Can Minnesota save the biological diversity it's only just learning about?

Over the past 150 years, Minnesota has lost about 50 percent of its wetlands, 40 percent of its forests, and more than 98 percent of its prairies to human activities.

Over the past 150 years, Minnesota has lost about 50 percent of its wetlands, 40 percent of its forests, and more than 98 percent of its prairies to human activities. Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

More than three decades ago, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources embarked on an ambitious task: completing the first “comprehensive” survey of Minnesota’s biological diversity.

What does that mean, exactly? Essentially, the DNR’s scientists divvied up the state’s various counties and regions, “scoured” historic documents and files on each area, and, once they got permission from the local landowners, went on a feverish hunt for every species of plant and animal they could find.

“We use special methods to track down animals, from auditory recordings of bat calls to live traps for mammals and hand nets for butterflies,” Hannah Texler, a DNR plant ecologist, wrote in a recent report. They collected bees, moths, ferns that hadn’t been seen in the state since 1903, and pudgy, itty-bitty salamanders that hadn’t been seen here since… ever.

In fact, those four-toed salamanders (found in 1994) were one of 35 species of plants and animals that had never before been spotted in Minnesota prior to this massive survey, which in 2010 turned up a type of tortricid moth we thought only lived in Mississippi.

Thanks to this nearly completed data, we now know more about the living treasures that call Minnesota home. We have more wolves than any state but Alaska, one of the largest populations of golden-winged warblers in North America, and one very special plant species found nowhere else on Earth: the Minnesota dwarf trout lily. Not as catchy as the lady slipper, perhaps, but still a rare find.

But we also know the state of their tenuous existence. According to Texler’s report, quite a bit of Minnesota’s natural habitat has been lost since the 1800s. We’re clinging to 1 percent of our native prairie. Our forests, just over half of which were the mature, “old-growth” trees preferred by certain species, are now 4 percent old growth.

In fact, in the past 150 years, we have lost over 50 percent of our wetlands, 40 percent of our forests, and more than 98 percent of our prairies, thanks mostly to farming and development.

Several species are paying the price. Remember that unique-to-Minnesota dwarf trout lily? It only lives on about 600 acres of woodland in just three counties: Goodhue, Rice, and Steele. It’s federally endangered due to human activity and the influx of invasive species.

The good news, Texler says, is that we still have pockets of land rich in this diverse wildlife, and now, thanks to the survey project, we know where they are. Our next steps are to figure out how best to use that data to protect them. That includes environmental reviews on developments and mining projects, and deciding which spots to preserve as park land.

In the meantime, the DNR biologists still have a little bit of work to do.

“Biologists have barely begun to collect information on insects, lichens, mosses, and fungi,” Texler wrote. “Many places around the state would benefit from additional survey.”