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A bull moose grazes on water lilies in the canoe country north of Ely. (File / News Tribune)

DNR seeks to put moose on endangered-species list

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Minnesota's beleaguered moose would be one of 67 animals added to the state's official endangered-species list under a proposal announced Monday by the Department of Natural Resources.

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The moose, which has seen a dramatically declining population, would become an official species of concern on the new list -- the first major update to problem species in Minnesota since 1996.

The updated endangered- species list, in the works since 2007 and open to public comment, also includes 114 native plants that resource officials worry are declining.

Under the proposal, expected to be final sometime next year, the state's updated endangered-species list would bulge from 439 species of plants, mammals, insects and other critters to 591 species.

The species of concern status for moose won't limit whether hunting seasons can continue. That would happen if they move to threatened or endangered status. But the move still makes sense, said Ron Moen, a wildlife biologist studying moose at the Natural Resources Research Institute of the University of Minnesota Duluth.

"It doesn't do anything for the species legally. But it means they (DNR) are paying attention to what's going on. It's an official heads-up that something is wrong, even if they aren't endangered yet,'' Moen said.

The DNR begins state protection efforts with designation as a species of concern and then moves to threatened if the animal, insect or plant's population faces serious issues, and finally to endangered if the species faces potential extirpation from the state.

The little brown myotis bat, facing a potentially devastating attack from white nose syndrome fungus already plaguing other states, is being added to the list as a species of concern, as is the big brown bat for the same reason. The lynx forest cat, already on the federal endangered species list as threatened in Minnesota, would make the state list for the first time.

The boreal owl would become a species of concern, as would the northern goshawk, both birds of the Northland's forests, while the loggerhead shrike and horned grebe would move from threatened to full-blown endangered status.

Some species upgraded

But all the news isn't bad. The DNR proposes to end state designation for 15 plants and 14 animals that are doing well -- including wolves and bald eagles, which will move completely off the list. The peregrine falcon and trumpeter swan both are being upgraded from threatened to species of concern.

Some species have declined markedly since the last list was compiled, while others simply have been better studied, yielding more accurate population estimates and leading to changes on the list. About two-thirds of all species on the list are seeing declining habitat.

"There's been so much new data collected over the past 10 to 15 years that it's really been a huge data analysis project just to see where we are with so many species,'' Rich Baker, DNR endangered species coordinator, told the News Tribune.

"The best metaphor I can think of is that this list is an emergency room at a hospital. We bring species onto the list to give them the attention and the management and the healing they need so they can someday get off the list,'' Baker said. "It's worked well with species like the wolf and the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle. Now we need to give that attention to a lot of other species."

The updated list includes not just big animals and little fish, but invertebrates, moss, fungi, mollusks and insects like jumping spiders.

"Each of these organisms plays a functional role in a healthy natural system," Baker said. "Preserving an endangered species isn't just about that individual species; it's about maintaining the entire ecosystems and habitats in which the species live, and making sure that those ecosystems can continue to function and provide us with their many benefits."

Controversy expected

The agency expects some renewed controversy over species like moose, for which it still allows a hunting season even though the population is declining, and the boreal owl, which requires old-growth forest habitat much like the spotted owl of the Pacific Northwest. That could trigger concerns from Minnesota's forest products industry.

It's illegal to take or possess a state endangered or threatened species on the Minnesota list. Many, but not all, of the state-listed species also have protections under the federal Endangered Species Act.

If a proposed development project -- such as roads or buildings -- cannot avoid damaging a protected species, the state can issue a "taking permit" that is combined with mitigation, such as funding for research or acquisition of other habitat to protect the same species. Over the past decade, the DNR has received 23 applications for development-related taking permits and approved all but one.

Minnesota first passed an endangered-species law in 1971, with revisions in 1974, 1981 and 1996.

The DNR will hold five public meetings across the state on its endangered proposals, including at 6 p.m. Feb. 6 in Duluth in the Gitchee Gumee Conference Center, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mid-Continent Ecology Division, 6201 Congdon Blvd.

Comments also may be submitted to the Office of Administrative Hearings, 600 N. Robert St., St. Paul, MN 55164-0620; or by e-mail to rulecomments@state.mn.us. For more information, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/ets/rulesrevision.html.

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