These 50 animals and plants have disappeared from Minnesota

The Missing North

An occasional series in the Star Tribune documenting the biodiversity crisis and the people fighting for Minnesota’s most vulnerable animals and plants from extinction.

In Minnesota, schoolchildren learn that bison once roamed the prairies and passenger pigeons darkened the sky. What about springs that look like gazelles? Whooping cranes? Wolverines? A mussel called a fat pocketbook?

They are also among 50 species that have been driven from Minnesota since Europeans arrived in the state in the 1600s, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) species data. Each loss leaves a small hole in the complex ecosystems where everything has a role to play. Each extinction removes a small part of the wildlife we ​​depend on to feed our bodies and souls.

Scientists who have reviewed it say that “The List of the Lost” is a serious understatement. However, this is the only available window into what Minnesota has lost in recent history to our destructive effects on Earth.

A few species on the endangered list, such as passenger pigeons, are widely extinct. But most have been extirpated from Minnesota, meaning they are locally extinct but still exist elsewhere. Bison are classified as extirpated because they no longer roam wild in Minnesota, although they do exist as captive herds.

For many species on the endangered list, Minnesota was at the edge of their range. More than 300 coffee shops in the state are named after him, but few people today realize that they once roamed the old-growth boreal forests of northern Minnesota. The DNR reported that there were small groups of caribou in the state until about the 1920s. As logging and other pressures on caribou habitat increased, the animals moved north.

Glenn Stubbe, Star Tribune

Caribou once roamed northern Minnesota in 1914, as shown above, but the animals were driven out of Minnesota in the mid-1940s and exterminated. Here, students at Eastview Elementary School in Lakeville watch caribou graze at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley last year.

Minnesotans drove out other species long before that.

The American pronghorn is thought to have disappeared from Minnesota in the 1800s. Often mistakenly described as antelopes, pronghorns are gazelle-like creatures with black horns, white fur, and distinctive white stripes on their necks. They are one of the fastest animals on earth, reaching speeds of over 50 miles per hour.

Sightings of a pronghorn roaming Minnesota from the Dakotas are now so rare that they make headlines, as do mountain lions or whooping cranes.

Photos by Leann Wikert (left) and Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune (right)

In Minnesota, bobcats and mountain lions are extinct, although they have been spotted in transit. In 2013, Leann Wikert photographed a pronghorn resting in a cattle paddock near Grigla in northwest Minnesota. The animal likely wandered from North Dakota, and the sighting prompted a story in the Grand Forks Herald. Mountain lions can be seen in captivity in Minnesota, here in 2020 at the Como Zoo in St. Paul.

The whooping crane is one of eight birds on the Missing List. Given the distance they travel, the birds are difficult to classify. Two of the birds are considered globally extinct: passenger pigeons and, with less certainty, Eskimo curlews, which have not been seen in Minnesota since 1886, according to the DNR. The remaining six birds are extirpated or possibly extirpated as regular breeding species in Minnesota, although some are occasionally seen during migration, such as the grebe and the sandpiper.

Most gliding species lack the charisma of cranes or wolves. The fat pocketbook is a freshwater mussel that has not been seen in the Mississippi River since 1948, in part through dams and sedimentation from agricultural land. Two of the plants that make up about half of the Lost List, poverty grass and chinkapin oak, are also gone.

Bernard Sietman, DNR

Mussels are important to river ecosystems, filtering pollutants from the water. The oil slick above disappeared from the Mississippi River in Minnesota decades ago, in part due to sediment from dams and farmland.

Two of Minnesota’s 49 species of orchids haven’t been seen in nearly a century: the Oklahoma grass pink, which once grew near Lake City, and the broadleaf pink, which botanists found in Cook County after the first road was built in the 1920s, said DNR state botanist Welby Smith.

Bruce Carlson, a plant ecologist who directs the Minnesota Biological Survey, the DNR division that studies the state’s rarer species, said the list would certainly be longer if the state had a complete inventory of all native or naturalized species. This is a feat that few countries have achieved. No California; Florida news is coming. Tracking microbial life is a new frontier.

So far, the state DNR has documented nearly 7,000 species that are native or naturalized in Minnesota. While it’s not complete, it’s impressive and comprehensive enough for the Upper Midwest, said Healy Hamilton, chief scientist at the Arlington, Washington-based conservation nonprofit.

“We don’t know what’s missing,” Hamilton said.

And we probably never will. Certainly, the species disappeared from Minnesota before it was documented, as we plowed the prairies, cut down the forests, and built cities.

“I’m convinced that the loss of all but a small portion of what were once vast grasslands and savannas has resulted in the extinction of many species,” said Forest Isbell, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota.

The DNR is working to fill gaps in the state’s common species list for organisms such as fungi, mosses, lichens, macroinvertebrates such as clams and crustaceans, and an amazing array of insects, Carlson said.

Some are on display at the University of Minnesota, which has a 140-year-old collection that includes 53,000 species of insects from around the world. Curator Robin Thomson estimates that at least 2,426 species of insects exist in Minnesota. “And that’s totally low,” he said. It is not clear how many of them are recorded in the DNR chart.

Such organisms simply weren’t a public priority in the past, Carlson said. That clearly changed as public awareness of their benefits and their plight soared.

“It’s kind of like an explosion of pollinators,” he said.

Filling those gaps is a major focus of the Carlson chapter, now on its second run through the state. They also cover previously neglected landscapes, such as grasslands, and pay more attention to monitoring changes.

As we fill in the gaps, Minnesota’s number of threatened species will grow. Minnesota has 590 species that are endangered, threatened, or of special concern. With each update, the list expands significantly. It was last updated in 2013; The DNR plans to begin the rulemaking process next year for the new update.

No doubt the List of the Lost will expand as well. Although not seen in Minnesota since about 2009, the burrowing owl is not yet classified as extinct. These long-legged, daylight-loving owls nest on the ground in burrows dug by ground squirrels and badgers. Reintroduction efforts in the 1980s were unsuccessful.

Likewise, the Poweshiek skipperling is not on the Lost list, although it should be. Although the small prairie butterfly has disappeared from Minnesota and is on the verge of global extinction.

Photos by Charles Bjorgen and David Joles, Star Tribune

According to the researchers, the “List of the Lost” is a serious one. They suspect that ground owls, left, and Poweshiek skipperlings, right, both dependent on disappearing prairie habitat, are now gone from Minnesota. Attempts to reintroduce the owl to Minnesota in the 1980s were unsuccessful. They are one of about 150 endangered species in the state.

It has not been the DNR unit’s mission to track local extinctions. Like all natural heritage programs in nearly every state, the mission has been to find species, document their distribution and assess their conservation status, Carlson said. Tracking the loss of biodiversity at the species level in Minnesota would be a huge undertaking that would require extensive and ongoing monitoring, he said.

“It’s a big dollar item,” Carlson said.

Scientists often rely on changes in habitat as a surrogate for species status and loss. In fact, the United States has no national biodiversity monitoring program, said NatureServe’s Hamilton. In contrast, every province in Canada is served by a federally funded Conservation Information Centre.

“So much of our economy depends on biodiversity, whether it’s goods or services or people paying for the experience,” Hamilton said. “And yet we’re not really actively monitoring the true state of biodiversity in a comprehensive way. It’s very piecemeal.”

Hamilton called the current extinction crisis a “slow-moving meteorite.” A list of the lost is but an example.

Carlson calmed down as he flipped through it. Even counting a few is too much. Depressing, he finally said.

“As conservationists, we often say that we only document death,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle. Conservatism often wins and loses.”

And yet nature is resilient in ways we don’t fully appreciate. Carlson expressed amazement at the many species researchers have documented in locations not known to exist in Minnesota, including at least two species of moths researchers suspect are new to science, not just Minnesota.

One is a graceful, large moth with bright cream-colored wings and very faint black dots. DNR entomologist Kyle Johnson found the moth in 2018 in the middle of the Red Lake Peat Science and Nature Area, “way out in the middle of nowhere.” He is mulling over a name and awaiting official confirmation that it is a new species.

Kyle Johnson, DNR

Scientists say we are losing species without even knowing they exist. DNR entomologist Kyle Johnson is awaiting official confirmation that the glowing moth he discovered at the Red Lake Peatland Science and Nature Area in 2018 is a new species. Here he ponders a name for the animal impaled for science.

Johnson’s species hunt is painstaking, old-school field work. He sets up a tent, closes a white sheet, waits for night, shines a light on the sheet and sits alone, waiting to capture and document where he landed. Johnson said he can catch 200 species of moths in one night in the North.

“It’s really an adrenaline rush,” he said.

As radically altered as Minnesota’s natural landscapes have been, much of it is still teeming with life, Johnson said: “In the back of your mind, you wonder, ‘What are we missing?'”

Leave a Comment