The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Superior National Forest, and Voyageurs National Park make up the largest wild landscape in Minnesota as well as being one of the largest wild spaces east of the Mississippi in the US. Combine that with wildlands directly across the border in Quetico Provincial Park and the surrounding crownlands, and this wild space is pretty special. This ecological oasis is essential for a number of species and some, which require large, undisturbed landscapes, thrive nowhere else. When many of us think of the BWCA, we think of the loon call. Truly, I can close my eyes right now and imagine camping beneath the stars to the sound of the loon tremolo echoing down the rocky shores. Perhaps we think of the wolf howl, signifying a truly wild landscape. Or maybe we think of a giant moose crashing through the swampland or a majestic eagle carrying a fish from the water to the ancient pines nearby. Whichever creatures represent this wilderness to you, we’re blessed that they are here today. In the last century, every species we cherish in canoe country has undergone challenges from over-hunting, disease, bounties, habitat loss, poisoning, competition from invading species, and other changes in their environment. It’s spectacular the array of plants and animals one can enjoy on a Boundary Waters trip, but its also important not to forget how special it is that we have the species we do. This wild landscape provided one of the final sanctuaries for a number of species which had disappeared virtually everywhere further south. For today’s article, we’ll cover ten of the most iconic species from canoe country, their history on the landscape, challenges which threatened their futures, and how those species are doing today.
The moose have been in the news plenty these past ten years as the moose population of Minnesota mysteriously crashed after having been relatively stable for decades prior, but this isn’t the first time the moose population has changed dramatically. The history of moose in Minnesota is one of astronomical highs and the lowest of lows. After wide scale logging began to push caribou north (more on that later), moose and deer, species which were more adapted to cutovers , began to fill in the space. Little did anyone know that deer and moose both occupying the same space would have catastrophic consequences for moose. By 1922, the moose population had fallen to about 2500 thanks to “poaching, poorly regulated hunting, and disease” and the state closed the moose hunt. Though habitat fragmentation did seem to play a roll in moose decline, researchers by the 1930s had become keenly aware of a disease plauguing the moose population. “”The disease loose among Minnesota’s [moose] herd is an affliction peculiar to Minnesota alone. Increasing in its intensity, it took a toll of 30 moose in the past year. … The nature of the disease … striking down the animals is not yet known.” By the 1950s, the moose population in Minnesota may have dipped as low as 500 individuals. By the 1960s, researchers finally made a breakthrough on the disease plaguing moose. A tiny, parasitic brainworm carried by whitetailed deer was a pest for the whitetail but fatal to moose, elk, and caribou. This parasite proved moose and deer could not occupy the same range. Into the 1960s, as the forest landscape began to be less favorable for deer in the far northern parts of the state, the moose population took off. ‘Aerial counts showed as many as four moose per square mile in Lake, Cook, Marshall, Beltrami, and Kittson counties, according to a 1967 report in the Volunteer. The report noted, “Food conditions for moose are deteriorating as a result of this heavy pressure.'” By the 1970s, a controlled moose hunt was reintroduced in Minnesota culminating in the best harvest year on record with 1,179 moose harvested in the 1983 season as Minnesota was touted as the greatest opportunity for moose hunting in the lower 48 at the time. Eventually though, the Minnesota population of Moose began to come back down again with the moose hunt being called off by 1997. Into the 2000s, the northwestern population of moose tanked to a low it has not and likely will not recover from. The northeastern population around the BWCA region fared better at first, growing to a peak population of 8000 individuals by 2006. That’s when the moose began making the news unfortunately as populations began a meteoric collapse prompting an increase in moose surveys and studies. The moose population has remained more or less steady for the ten years since they hit rock bottom, but the future of moose in Minnesota still hangs in the balance. Researchers continue to learn more and understand this largest member of the deer family, as well as their complicated past and questionable future, as an iconic piece of the northwoods ecosystem.
Beavers have a fascinating role in the settlement of Minnesota. As an abundant fur-bearing rodent, they became one of the focuses of the fur trade. Many of the early voyageurs utilizing the area which is now the BWCA were here specifically for the trapping and trading of beaver pelts. By the late 1800s, the population had crashed and beavers had been all-but trapped out of the state. Reintroduction began in the early 1900s and now Minnesota is home to an incredible abundance of beavers from the clear waters of the BWCA down to the ponds and rivers of prairie country and even into the parks of the twin cities suburbs. Beavers are quite adaptable as one of the few animals which changes its environment to meet its needs which also creates habitat for a wide array of other species. This does lead them into conflict with people as their pond creating sometimes floods fields, roads, and culverts. With suitable habitat, which beavers have plenty of in the “land of ten thousand lakes,” the beaver population has continued to grow. Beavers can have an immense ecological impact on the landscape when populations are healthy, and their dams and lodges can last centuries in some cases. See our article specifically on beavers in the BWCA to learn more.
The bald eagle is ubiquitous to ecosystems across Minnesota, but it hasn’t always been that way. Like many species, the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th was rough on eagles who were actively being removed as pests. Arguable the greatest challenge came after WW2 when large scale chemical use for pest control began having major detrimental impact on many species. The eagle population in Minnesota and in the BWCA hit a new low. Legal protections for birds of prey and banning of certain chemicals like DDT allowed populations to recover. Eagles continue to face challenges today from lead poisoning as their role as scavengers often find them inadvertently consuming lead shot from gut piles. In some areas , there are a shortage of trees large enough to hold an eagle nest, thus limiting habitat. However, the graph below illustrates well the eagle population has recovered, and today Minnesota boasts the largest population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
Trumpeter swans are not necessarily the iconic representatives of canoe country in the same ways loons, wolves, and moose tend to be, but for a species that has come back from the brink to where they are today, their story deserves to be mentioned here. Trumpeter swans are a large water fowl, the largest found in Minnesota, and can be found throughout the state’s lakes and rivers. In the BWCA, I have tended to find them in shallow, weedy bodies of water where their food is plentiful. The story of swans’ history is a tragic, but not unfamiliar one. They were over-hunted for their meat and feathers while simultaneously losing habitat as settlement pushed west. By the 1880s, they were gone from the state of Minnesota and by the 1930s only 69 swans were left in the lower 48 in a remote region of Montana. By the 1960s, the first reintroductions began in Minnesota. Through the 1980s and 90s, intentional work was done to reintroduce swans from Montana and Alaska into suitable habitat in Minnesota. Those efforts paid off and a robust population began to establish. By 2015, 17,000 swans were believe to live in the state of Minnesota. Recovery efforts were a resounding success. Now trumpeter swans can be found throughout the state including populations in and around the BWCA.
Though loons were pushed to a regionally extinct status further east, their population remained in Minnesota, and by 1961 the common loon became the state bird. Being a large aquatic bird comes with its challenges, especially when trying to live alongside human impacts. Aquatic species are particularly vulnerable to pollutants in the water from plastics, oils, and chemicals. Many pollutants leached into a lake have the possibility to settle in the lake bed and continue lingering later on. Fishing equipment has also posed a threat to loons from improperly disposed of lead sinkers finding their way into the digestive system of loons and thus slowly poisoning the individual. Fishing line too claims some loons as they become tangled and entrapped. A long-standing citizen scientist study has been used to monitor loon populations in Minnesota, determining that the state population of loons has been steady for the last few decades. New threats are on the horizon though. A study of loons in Wisconsin found that their population was in decline for unknown reasons. The scientist in charge of that study have begun a study in Minnesota as well to determine if the cause of Wisconsin’s loon decline could also impact Minnesota. For now though, loons continue to hold a special place as one of the signature sounds of wild, northern lakes.
Pine marten are a medium sized member of the weasel family. During the late 19th century and into the 20th, a long history of unregulated trapping and the loss of much of their forested habitat to logging had sent the population in the upper midwest into a downturn. At the turn of the 20th century, the marten population was depleted in the majority of the southern part of their range with only a few small populations remaining in the northern 48. In Minnesota specifically, “Harvest records of the late 1800s indicated marten populations were present in localized areas of Minnesota , including Koochiching and Beltrami Counties in the north – central portion of the state . The last marten in Beltrami County was recorded in 1918 ( Schorger 1942 ) and the last marten trapped in northwestern Minnesota was in 1920 from the Northwest Angle . A small population remained in northeastern Minnesota . Protection from trapping in 1933 in conjunction with suspected migration of martens from Ontario resulted in a gradual population increase in northeastern Minnesota during the 1950s and 1960s ( Mech and Rogers 1977 ).” The area which is now the BWCA and the surrounding region became the last foothold of marten in Minnesota. From there, with increased protection, the marten population began a slow but determined rebound. Marten from this population were also relocated to help re-establish a population in Wisconsin. By 1985, the Minnesota population of marten had rebounded enough to begin a regulated trapping season. Their population is estimated at about 10,000 marten in the state today.
Few animals are as representative of wild spaces as wolves and, at the same time, few animals have been as misunderstood and vilified. From the start of European settlement until the 20th century, a successfully lethal agenda was carried out of bounties, unrestricted hunting, poisoning, and habitat loss. In Minnesota, a bounty system continued from 1849 all the way into the 1960s. By the early 20th century, Minnesota’s northern reaches (in the area which is now the BWCA) was the last viable wolf population in the lower 48. With protection under the endangered species act, wolf populations began rebounding. The remaining wolves in northern Minnesota acted as the source for restored wolf populations further south in Minnesota and across Wisconsin. Into the 21st century, controversy still surrounds the wolf as its place on an endangered/threatened species list begins to be questioned and as arguments over the ethics and ecological soundness of a wolf hunt continue on. For now, the wolf population in Minnesota remains healthy and fascinating studies through Voyageur National Park and the International Wolf Center provide glimpses into this complex and misunderstood predator.
Similarly to wolves and other large predators, a bounty system remained on black bears in Minnesota into the 1960s. Even after that, bear hunting was not well regulated for a time. A stabled population remained in the area around what is now the BWCA, but bears were soon mostly eliminated from less-remote parts of the state. Since that time, Minnesota has supported a healthy population of black bears alongside a regulated annual hunting season. There are still occasional negative run-ins between bears and people as bears are particularly good at finding their way into improperly stored food. Each year there are one or two bears in the BWCA due to associating people and campsites with free food.
Though deer are fairly rare in the BWCA today (estimates of 1 per square mile) it’s worth mentioning them because the huge role they’ve played as a species in the region. Historically, deer were common in central and southern Minnesota. As widespread farming and logging began turning forest land into ideal habitat for deer, their populations began exploding. As caribou fled north, white tailed deer filled in the space, and that shift in populations is what many people in the iron range became used to. An abundant hunting culture developed around a deer population which has gone up and down. By the late 1990s, with a string of milder winters, the deer population surged up. Currently, white-tail numbers dropped after some harsher winters. Deep snow is tough on white tailed deer, whose long legs sink deep into the snow. A deer having to work harder to move around is more likely to starve and less likely to avoid predation. On that front, wolf predation too often gets brought up in discussion. Predator’s are easy to blame when prey species plummet. An point can be made that, in a functioning ecosystem like the BWCA, nature will balance itself. If the deer population goes up, the wolf population goes up and then deer go back down and wolves go back down. However, wolves are not the only thing that kills deer and, in actuality, harsh winters and disease have a much larger role to play in the health of deer populations.
There are two Caribou Lakes in the BWCA, one on either side of the Gunflint Trail. Unlike Crocodile Lake nearby however, Caribou was named for an animal that lived here, even somewhat recently. Once, Caribou was the most abundant member of the deer family to call northern Minnesota home. They ranged in deep, mature forests across the north and around the Great Lakes. All that changed as European settlement moved in. As forested habitat fragmented, caribou could no longer move around the landscape as freely. As the most migratory of our native ungulates, caribou rely on vast swaths of open space to calve and raise those young. As forests were logged, white tailed deer began moving into caribou ranges bringing with them the fatal parasitic brain worm and inadvertently increasing the wolf population. Caribou do not reproduce quickly. They take longer to mature and have fewer calves when they do than deer or moose. As increasing deer populations encouraged an increase in wolf populations, the caribou began to take a hit. All of these factors drove the caribou from the state by the 1930s. A few straggler caribou were spotted in Minnesota into the 1980s, but they were shadows of a formerly abundant species, not a sign of their return. All attempts at a reintroduction failed and by 2017, all woodland caribou were gone from the lower 48. Caribou populations in canada also have continued to struggle in the southern part of their range. As a species which requires large, untampered wild spaces, they are particularly vulnerable to a changing and ever developing world. Personally, this is an animal I wish I could have seen. They are such a unique and special ungulate and they had an important role in the ecological history of the BWCA. Unfortunately, they are a species which will likely never return.
Lynx are a mid-sized, reclusive wild cat with large feet and thick fur perfectly adapted to northern climates. During the fur trade, they were trapped similarly to mink, beaver, marten, and wolverine. As habitat and climate have allowed their close relative the bobcat to move north, the lynx population has been under increasing threat. Recent studies though have shown a still-healthy breading population of lynx in Minnesota which is incredible news considering their threatened status in the lower-48. Northern Minnesota is the southern edge of their range in the middle part of the continent, and the BWCA provides a perfect, large wild space for these reclusive cats to survive. As long as the snowshoe hare population remains healthy, the lynx should be able to persist here in Minnesota.
Sources and Further Reading:
Minnesota Moose: An Analysis of Moose Decline in Minnesota – Maggie Gleason
Historical Perspectives on the Reintroduction of Fishers and Martens – WILLIAMS W BRONWYN
Response of the Common Loon to Recreational Pressure in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Northeastern Minnesota – James Robert Titus, 1979