Meet the rare plants and animals of Washington County

All field biologists should have at least one 8-11 year old child as a companion to help them locate the strangest and most hard to find naturalistic flora and fauna. Now to be fair, I claim full credit for finding the five-foot long fox snake that I almost stepped on at St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park, as well as the truly wonderous hygroscopic earthstar at St. Croix Savanna Scientific and Natural Area, which I originally thought was a flower but actually turned out to be a mushroom.

Charlie, however, was undeniably the one to locate the red-backed salamander hiding under leaf litter, the mudpuppy swimming in a frozen St. Croix River, the northern prairie skink darting through tall waving grasses, and the bryozoan colony near an island in the St. Croix River that just sat there like a ginormous booger.

Minnesota is home to 2000 known native wildlife species, 346 of which are identified as Species in Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). In addition, there are more than 2100 species of plants and 9000 species of mushrooms and fungus that call Minnesota home. People often assume that the rarest species are found far away, in the middle of protected wilderness. In reality, the Minnesota plants and animals most at risk are the ones that live in habitats such as prairie, oak savanna, and shallow wetlands that are heavily impacted by farming and development.

Oak savanna, like the one picture above at Belwin Conservancy in Afton, used to cover much of Washington County. Today, less than 2% of Minnesota’s native grasslands remain.

The Minnesota Biological Survey, a project of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) systematically collects, interprets, monitors and delivers data on plant and animal distribution across the state and has added 15,000 new records for rare species since its inception. In Washington County, this includes two species of amphibian (Blanchard’s cricket frog and mudpuppy), 14 species of birds, six mammal species (four of which are bats), and 55 vascular plants. Minnesota’s Wildlife Action Plan (2015-2025) further outlines priority species for research, protection, and restoration, as well as funding and partnerships supporting this work.

The mudpuppy is one example of a rare species that is found in Washington County, most often in the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. It is the only salamander in Minnesota that lives underwater and is the required host needed for the state endangered salamander mussel to reproduce. Blanchard’s cricket frogs are found inland from the rivers in shallow wetlands, lakes, and streams; they hibernate in crayfish burrows along muddy shorelines where there is abundant emergent vegetation. In the metro area, many of these natural shorelines have been altered or taken over by invasive species, leaving Blanchard’s cricket frogs out of a home.


I can’t believe we found a salamander! We’re rocking the colddays! #nature

♬ Claire de Lune – Ave Maria

Moving away from slime toward feathers, the Henslow’s sparrow and loggerhead shrike are two grassland bird species that are very rarely found in our county and listed as state endangered species. Loggerhead shrikes are well-known for impaling their prey – grasshoppers, beetles, amphibians, lizards, small snakes, mice and even small birds – on thorns and barbed wire, which makes them somewhat charismatic. The poor little Henslow’s sparrow, however, is described as inconspicuous, secretive, unremarkable, and often overlooked. It’s a little brown bird that could disappear before most people know it even exists.

There are some rays of hope from our local region. Further north in the St. Croix River watershed, a habitat protection and restoration effort has brought back sharp-tailed grouse after 50+ years of absence and is nurturing a variety of pollinators that can now be found in the restored grassland habitat. Karner blue butterflies, a federally listed endangered species, have not yet been observed on site but were spotted just across the river last year in northern Wisconsin.

There is a strong relationship between the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly and wild lupine.

If you’re interested in learning more about the flora and fauna in your region, iNaturalist is a great resource to help you identify plants, animals, and even mushrooms  that you find ( You can upload pictures to the mobile app or join a site-specific project to help document plants and animals at a park or nature center. Browsing the St. Croix River Watershed Safari project on iNaturalist is also a fun way to learn more about nature in our own backyards.

If you do find rare species while out exploring, please note that state and federal endangered species laws prohibit people from taking, importing, transporting, or selling any portion of an endangered or threatened species, except under permit. Instead, take a photo and make note of the time, date and location so that you can report your discovery.