Threatened and Endangered Species
Like most other places in North America, the first European settlers to arrive on the scene either plowed, drained, or logged much of Minnesota’s original habitat, creating permanent changes—the effects of which most plants and animals are still feeling today.
The loss of habitat is the primary reason for the disappearance or decline of most species. Pollution, hunting, and dam construction are a few other causes.
Minnesota currently lists 27 animal species as endangered and 32 as threatened. Nearly 80 others are species of special concern. The plant kingdom has 69 threatened and 69 endangered species and 145 on the special concern list.
The only mammal on Minnesota’s list of threatened species is the eastern spotted skunk (noted for spraying its opponents while doing a “handstand” on its front feet).
The two most notable birds at risk are the trumpeter swan and peregrine falcon, both state-threatened species once completely extirpated from Minnesota. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Minnesota Zoo, University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, and private organizations have worked together to successfully reintroduce them to the state, and both continue to increase in number: Biologists recently counted over 1,500 trumpeter swans and 30 breeding pairs of the high-diving falcons. Thankfully the long-term outlook for both is excellent.
On the other hand, the state-endangered piping plover, hanging on by a feather on Lake of the Woods, and the prairie-dwelling burrowing owl, which is gone as a nesting species and only arrives every few years as a vagrant, are in a very precarious position. The paddlefish, is Minnesota’s only threatened fish.
The animal group in the gravest danger in Minnesota, and around the country, is mussels. Over half of the 48 species of mussel found in Minnesota are threatened, endangered, or of special concern, and at least two species have recently disappeared. Like frogs, mussels are valuable biological indicators, so the current trend doesn’t speak well for the state’s waterways.
Many disparate factors—all of human origin—including reduced water quality, dam construction, stream channelization, and, in the past, overharvesting for buttonmaking and the cultured-pearl industry, affect their declining numbers. The invasion of zebra mussels has also severely harmed many species of native mussels. Thousands of zebra mussels can attach themselves to a larger native mussel, eventually killing it.
This rapidly reproducing species with few predators arrived in the United States on a freighter from the Black Sea in the mid-1980s and has spread rapidly through the Great Lakes and up the Mississippi River. It appears that these exotics may also be a threat to fish populations.
The endemic Minnesota dwarf trout lily is Minnesota’s only federally endangered plant species. It survives in about a dozen locations just south of the Twin Cities in the forests of Rice, Goodhue, and Steele Counties, and, because each of the few remaining colonies is a genetic clone, they are especially vulnerable to disturbances. It usually blooms in late April.
Once wildly abundant in the state’s deciduous forests, American ginseng was almost brought to extinction in the mid-20th century when the root became a valuable export to China (the Chinese believe that, as a folk medicine, our ginseng is more powerful than theirs), and it has never fully recovered. It is now listed as a species of special concern.
Of Minnesota’s three biomes, the prairie has the most plant species at risk. While once abundant and widespread, both western prairie fringed orchid and prairie bush clover are now federally threatened species, and the latter is one of the rarest plants in the Midwest. Farming caused most of the destruction of the prairie, and while new technologies have allowed expansion into areas once unworkable, a new and growing threat to this vanishing ecosystem is the alternative medicine fad. People sneak into nature preserves under cover of darkness and dig up whatever plant is the hot new trend, as well as everything else around it, destroying large swatches of prairie.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition