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Local Forest History: Pre-Colonization Wildlife

The image is captioned "Local Forest History: Pre-Colonization Wildlife". A map of Minnesota is in the background. Superimposed on the map are four images: a woodland caribou, a beaver, an elk and a wolf (clockwise from top left, respectively).

Heidi Holtan:
It is time now to continue our series on Local Forest History. It's produced by retired Aitkin County land commissioner Mark Jacobs. Today we're going to learn about pre-settlement wildlife with retired DNR non-game wildlife scientist Bill Berg. Am I getting that right? Mark and Bill are joining me now. Good morning.

Bill Berg:
Hey, good morning. I wasn't in the non-game section. I was a wildlife research biologist with the DNR and the Forest Wildlife Group in Grand Rapids. I 'retired' in 2001. I remember a lot of fun times on the radio with Harry and John. Looking forward to this morning.

John Latimer:
Oh, I am too, Bill! It's good to hear your voice again. Yeah, I think fondly of <laugh>, the three of us and Scott Hall jammed into that studio at the college.

Bill Berg:
They were really, really good times and we covered a lot of subjects and we told the truth most of the time...

John Latimer:
When it was to our benefit. Yeah, we did.

Heidi Holtan:

So, Mark, set the stage for us. Why did you wanna talk to Bill?

Mark Jacobs:
Well, a number of years ago I was at a wildlife society meeting in the Brainerd area. Bill gave a presentation about what species of wildlife were in the area centuries ago, based on journals he'd referenced. And I think everyone in the room was pretty surprised by it. And I thought it'd be an interesting topic for our listeners.

Bill Berg:
It was pre-Covid times and the Minnesota Wildlife Society chapter has usually two meetings a year: one in the summer and one in the winter. And the one in the winters is really a big one. But the one during that particular summer was really a good one. It was really an important one. We had not just a lot of wildlifers there, but a lot of foresters there. We had a number of presentations by a lot of retired folks from DNR and from a couple other agencies who have an interest in history (and who have somewhat complete memories). And yeah, it was fun.

Heidi Holtan:
Well, let's talk a little bit about those journals you mentioned. Bill, can you tell us more about them and when they were written?

Bill Berg:
Well, there were all kinds of 'em written by a number of different authors. A lot of them were during the 1800s and early 1900s. Our old late friend Aldo Leopold from Wisconsin was one of the premier authors of some of these. And then some of the old fur posts kept really good records. There were old fur posts scattered all over the state, not just in the north, surprisingly. A couple of those records have survived almost intact. There were some tremendous changes in wildlife through the late 1700s, the 1800s, and into the early 1900s. Some of these changes persist to this day.

One dramatic change is in the range of big game like caribou: they were really abundant during all the time before European settlement, which was a period that extended all the way through early 1800s all the way into early 1900s. And of course caribou are gone from Minnesota now and most likely never to come back. So that was really a dynamic one. There were moose scattered all over the northern half of the state back then. And, surprisingly to a lot of people listening, essentially no deer. And the reason is the forests were pretty old. There were deer where there were disturbances like wind, fire, or floods that set succession back. Deer are a lower succession species, where they like young grasslands, brush and trees and so forth.

There were wolves scattered all over the state according to these old fur buyer records: all the way into southern Minnesota. Surprisingly, the oldest game law in Minnesota was in 1848. And the same law extended till 1965. And that was a bounty law <laugh> where literally everything that was considered "bad" wildlife, "bad" game was bounty. Everything from wolves, fox, coyotes, bobcats, lynx, pocket gophers, snakes. You name it. Everything that was considered "bad" wildlife was bounty till 1965 when DNR repealed that law.

John Latimer:
Bill were there birds on that? Were there raptors- bounties paid for them as well? I know that lots of farmers shot lots of hawks and owls because they assumed that they were taking the chickens.

Bill Berg:
Yeah, in fact, I tell you what, that law also ended with that, I think it was 1965. Right around there anyhow. But I had old friends who I [unintelligible] coyotes and so forth with who still had such a dislike for raptors (mainly hawks) that they were still putting up posts with traps. So, a raptor would land on a post looking for mice or something. And so, believe it or not, yeah, they were still killed by a lot of people back then and that included all hawks and owls.

John Latimer:
Yeah, I remember some of that. And distressed that would still persist.

Bill Berg:
Oh yeah, yeah.

John Latimer:
You mentioned caribou being pretty predominant wildlife up here before settlement. Did they extend into the prairies at all?

Bill Berg:
Not at all. They were a northern species, even way back then. They're a lichen feeder: lichens are those things that hang from spruce and pine trees, mainly spruce in the bogs. They were a bog critter. Their feet were made to walk in bogs in the soft ground. So, they were basically a northern critter. Before white [people] came, there were a lot of them in the northeast. These were all woodland caribou by the way, and non migratory, basically. But in the northeast, there were a lot of caribou, a few moose, no deer, and a smattering of elk (but not many). In the northwest, there were a lot more caribou in the big bogs (like north of Upper Red Lake) and in the Pine Island bogs east of Highway 72 going to Baudette and west of 72 going up to Baudette.

And you can still walk out in those bogs (wherever you can walk: you have to have bog shoes or wear bog snowshoes, something like that) and see these giant wide deep woodland caribou trails. And they extended north up to Lake of the Woods, and then they split. Some go in around the east side and some go in around the west side of Lake of the Woods. And caribou were really vulnerable to predation. I wanna say they're not very smart, but they're really smart. They just evolved in low predator numbers and their anti-predator strategy is to get on an island. A cow would get on an island and give birth. And that's what their young would also learn: to go on an island and give birth. And so there were still a handful of wild caribou packs or herds in the 1920s, surprisingly. But they then became totally gone- exterminated. The DNR- the old Department of Conservation- together with the CCCs Brazil administration tried to reintroduce caribou in that big bog country north of Upper Red Lake. They had a big nursery pen and a giant pen that kept their herd in. And they were up to about 30-35 animals. [There was] high mortality back then. Finally, they just had to let 'em go. Back then, deer numbers were really rising, even in the big bogs because even the big bogs in northern Minnesota had high settlement by homesteaders. And that brought in [deer]. And of course, together with the logging, virtually [all the] old forest was converted to young forest in just a matter of three or four decades really. So, the other critters really took a hit. Caribou did, and moose took a hit. And elk certainly took a hit. And deer came, and the caribou introduction didn't make it. That was back in the thirties.

John Latimer:
Yeah, pretty incredible. So, I know that there's a relationship between deer and moose and that the deer have a disease that they transfer to moose: a brain worm that affects the moose and doesn't affect the deer. Was there anything like that between deer and caribou?

Bill Berg:
Very much so. In fact, caribou are more vulnerable to that than our deer. And it's a brain worm and it's the thickness of a heavy human hair, a thick human hair. And so most deer carry it and it's fatal to moose. It goes through a moose or deer dropping and upland snail process. It's pretty hard to eat some branches or leaves without ingesting some leaves from that contain those upland snails and slugs. So caribou are even more vulnerable to that particular disease than our moose. So, that's the reason that wherever caribou existed and deer came in, that was the end of the caribou.

John Latimer:
<affirmative>. I want to change focus just really quickly here. Beaver was the reason Hudson's Bay Company even got started. The hair of the beaver pelt was made into a felt that made hats. Hats were a big thing in Europe in those days. And so, there was a great demand for beaver. What was that population like?

Bill Berg:
Well, back in the voyageur days <laugh> the voyageurs and the early trappers... By the way, I have records of 132 fur posts in all of Minnesota, which is just blows you away. So, the voyageurs were not conservationists. The fur posts were not conservationists. So when the voyageur trappers came in via the rivers, via Lake Superior, over towards Lake Kenora, and from the western prairies, they pretty much wiped them out. Given no transportation, no communications at all, they pretty much wiped them out. It's hard to believe that, but there were so many fur posts: they were after every fur they could get. Most of the furs were brought back to the Great Lakes or shipped to Europe somehow. And they pretty much wiped the beaver out.

It's hard to believe something like that that could happen back in those early days with poor transportation (they had birch bark canoes and everything,) but they did. They pretty much wiped 'em out. Some of the records from those fur posts show absolutely incredible numbers of beavers that were brought in and salted (remember, no refrigeration). So <laugh>, simple to say, they were not conservationists and they were after every fur effort they could get: they were after every dollar they could get. So, they pretty much wiped [the beaver] out. And interestingly enough, in the late 40s and early 50s, (county road crews and DNR might surprised at this,) the conservation department back in those days actually stocked live trapped beaver here and there because they were so low in numbers. And now, of course, there's beaver everywhere: flooding road ditches, causing damage here and there, and flooding ponds where they never were before. But we [the conservation department] actually restocked beaver, especially in the northwestern part (like in the old ditched country that was created back in the 20s and 30s for homesteading). Some incredible stories went on back then. We live trapped them someplace and moved them someplace else.

John Latimer:
Bill, was this trapping done (as it is now) in the fall when the furs are prime? Or was it just, 'you see a beaver, you grabbed it,' didn't matter if it was summer, winter, or whatever?

Bill Berg:
It was pretty much the latter. But even today, different fur buyers will buy different furs. During the fall beaver season, beaver pelts have a lot of long fur with very little under-fur. And during the spring, as they get ready for the warmer water, they lose that long fur and have tremendous thick under-fur. So, there's really two markets for that. The fur laws, the animal-taking laws were literally non-existent. The Department of War (there waas no Department of Conservation back then) gave the fur posts their trapping permit or their fur buyer permit.

There's a really interesting little publication. I got it from Minnesota Historical Society years ago. It's called Posts in Minnesota Fur Trading 1660-1855. Imagine that. It's available online on the Minnesota Historical Society and get it by Grace Lee Nute. It details all these fur posts all over the state. Not just [in the] north, surprisingly, [there were a] number of fur posts in central Minnesota: Twin Cities, southwest, southeastern Minnesota. Big ones all over the state. Grand Rapids had a big one at Pokegama Falls. There was a huge fur post at Sandy Lake where the Mississippi goes by. One building still stands (on private property, of course): one building still remains of that original fur post at Sandy Lake. There were a lot of fur posts on the North Shore, predominantly up around Grand Marais and Grand Portage and coming down from Winnipeg. [There was a] big fur post by Baudette and War Road and [they were] just scattered all over. All of them, made a little money and would be up for three or four years and then just kind of abandoned.

John Latimer:
Bill as always, man, I could talk to you all day. Well, I've got a thousand more questions.

Bill Berg:
Time just flies! We could do it again. There's so much more.

John Latimer:
We could do that. Let's have another conversation soon. Mark, it's your show: anything to add?

Mark Jacobs:
Well, one of the things that really struck the group during your presentation was that there were less wolves then than there are now in the state of Minnesota. Can you elaborate on that?

Bill Berg:
Well, if I was going to guess, I'd say that back then, wolves were distributed statewide from north to south: Low numbers in the north, because there were no deer. There were a lot of deer (more deer, anyhow,) in southern Minnesota, so there were wolves. I was looking at old bounty records (they still exist too). All of southern Minnesota bountied wolves up until maybe 1900 or a little bit after. So, we might have the same statewide wolf population now, but there are much higher densities in northern Minnesota. And there are zero wolves, of course, in southern Minnesota. Once in a while, one strays down there. But yeah, it seemed pretty incredible that we have a lot of wolves in northern Minnesota. Probably the most dense wolf population of anywhere in North America. I can almost guarantee you that. And deer hunters don't like to hear that. Trappers don't like to hear it, really, but that's what it is. A lot of people want more deer, and there's a lot of logging that sustains wolves and that lower brush/young tree stage. So, maybe the same wolf population statewide as we had back then, but they're all in one place. They're all in northern Minnesota. As just about anybody can attest, [you] don't have to go very far to find a wolf track.

John Latimer:
That's good, Bill. Always a pleasure. Mark. Thanks for organizing this. We are not done, Bill. You can can count on coming back.

Bill Berg:
There's a lot more to cover on some of these other changes in other predator numbers and so forth. It'd be kind of fun to do it again.

John Latimer:
All right. Let's do it.

Bill Berg:
Thanks Mark. Thanks everybody.

Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 22 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director where she manages producers, hosts local interviews and programs, oversees and manages web stories and establishes focus areas of programming like phenology, clean energy, Indigenous voices, Strong Women, local foods, clean energy, economic development and more. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota. During the pandemic, Heidi hosted 14 months of a weekly statewide conversation on COVID-19 for the AMPERS network.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).