Bambi” the baby fawn whose mother leaves it on the wooded hill in front of the Student Center in the center campus.  Mike Willis, a grounds worker for 25 years on campus, has spotted eagles, coyotes, and killdeer, a bird with long legs that makes its nest on rocks.  He and his coworkers found nests in the gravel at the construction site on the roof of the library building. He set the nest off with a marker of other rocks so as not to disturb it.

“I often joke about dropping a fish line at the back of the Rec Center to draw up some perch during lunch time,” he said.

Coyote on the hunt for deer, captured on webcam by Dan Ross’ Wilderness class, KSU. Used with permission.

Coyote on the hunt for deer, captured on webcam by Dan Ross’ Wilderness class, KSU. Used with permission.

Anyone who walks around campus is bound to spot a black squirrel.  Unlike the other species who have managed to find their way to the campus environment naturally, two groundskeepers intrigued by their unique color introduced them to the campus deliberately 53 years ago, according to the Kent State website.

Along with the cooperation of Canadian wildlife officials, the groundskeepers embarked on operation “Black Squirrel,” where they transported 10 squirrels from Ontario in a station wagon and released them on campus. Half a century later, their population has increased to the point where a natural predator, the hawk, has moved on campus to keep them in check.

“Kent State continues to be mindful of the harmony between the natural and man-made environments as it goes forward with many of its construction projects,” Dean William Willoughby, Associate Dean in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design, said.

Dean Willoughby is part of an interdisciplinary team that includes builders, landscapers, landscape architects, engineers and faculty from geology, biology, and ecology.  The team will work to jumpstart research in diversity and sustainability of each project and how it meshes into the larger biological system.

“There has been a strong connection between Kent State and its landscape,” Willoughby said. “It is one of the reasons we see the chimney sweep on the crest of the university.  From its beginning the campus has identified itself with its natural landscape. It is a place that has a lot of environmental conscience.”

“We can annihilate, nuke, and destroy everything but guess what?” Ross said smilingly. “Nature will come back with a vengeance we have never seen and put it back to a natural state.  Now that is what we should be studying . . . how nature can overcome what we thought it never would and emulate her process.”

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