Fieldwork is done, and scientists are at work on their final reports. What do we know so far?
By Cinnamon Janzer
On a spring morning in 1994, Hannah Texler, a plant ecologist with Minnesota’s Department of Natural resources, hiked across a steep bluff in southern Minnesota. Midway through her trip, surrounded by towering sugar maple, basswood, and red oak trees, a flash of crimson caught her eye. The color belonged to a plant whose long, broad evergreen leaves struck her as unusual, so Texler collected a sample. Later that evening, book in hand, she identified it as a plantain-leaved sedge, an endangered species that hadn’t been spotted in the state since 1903.
Texler is one of hundreds of scientists who, since 1987, have been surveying the state in search of native plants, rare plants and animals, and other flora and fauna for the Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS). The fieldwork portion of the survey wrapped last year, and researchers have begun pivoting to the survey’s more comprehensive report, scheduled to be completed over the next two years. This work is integral to understanding changes in biodiversity—which is experiencing “unprecedented” declines, according to a 2019 UN report—and the impact of those changes on everything from pollinators to climate change.
Funded largely by the state legislature, to date the survey has added more than fifteen thousand new rare plant and animal records and more than ten thousand vegetation plots to the state’s Natural Heritage Information System. The program, which has scoured all eighty-seven Minnesota counties and more than fifteen thousand of its lakes, has already produced maps of all the state’s remaining native prairie lands; research and monitoring of native bees, prairie butterflies, and bat populations, among others; and the production of several books and reports on findings to date.
Carrying out a survey of this magnitude is complicated and difficult. It starts with carefully reviewing satellite imagery. “You go very carefully through every mile of aerial photos. Anything that looks like it might be a natural habitat gets delineated in a map,” said Texler, now a plant survey supervisor on the project. Next, teams get permission to access these habitats from federal, state, and private owners, before taking to the field, pen and paper in hand. “A lot of this is just walking the sites and taking a lot of notes to determine and record what’s there,” she told me. “You have to know as much as possible about all the plants to recognize the rare ones.”
The data Texler and her fellow surveyors gather is then entered into meticulously kept databases at the Department of Natural Resources and shared with NatureServe, a network of detailed scientific data on plants, animals, and ecosystems in North and South America. When it comes to data on biodiversity, “we’re the most important group nobody has ever heard of,” said Sean O’Brien, the non-profit’s president and CEO.
NatureServe is able to show not only where endangered species are across the Americas, but model where they’re likely to be as well. “Our data allows people to determine if their infrastructure will impact known locations of endangered species so they can avoid having that negative impact,” O’Brien said. NatureServe’s data also lets researchers know if the range of a species is increasing or decreasing.
Collection, aggregating, and sharing data from surveys like Minnesota’s, and heritage programs across the continents, allows NatureServe to centralize data that even the federal government relies on, especially after the abrupt termination of the National Biological Information Infrastructure and the removal of its databases in 2012. “If you go back to the Seventies, when the Endangered Species Act was passed, the government didn’t really put into place a system of collecting and evaluating data to see what’s on the list,” O’Brien said. “NatureServe essentially fulfills that role.”
MBS ecologists were also able to compare their findings to the Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey, carried out from 1872 to 1898. As a result, MBS researchers have already been able to glean that over the last hundred and fifty years years, the state has lost fifty percent of its wetlands, forty percent of its forests, and more than ninety-eight percent of its prairies, largely in the name of agriculture and development. However, there have been some encouraging findings as well. “We still have something like six million acres of peatlands in northern Minnesota,” Texler said, referring to the vast wetlands, which are important for storing carbon.
In many ways, the most significant aspect of this survey is that it happened at all. “I haven’t seen a lot of other states doing that kind of systematic and comprehensive work,” said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “There are literally thousands of species across the country that are rare and could be endangered, but we just don’t have the basic information about them to know whether they should be protected or not.”
For many states, the problem comes down to money and politics. “It’s a lack of funding and a lack of political will,” Greenwald said. Despite biodiverse ecosystems “affecting our future and our very quality of life, it hasn’t yet gotten into the political consciousness to become a major source of funding. In that context, [Minnesota] is ahead of the curve,” he said.
Texler agreed. “Part of the reason we’ve been able to do this work is that we’ve gotten legislative support this whole time. We’ve had multiple funding sources, but the Minnesota state legislature has given grants through the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund. That has been just vital,” she said, also pointing out that the process has been a collaborative one with valuable contributions such as from University of Minnesota professors and students.
According to the 2019 UN report referenced above, negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress toward eighty percent of the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets related to everything from poverty, hunger, and health to cities, oceans, and land: “loss of biodiversity is therefore shown to be not only an environmental issue, but also a developmental, economic, security, and social and moral issue as well.”
“Often with endangered species, we don’t have a good sense of where their remaining habitats are. If you identify these critical places and protect them, you’re almost certainly going to protect a Dakota Skipper butterfly and other rare species associated with these habitats, and they won’t need to be protected under the Endangered Species Act,” Greenwald told me. Considering that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a backlog of more than five hundred species waiting for protection, survey data is extremely important for informing local endangered species laws and conservation efforts.
O’Brien would like to see every state contribute to NatureServe the way Minnesota has been, but many states have programs that are simply too small or too cash-strapped to do so. Some, he said, barely have functioning programs at all. In the absence of investment and leadership on the federal level, “it’s challenging to manage the sort of patchwork way that different programs operate and the way that different states choose to fund their programs,” he said.
“Diversity and biodiversity in species are part of what makes our world interesting and beautiful. By destroying them, we’re essentially making our world a more lonely place,” Greenwald said. In addition to all of the human-focused reasons for maintaining biodiversity through surveys like Minnesota’s and relevant conservation efforts, there is a moral imperative as well, he said. “From an ethical standpoint, species have a right to exist the same way that we do. Do we really want to be the branch on the tree of life that cuts down all the other branches?” ■
Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based journalist who has published with outlets like the Guardian, Civil Eats, Pacific Standard, and more.
Cover image: public domain.
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