An episodic series in the Star Tribune documents the biodiversity crisis and the people struggling to avoid the extinction of Minnesota’s most vulnerable animals and plants.
Schoolchildren in Minnesota learn that bison once roamed the prairie and that homing pigeons darken the sky. But deer-like thorns? American Crane? Wolverine? Mussels called the fat pocket book?
These are also among 50 species that have been driven out of Minnesota since Europeans arrived in the state in the 17th century, according to Star Tribune analysis of species data from the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Each loss leaves a small gap in complex ecosystems where everything has its own role. Each disappearance removes a small piece of the wilderness that we depend on to nourish our bodies and souls.
Scholars who have reviewed it say the “missing list,” let’s call it, is too few. However, it is the only clear window available on what Minnesota has lost in recent history to our devastating effects on Earth.
Some species on the ubiquitous missing list are extinct, such as the homing pigeon. But most are extirpated from Minnesota, which means they are locally extinct but are still found elsewhere. The bison was classified as extirpated because it no longer roams the Minnesota wild, although it does exist as captive herds.
For many of the Lost listed species, Minnesota was the edge of their range. More than 300 coffee shops across the state bear her name, but few today realize that caribou once roamed the ancient northern forests of Minnesota. Small caribou bands were reported in the state until about the 1920s, DNR said. As logging and other pressures on reindeer habitat escalated, the animals retreated north.
Minnesota residents expelled the other species long before that.
American horns are believed to have disappeared from Minnesota in the 19th century. Often mistakenly described as antelopes, spiny antelopes are deer-like creatures that have black horns, white buttocks and distinctive white stripes across their neck. It is one of the fastest animals on Earth, reaching speeds of more than 50 miles per hour.
It’s very rare to see a naughty horn roaming the Minnesota from the Dakota, making headlines now, as are glimpses of a mountain lion or a rooster crane passing through.
The whooping crane is one of eight birds on the missing list. Given the distances birds move, classifying them is a challenge. Two of the birds are considered globally extinct: the homing pigeon and, with less certainty, the Eskimo curlew, which has not been seen in Minnesota since 1886, according to the DNR. The remaining six birds are extirpated or possibly extirpated as a regular breeding species in Minnesota although some can sometimes be seen during migration, such as valleys and larks.
Most species that have escaped away lack the attraction of cranes or wolves. The greasy pocket is a freshwater mussel that has not been seen in the Mississippi River since 1948, carried in part by dams and sediments from farmland. Gone are poverty grass and chinkapin oak, two plants that make up about half of the missing list.
Two of the 49 species of orchids have not been seen in Minnesota in nearly a century: the pink Oklahoma grass that once grew near Lake City, and the broadleaf grass that botanists found in Cook County in the 1920s after building the first road there, Welby said. Smith, DNR botanist.
Bruce Carlson, a plant ecologist who directs the Minnesota Biological Survey, the DNR unit that surveys the state’s rare species, said the list would certainly be longer if the state had a complete inventory of all native and naturalized species. This is a feat, if any, that some countries have accomplished. ca did not. Florida reports approaching. Tracing microbial life is a new frontier.
To date, the state’s DNR has documented nearly 7,000 species native or naturalized to Minnesota. While it’s far from complete, it’s quite impressive and comprehensive for the upper Midwest, said Hailey Hamilton, chief scientist at the nonprofit NatureServe in Arlington, Virginia.
“We don’t know what we’re missing,” said Hamilton.
We probably will never do that. There is no doubt that the species disappeared from Minnesota before it was documented as we plowed the prairies, cut down forests, and built cities.
“I’m sure many species have been uprooted by the loss of all but a small portion of the once vast grasslands and savannahs that were once vast,” said Forest Eisel, associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota.
Carlson said the DNR is filling in gaps in the state’s total species list for organisms like fungi, algae, lichens, large invertebrates like oysters and lobsters, and an astonishing array of insects — the most numerous group of species on the planet.
Some are on display at the University of Minnesota, which has a 140-year-old collection of 53,000 insect species from around the world. Museum curator Robin Thompson estimates that at least 2,426 species of insects once existed in Minnesota. “This is totally an underestimate,” she said. It is not clear how many of these were recorded in the DNR statistic.
Such creatures simply weren’t a public priority in the past, Carlson said. This has obviously changed as public awareness of its benefits has grown and their plight has worsened.
“It’s kind of like a pollinator explosion,” he said.
Filling these gaps is the main focus of Carlson’s unit, now on its second tour through the state. They also cover previously overlooked landscapes, such as grasslands, and focus more on monitoring change.
As the gaps fill, the number of vulnerable species in Minnesota is likely to increase. There are 590 species listed in Minnesota as critically endangered, threatened, or of particular concern. With each update, the list expands significantly. It was last updated in 2013; DNR plans to start the rulemaking process next year for a new update.
There is no doubt that the list of the missing will grow as well. The burrowing owl is not classified as an exterminator, although it has not been seen in Minnesota since around 2009. The long-legged, daylight-loving prairie owl hung on the ground, nesting in holes dug by ground squirrels and badgers. Reintroduction efforts in the 1980s failed.
Likewise, the Poweshiek captain is not on the missing list, although it likely is. It is also still listed as critically endangered even though the small prairie butterfly has disappeared from Minnesota and is teetering on global extinction.
Tracking local extinctions was not the task of the DNR unit. Like all natural heritage programs in nearly every state, Carlson said, the task was to find the species, document their distribution, and assess their conservation status. He said that tracking species-level biodiversity loss across Minnesota will be a formidable task that will require extensive and permanent monitoring.
“That’s a big dollar component,” Carlson said.
Scientists often rely on changes in habitat as a proxy for species status and loss. In fact, the United States does not have a national biodiversity monitoring program, said NatureServe’s Hamilton. In turn, every province in Canada is served by a federally funded Conservation Data Center.
“A lot of our economy depends on biodiversity, whether it’s goods or services or people pay for experiences,” Hamilton said. “However, we do not actively follow the true state of biodiversity in any comprehensive way. It is very fragmented.”
Hamilton described the current extinction crisis as a “slow-moving meteorite”. List of missing but sample.
Carlson calmed down as he moved through it. Even fewer. He finally said it was sad.
“Those of us who work in conservation, we often say all we’re doing is documenting the demise,” he said. “It’s a tough battle. Conservation often tackles water and loses.”
However, nature is resilient in ways we don’t fully appreciate. Carlson expressed his astonishment at the many species that Minnesota species surveyors have documented in places where they were not known to exist—including at least two species of mites that researchers suspect are new to science, not just Minnesota.
One is a large elegant butterfly with shiny cream-colored wings and very faded black dots. DNR entomologist Kyle Johnson found the moth in 2018 in the middle of the Red Lake Peatland science and nature area, “the way out in the middle of nowhere.” He thinks about the name and is waiting for official confirmation that it is a new species.
Johnson’s species hunt is painstaking, old-school fieldwork. He pitched a tent, raised a white sheet, waited for dark, highlighted the sheet and sat alone waiting to be picked up and documented. In the Up North, Johnson said, he can catch 200 species of moths in one night.
“It’s really an adrenaline rush,” he said.
Although Minnesota’s landscapes have changed drastically, much of it is still teeming with life, Johnson said, “In the back of your mind, I wonder what we’re missing.”