The Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning program on Oct. 16 gave participants 19 things to think about over the winter. That, according to speaker Adam Regn Arvidson, is the number of endangered species in Minnesota.
A Chicagoland native, brought up in central Indiana, Arvidson is a landscape architect who works for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. On the side, he does freelance writing for environmental journals. His interest in nature led him this year to publish the book "Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest."
Before reading excerpts from his book chosen by an audience vote, Arvidson explained the history of the laws protecting endangered species. He also shared stories and pictures about the state's most imperiled creatures from apex predators to butterflies, mussels and plants.
"I love this state," he said. "I love the woods and prairies that we have here, the lakes and rivers. I feel like this was always my home."
Where it's wild and rare
In one of his most recent trips to experience Minnesota's natural beauty, Arvidson visited Buffalo River State Park, just east of Fargo-Moorhead. "The quality of the prairie is unbelievable," he said. "Then you've got this river winding through, with the big trees arching over it and steep cliffs where all the swallows are nesting. It's a pretty amazing place."
More to the point, the park is also the home of two prairie butterfly species that were recently listed as endangered: the Poweshiek skipperling and the Dakota skipper, members of a family of butterflies that bounce from flower to flower, as if skipping across the prairie.
According to Arvidson, Poweshiek skipperlings used to be so common that for many years, naturalists didn't log sightings of it in the field. Around the turn of the century, scientists realized that while no one was watching, the species practically vanished.
"It is now believed that the Poweshiek skipperling is completely gone from Minnesota, and that in its entire range, it hangs on a little bit in the Dakotas, and there is one outpost in Michigan," Arvidson said. "There are 500 individuals left in the wild."
Possible explanations for the species' disappearance include compression of its habitat, as skipperlings can't fly across the roads that continue to be built through prairie areas.
The skipperling's listing as an endangered species, Arvidson said, "has led to increased study, and at the Minnesota Zoo they are now raising Poweshiek skipperlings," as well as Dakota skippers, for reintroduction into the wild.
Inclusion on the endangered list, he said, can lead to increased public awareness, studies and funding for preservation efforts.
Arvidson shared a picture of his hand holding a snuffbox mussel at a lab in Lake City. A scientist at the lab told him he was one of perhaps 12 people who had ever held the rare shellfish.
"That's pretty special," Arvidson said. "I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to encounter these 'wild and rare' species in my travels and learn their stories."
In another vignette, Arvidson discussed a plant called Leedy's roseroot, a relative of the sedum that only grows 30 feet up a cliff-face overhanging a rushing river in Minnesota's bluff country.
"This plant has a very unusual range," he said. "It exists on four sites in southeastern Minnesota; at the top of Harney Peak in South Dakota's black hills; and in the New York State Finger Lakes region, and nowhere in between. It is believed that this is a leftover from the ice age."
Wolves and more
Arvidson said what got him interested in the issue of endangered species was a visit to the International Wolf Center in Ely. Hearing the captive pack howl in unison raised the hairs on his arms. "It was bone-chilling, exhilarating," he said.
Later, when reading about the history of human-wolf interaction, he learned that the wolf was the first species listed as endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and has brought more controversy to that legislation than any other species.
"Minnesota, in a lot of ways, has been at the center of that," he said. "The legislature opposed the listing of the wolf as endangered as far back as 1974. But we were also the only place in the lower 48, other than Isle Royale, where the wolf was not completely exterminated. So, there was always that tension with the wolf. So I got interested about what else is on this list. When I saw that list, it occurred to me that it touched every corner of the state, every landscape type we have, every kind of relationship we have with our natural environment. It had to do with logging and agriculture and recreation and urban development and everything.
"I thought, if I could profile each of those in turn, maybe I could get a whole picture of the Minnesota landscape. That turned out to be a lot of fun because I got to go into the field with scientists and muck around with creeks, and climb ladders against cliffs, and track lynx in the winter in the northwoods. It was fascinating. But along the way I also learned a lot about the legal case for some of these plants and animals."
Since he started writing his book eight or nine years ago, Arvidson said, the wolf has been taken off the endangered list and put back on four times. His chapter about wolves goes into detail about the controversy in Minnesota. "I take the wolves to court," he said. "It's a fascinating story that talks about how our legal system works, and how our federal legislation works, or doesn't work."
When and what
Historically, Arvidson noted, the Endangered Species Act was part of a suite of federal laws that came out of a groundswell of environmental thinking in the 1950s and 60s.
The Act recognized that humans have caused the extinction of many species of animals and plants, and that others are now threatened with extinction. The law's stated reasons to protect them include their "esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value."
Arvidson stressed the presence of "esthetic" is on that list. He recalled how a trail docent, when asked why we should bother saving the bush prairie clover, first argued, "This is God's creation. We shouldn't tread lightly on that." Besides, she said, "We don't know what this might be useful for." Finally, she added, "I also think it's really pretty."
"Sometimes," Arvidson said, "maybe, that's enough."
Besides the species already mentioned, Minnesota species currently listed as endangered are:
• The piping plover and the red knot, both migratory shorebirds.
• The Topeka shiner, a minnow that only lives in prairie creeks drained by the Missouri River.
• The Higgins eye pearlymussel, winged maple leaf, spectaclecase and sheepnose mussels, some of which can live 80 or more years.
• The Karner blue butterfly, which is making a comeback in Wisconsin. "It raises that question," said Arvidson. "A lot of Minnesota resources have been directed to other species because Wisconsin is having a lot of success protecting the kind of habitats they want." He said a DNR worker told him that Minnesota may have to "let that one go and let other states handle it," so the state can focus on other species.
• The rusty-patched bumblebee, now mostly seen in urban backyards, especially in the Twin Cities area. "That turns my notion of nature vs. urban inside out," said Arvidson.
• The western prairie fringed orchid, which like most orchids has a very limited range of habitat.
• The Minnesota dwarf trout lily, which exists in three counties in Minnesota and nowhere else in the world.
• The northern long-eared bat, the most recent listing, threatened by the spread of white-nose syndrome.
Arvidson said the study of endangered species has led to discoveries about larger issues, like how perennial plants grow back year after year. He described how a study of Leedy's roseroot enabled one scientist to compile a life history of individual plants, some of which have lived more than 20 years.
In an excerpt from his book, Arvidson drew a word-picture about how caterpillars turn into butterflies - a life cycle far stranger than most people know. Essentially, one life form dissolves into a cellular soup and another, completely different, emerges.
"There is no equivalent of this miracle in nature," he read. "It is nearly inconceivable that an animal can do this. I think that on some distant day when we encounter life, intelligent or not, on some other planet, we'll be amazed, of course, by what we find. But we'll also say, 'Eh, well, on earth we've got butterflies.'
"Unless we don't," he added in a final chilling twist. "Unless we don't have butterflies on earth."