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Scott Bergeson in his office

Disturbance ecology class to study, shape future of Fox Island after ’22 derecho

By Blake Sebring

December 12, 2023

Before June 29, 2012, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone in these parts who had ever heard of the word “derecho,” even though storms of this sort that feature straight-line winds causing large swathes of damage tend to hit the region about once a year. It was probably the 90 mph guests unrelated to a tornadic event that really had people talking.  

Unfortunately, just shy of that storm’s 10th anniversary, a stronger derecho clobbered multiple parts of the Fort Wayne area, especially on its southwest edges, with wind speeds nearing 100 mph that lifted roofs, destroyed yards, and knocked over much of what was in its direct path.

Fox Island County Park off of Yohne Road suffered intense damage, losing more than 3,000 trees. The park has been closed ever since as debris is still being removed daily by a logging company.

How will the park recover?  Some Purdue University Fort Wayne students will help determine that as part of a disturbance biology course taught by Scott Bergeson, assistant professor of biology. The graduate-level class studies disasters that are human-influenced, such as climate change or naturally produced, and their long-term impact on the ecology. Bergeson has taught at PFW for six years, and plans on being here for 30 more—just enough time to see how the recovery effort develops.

“The derecho offers a really cool opportunity because I get to study this thing again and again to see how the environment pushed the reset button and what happens after that,” Bergeson said. “We’re going to be able to see how all of the community changes as you get the trees growing back from the barrenness that is left over.”

Bergeson is collaborating with Jordan Marshall, PFW professor of biology and plant biologist, to design the course which will start in January.

“We as humans actively manipulate forests regularly,” Marshall said. “Whenever we change forest structure or composition, there are cascading impacts that influence all wildlife and plants. In using Fox Island for this class, the students can work on projects trying to understand how natural and human disturbances influence changes in animals and plants.”

Marshall said his big questions are related to what species establish first following the storm and salvage harvest. What species of plants and animals have been lost, and how does a forest shift over time across a gradient of intensifying disturbances?

The class will study trends from trees, mammals, insects, amphibians, and birds, Bergeson said. They’ll likely plant some trees themselves, and set up cameras to capture wildlife photos, partnering with Natalie Inskeep, Fox Island’s park and education manager.

“This project has the potential to guide proper land management techniques for many modern-day Midwestern public, governmental, and private land owners with the goal of restoration and conservation,” said Inskeep, who has worked regularly with Bergeson on small mammal research projects.

Inskeep said if the weather continues to produce similar storms, all sorts of industries and natural conservation entities will be interested in the natural and supplemental restoration responses the park produces.

Bergeson said he’s also inviting experts from various entities, such as the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, to speak to the class. Part of the curriculum will include weekly trips to study other experiences like controlled burns and timber harvests.