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Local Forest History: Pre-Colonization Wildlife, Episode 2

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).
Sarah Mitchell
Canva Design
Some Minnesota species experienced dramatic population changes over the last 300 years.

This show strives to take an in-depth look at some natural resource-based issues important to our region. We’ll not only discuss the problems, but also attempt to highlight some creative solutions. This is the fifth episode of a series looking at the history of our local forests.

Ever wonder what creatures roamed regional forests 300 years ago?

Bill Berg, a retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources non-game wildlife scientist, shared his insights into the wildlife occupying Minnesota before the arrival of colonial settlers.

Euro-American settlers brought with them two huge extractive industries: logging and the fur trade. In a previous segment, Berg summarized information he found in trapping records. More is found in Indigenous oral histories, artwork and historical photos.

Species Range Changes

Two images are shown. The top image shows a large badger-shaped weasel with black, brown, and tan markings. It is labeled "wolverine". The lower image shows a large marten-shaped weasel with brown and grey fur. It is labeled "Fisher".
Sarah Mitchell
Canva Design
Wolverine and fisher comparison.

As the woodland caribou, fisher, pine marten, wolverine and lynx were exterminated from the region (or became much rarer), bobcats and white-tailed deer expanded their range into northern Minnesota. In recent years, the Virginia opossum moved as far north as Aitkin County. When Berg was in college, the northern edge of the opossum’s range was northern Iowa.

Wolverines, never common due to their huge home range size, have not been documented in the state since 1918. Occasional reports of wolverines still occur, but they invariably turn out to be large male fishers, which turn gray with age.

Woodland caribou and wolves

The logging industry also greatly impacted the state’s wildlife. Woodland caribou, which relied on the lichen-rich boreal forests of northeastern Minnesota, vanished as their habitat disappeared.

A reintroduction effort in the 1930s failed, and it is unlikely they will ever return to the state. Wolves are another reason why caribou reintroduction is unlikely to succeed.

A woodland caribou stands looking at the camera. It has small antlers and brown and beige fur. Grass and twigs partially obscure the caribou.
A woodland caribou browses in a field.

“Wolves and caribou don’t get along at all,” Berg said. “Wolves, when they find caribou, don’t have to work very hard to get one.”

In response, caribou evade the wolves by occupying wolf-free islands on lakes or in the interior of bogs. For instance, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources relocated a population of caribou to a wolf-free island to ensure survival after wolves swam to a previously safe island.

Before the arrival of colonial settlers, wolves were less prevalent in Northern Minnesota and far more populous in the southern half of the state. In fact, the wolf population may be larger now than it was then, due to the huge population of white-tailed deer.

Old-growth forests can’t support many deer, but the young forests generated by the logging industry and abundance of edge habitats formed by development increased the white-tailed deer’s range and population.

Effect of White-tailed Deer

White-tailed deer carry with them a parasitic brain worm that is highly infectious to caribou, elk and moose. While the deer are unaffected, the infection can kill off large populations of other hooved animals. In 1903 — before the population and range of white-tailed deer exploded — populations of deer, elk and moose were quite large.

“In 1903, I think that there were still so many caribou around in Northern Minnesota that for one big game license you could kill three deer, one caribou and one elk,” Berg said. “And, you know, just thinking how times have changed in a little bit more than a century, it kind of blows you away.”

Woodland Bison

While woodland caribou wandered the boreal forests, the prairie and big woods regions of the state hosted herds of bison. Near Itasca State Park, Native Americans hunted bison by running them off cliffs. Some beaver dams in the area contain bison bones.

The Local Forest History series will be on hiatus as producer Mark Jacobs works on a spring Native Pollinator Decline series. 

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