Two years ago, before my family embarked on a trip-of-a-lifetime to Australia, we sat down for a frank discussion around the dinner table. “Here’s the deal,” I announced, as I looked at my mother, my husband, and especially my then 4-year old son. “There are saltwater crocodiles in tropical northern Queensland, and we need to make sure that none of us get eaten while we’re there.” To minimize our risk, we decided to stay out of the water when exploring the rainforest beaches, and in our car while crossing over brackish rivers and streams.
Last month, the United Nations released a report warning that up to 1 million of the 8 million plant and animal species on Earth are at risk of extinction within decades. In Kenya, the last two remaining northern white rhinos in the world – both female – are kept under 24-hour guard in Ol Pejeta Conservancy. When the only male died last March, it erased all hope that there would ever be a baby to keep the species alive. Around the world, organizations like WWF track a growing list of species at risk of extinction. The list includes lions, tigers, and bears, as well as insects, fish, and other less glamorous wildlife.
The good news is that we humans have proven ourselves capable of protecting plant and animal species when we enforce poaching restrictions and protect and restore adequate habitat. Saltwater crocs are a perfect example. They’ve been extirpated from most of their historical territory in Southeast Asia and South Pacific islands but are thriving in northern Australia. Likewise, the population of grey wolves in the U.S. has rebounded from less than 300 in Minnesota, to more than 6000 wolves with habitat in nine states.
Most people agree that species extinction is a bad thing. In the ecological web of life, everything is connected to everything else – including humans. A rare plant in the rainforest could contain a cure for cancer. Pollinating insects support a $25 billion U.S. fruit and nut industry. It also makes my heart ache to imagine a future in which my grandchildren might only be able to learn about monarch butterflies in a book.
At the same time, restoring habitat successfully means learning to live with wildlife again. As an example, American settlers in Minnesota logged much of the St. Croix Valley during between 1839 and 1914. Look back at historic photos from Stillwater and Marine on St. Croix and the homes sit on mostly bare plots with only a few trees in sight. Today, there are thick woods around and within these communities and residents frequently see deer, owls, and even bears as a result. Likewise, people are often surprised to discover that their restored prairie attracts gophers or that their pollinator garden is full of bees, but these animals signify a healthier habitat and remind us that we’re no longer the only kids on the block.
The Minnesota DNR maintains a list of endangered, threatened, and special concern species in our state that contains four pages of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, mollusks and insects; four pages of vascular plants; and a full page of mosses, lichen and fungi. Species no longer on the list include bald eagles, snapping turtles, and lake sturgeon, all of which have rebounded thanks to new regulations established during the 1970s and 80s.
Minnesota DNR also offers advice on living with animals, such as black bears, that people aren’t accustomed to seeing in this part of the state. Minnesota’s black bear range has been slowly expanding southward and westward and there are now frequent sightings in Marine, May Twp, and even Stillwater. Currently, the DNR is asking people to report bears that they see in Washington County so that they can better document the animals’ current territory. Black bears normally avoid people and rarely attack unless provoked. If you see one in your backyard or while out on the Brown’s Creek Trail, keep your distance and back away slowly. To keep bears out of your yard, keep garbage cans in a bear-proof container or in a garage until the morning of pickup, remove bird feeders during the spring and summer (or remove seed, suet, and hummingbird feeders at night), keep pet food inside, and keep barbecue grills and picnic tables clean.
To learn more about rare plants and animals in Minnesota, go to: www.dnr.state.mn.us/rsg.