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Encouraging news is hard to find in Minnesota’s new protected-species list

mooseCreative Commons/Denali National Park and PreserveMoose, lynx and northern goshawks are being added to the List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species.

You’ve probably already heard that Minnesota’s wolves, bald eagles and snapping turtles are doing well enough to exit the state’s ranks of protected species, while moose, lynx and northern goshawks are being added to the list.

Media coverage of species protection inevitably focuses on exemplary winners and losers — especially the charismatic ones, like those just mentioned — or the overall score: 29 species leaving the list, 180 being added in the revisions finalized Monday.

But what do those numbers and examples tell you about the how the state of nature in Minnesota has changed in the 17 years since the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last updated its List of Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species?

Here are a few more numbers to fill out the picture:

  • A total of 439 species were on the list in 1996, and 591 are on it today, meaning overall membership has expanded by more than one-third.
  • Of the 29 “winners” that left the list in this revision, two were plant species — the raven’s foot sedge and nodding rattlesnakeroot — who achieved their exit by dying out completely.  (To be fair and balanced about it, I’ll note that one newly listed species, a wild petunia, got there by reappearing after having been thought extinct.)
  • Fish account for 21 species on the new list, which might be noteworthy in a water- and angling-centric state. That’s a big increase from the previously listed 8 species — all of which have been upgraded to more serious categories of risk this time around.
  • Besides those fish only 8 mammals, 10 birds and 4 reptiles or amphibians are on the list,  which means, of course, that the vast majority of entries are vascular plants (the single largest category), insects, lichens, mosses, liverworts, fungi … species we know must be kind of important, in an abstract, ecological kind of way, but pretty much take for granted.

Three factors driving changes

Curious about larger themes within this list, I called up its principal keeper — Rich Baker, endangered species coordinator at the DNR — and asked him what the 300 new additions, subtractions and reclassifications say about the state of nature in Minnesota.

“If you look at the reasons we’ve made these changes,” he said, “there are three that are by far the most important:

Sixty percent are because of loss or degradation of habitat — not a big surprise to most people, I imagine, because we know our natural environment continues to have problems. We have less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the native prairie we had a few hundred years ago.

But it’s not just development  and clearing land — it’s the more subtle fragmentation, especially with forests, where we may have wooded areas that are healthy but they’re not contiguous, and a lot of species need those larger forests.

In rivers, of course, it’s siltation and chemical contamination. There are a bunch of mussels joining the list this year; half of our 50 native species are now listed as threatened or endangered. And yes, that’s right, the new listings are about problems in the Mississippi River, but that’s only because mussels were gone from most other waterways a long time ago.

Another 60 percent — the categories aren’t mutually exclusive — just reflect new information; we’ve gained enormous volumes of new knowledge in the last couple of decades.  

And about 9 percent reflect the effects of invasive species. A good example is the goblin fern, in our northern forests, which is threatened by invasive earthworms.

What about climate change?                                                      

Baker said it was a leading factor only in the decisions to list moose, lynx and five species of moss.  “It’s really difficult to invoke climate change as the sole factor in a particular classification,” he said, “though it’s certainly a factor in many of them.”

Another way to count winners, losers

I asked Baker if it would be reasonable to think about the trends encapsulated by these revisions  in a two-column tally of species thought to be doing better today than 17 years ago, and the number doing worse, as I attempted to do in looking over the proposed revisions a few months ago.

He thought it would indeed be reasonable, and after some quick clicking in his spreadsheet, came up with this answer:

  • 48 species are doing better — the 29 that came off the list plus 19 whose status changed from a higher category of concern to a lower one. (Maybe we should make that 46, though, because of those two plants that exited the list by going extinct.)
  • 252 species are doing worse — the 180 newly listed this year, plus 72 that moved from a lower level of concern to a higher one.

And then there are the 319 species (my calculation) whose situation has neither improved nor deteriorated enough to warrant reclassification.

Public focus on four species

Some media coverage has mentioned the extensive public input that DNR received in overhauling the list. I looked over a summary of the record and found that for the most part, commenters focused on just four species:

  • The gray wolf, whose removal drew objections of some 400 commenters who argued that the move was premature (and who in most cases also oppose the department’s trapping and hunting seasons that began last fall).
  • The moose, which DNR added to the list as a species of “special concern”; commenters argued the population was crashing at a rate that justified its listing as threatened or endangered. (DNR responded that it did not yet have enough evidence of “foreseeable or imminent risk of extinction” to justify a higher status.)
  • The bald eagle, whose spectacular recovery is threatened, in some people’s rather fanciful view, by wind farms.
  • The snapping turtle, which was initially listed in 1984 because of intensive and unregulated commercial harvest;  some commenters opposed delisting because they have continuing concerns about the harvest and because “they assert there is a common practice  of certain members of the public to intentionally run over snapping turtles with their cars.”

(I am leaving out procedural challenges raised by timber interests who challenged listing of the northern goshawk and other birds of the woodlands for reasons that had little to do with those species’ well-being and more to do with their own.)

This made me want to ask Baker what aspects of species protection he found most difficult to explain to the general public.

Why it all matters

He said that most people really do seem to understand how the program works, what the categories mean, and so on.  On the other hand:

I think a lot of people don’t get why it’s important. They understand what we do, and they think it’s interesting — but they don’t understand why it matters.

Here’s why it matters: We don’t understand how natural systems work. We don’t know at which point things start falling apart.

We might start to understand this better if bees and other pollinators disappear, and that threatens agriculture, or if bats start disappearing and insect populations soar.

Then I asked him about a comment I seem to hear more often these days, that the problems of bees and bats and other species are just part of a natural cycle in which some species are always vanishing and new ones always taking their places.

I do hear that sometimes, but it’s just not true. It’s not what’s happening. We don’t have woolly mammoths anymore, but we don’t have new things in their place. The number of species that have gone extinct is large. The number of new ones is tiny.

New species do arrive, but this happens over millennia. What we’re experiencing now is extinctions that are happening on a scale of a few decades — or even less. And we have no idea what that will mean.

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