Minnesota’s state species: Their past, present, and uncertain future

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Minnesota’s state species, left to right, are the common loon, pink and white lady’s slipper, walleye, Norway (red) pine, and monarch butterfly // Photos courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota’s official state symbols represent the natural treasures found within the state and remind us of our cultural heritage.

But will Minnesota’s most iconic species still be here in 50 years? We check in to see how five of the most beloved state symbols are faring in the face of a changing climate and loss of habitat, and we find out what steps need to be taken to ensure they will be around to grace Minnesota’s natural landscape for generations to come.

The Common Loon (1961)

Minnesota's state bird, the common loon // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Minnesota’s state bird, the common loon // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

The common loon, Gavia immer, became the official state bird of Minnesota in 1961. The loon is beloved by many Minnesotans for its unique plumage of black-and-white speckled feathers, glossy black head, red eyes, and eerie calls, which reverberate across and define many Minnesota lakes.

Minnesota is home to the largest loon population outside of Alaska, with more than 12,000 birds spending the summer months in and around the state’s 10,000-plus lakes. In a 2013 Minnesota Loon Monitoring Program report, the Minnesota DNR found that the loon population had remained stable from 1994 to 2013. In 2014, however, the National Audubon Society’s Common Loon Conservation Summary listed climate change as major challenge facing Minnesota’s loon population. Loons prefer deeper, cooler, and less populated lakes for their habitat, and the study found that climate-change models predict the loon population could be expected to “decrease in abundance and in distribution” in the decades to come if Minnesota lakes continue to grow warmer.

While the National Audubon Society’s summary did indicate that the loon’s “climate change vulnerability” was low, it also reinforced the DNR’s calls for concern over increased human activity as being harmful to loons. This includes shoreline development, contaminants (especially lead from fishing sinkers), injuries/deaths from entanglement in fishing gear, human disturbances (especially from motor craft), and the acidification of our lakes. The society encouraged Minnesotans, especially lake associations in the critical northern reaches of the state, to understand the effect their water activities can have on the loon and adjust accordingly in order to maintain current loon populations and ensure that this quintessential Minnesotan figure is here to stay.

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