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Species at risk: Whether obscure or high-profile, decline in any native species is cause for concern, experts say

The Karner blue butterfly is listed as an Endangered species in Minnesota and wherever else it is found. (Photo/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)1 / 11
The least tern is an endangered shorebird species. (Photo/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)2 / 11
The piping plover is a small, stocky, sandy-colored bird resembling a sandpiper and is listed as a threatened species. (Photo/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)3 / 11
An unidentified U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee and another man hold an endangered pallid sturgeon in a boat on the Yellowstone River in North Dakota in this 1995 photo. (Photo/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)4 / 11
The Topeka shiner is among the species listed federally as endangered in Minnesota. (Photo/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)5 / 11
The mantle magazine of winged mapleleaf, a mussel species listed as endangered in Minnesota and wherever else it is found. (Photo/ Bernard Sietman, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources-U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)6 / 11
Red knot, a shorebird listed as a threatened species wherever found. (Photo/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)7 / 11
The Northern-long eared bat is listed as a threatened species. (Photo/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)8 / 11
This photo was taken of aThis photo Dakota skipper perched on a prairie lily in a critical habitat area in North Dakota. Dakota skipper is a federally threatened species.9 / 11
The iconic bald eagle, America's national symbol, is one of the shining success stories of the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The species rebounded after the banning of the insecticide DDT in 1972 and was removed from federal protection in 2007. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department) 10 / 11
A close-up view of a whooping crane photographed at the International Crane Foundation located in Barbaboo, Wis. North America's tallest bird, the whooping crane is an endangered species and occurs only in North America (Photo/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Image Library)11 / 11

The Poweshiek skipperling is a bland-colored butterfly that likely didn't create much of a stir when it was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species in 2014.

But in the big picture, the listing of any native species — whether a high-profile animal or an obscure pollinator such as the Poweshiek skipperling — is cause for concern, officials say.

"I think more obscure species can slip away from our view and not be noticed very much," said Scott Larson, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Ecological Services office in Pierre, S.D. "But what caused them to go — and pollinators in general — on that downward trend is not a good sign for any of us."

Larson's work area covers North Dakota and South Dakota.

In the case of the Poweshiek skipperling, the listing largely reflects a continued decline in the native prairie habitat the butterfly requires, Larson said. The last sighting in North Dakota occurred about 2001, he said.

"It looks like their range where they are still located is in Wisconsin and Michigan and a few spots, but they used to be more common out here in the Dakotas," Larson said. "Certainly, losing native prairie is not helpful to them, but there were some other things going on, as well."

The Poweshiek skipperling is among nine animals and one plant listed in North Dakota by the Fish and Wildlife Service as either threatened or endangered under the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act.

Minnesota has 16 animals and four plant species listed federally.

The distinction between endangered and threatened depends on the likelihood of a particular species going extinct wherever it is found, Larson said. Endangered species are at greatest risk, he said, while threatened species someday could become endangered and face extinction.

"It almost always relates back to the biology, and if we project that it's going to go extinct," Larson said.

When a species is listed, Larson said, the Endangered Species Act puts a variety of "consultation responsibilities" on federal agencies to minimize or avoid negative impacts on the listed species.

"It usually takes recovery actions, and sometimes those are not as difficult as we think," he said.

An example is the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1972, which led to a rebound in both bald eagle and peregrine falcon populations. Peregrine falcons were removed from federal protection in August 1999, and bald eagles were delisted in August 2007.

The bald eagle widely is considered the shining star of the Endangered Species Act.

"The biggest thing seemed to be getting rid of DDT," Larson said. "So, after we kind of got that worked through the system and that was no longer holding them back, even though our habitat is probably a little less, they're still rebounding and it seems like they're not habitat-limited by any means yet."

State vs. federal

State listings can differ from federal listings. In Minnesota, for example, the Department of Natural Resources has a document 18 pages long listing species the state agency considers either endangered, threatened or of special concern.

The contrast reflects geography and differences in definition, said Rich Baker, endangered species coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul.

Those definitions are set in state law and govern the status of a species within Minnesota's boundaries, he said. By contrast, the federal Endangered Species Act looks at the global status of species, Baker said.

"Unlike the federal law, listed species (in Minnesota) receive no protection of their habitat," Baker said. "But like federal law, endangered and threatened species receive a prohibition against take. For the state law, the prohibition is really against killing or destroying or possessing without a permit."

That protection doesn't extend to special concern species, he said.

"The other distinction I'll make for the federal law is the state law does protect plants," Baker said. "Federal law protects plants only when they're on federal lands."

Placing a species on the state list elevates their profile, Baker said. "They become a higher priority for management, for conservation action," he said.

Species also can be listed federally but not in a state where they're found. An example would be the gray wolf, which is federally listed as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in North Dakota but isn't on the DNR's list.

"At this point, the gray wolf is doing quite well in Minnesota," Baker said. "The reason it's been listed and delisted multiple times is because there is debate as to how to interpret the federal law and how to apply the federal definition of endangered."

In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department doesn't compile a state list of endangered or threatened species, but it does have a State Wildlife Action Plan. Updated in 2015, the plan highlights 115 "Species of Conservation Priority"—an increase of 15 species from the 2005 version of the document—and possible strategies for preserving those species. The list includes 47 birds, two amphibians, nine reptiles, 21 mammals, 22 fish, 10 freshwater mussels and four insects.

The Game and Fish plan doesn't outline specific management actions.

"There simply is not the knowledge point to compile such a document," the executive summary states.

Dodging the list

Species may decline in numbers because of habitat loss or other factors and appear headed for federal protection before settling out at a lower level that becomes the new normal, Larson of the Fish and Wildlife Service said. That's essentially what happened with the greater sage grouse, a western species considered for federal protection that ultimately wasn't listed, he said.

"Back in 2010, we had found them on that declining trendline that is so worrisome," Larson said. "And when we made that decision five years later, there were enough things that had happened, some key things, to kind of change the direction of that trendline and so we didn't list them."

Several partners, including the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the sage grouse issue, he said.

"They did a lot of really good work either to adjust management plans for land they managed or, in the case of NRCS, work with private landowners to get some really good things on the ground," Larson said. "Those agencies made a difference in that listing decision."

Service biologists also work to reintroduce species. A high-profile example in North Dakota is the effort to keep pallid sturgeon from going extinct. The prehistoric fish native to the Missouri River is an endangered species in North Dakota.

That effort includes raising pallid sturgeon at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery in North Dakota and the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery in South Dakota, Larson said.

Crews also capture pallid sturgeon above Lake Sakakawea that may have been in the river since before construction of the Garrison Dam began in 1947, he said.

"They capture those up there and spawn them so we can continue the genetics of those fish because we don't know of very much, if any, natural spawning still going on up above Sakakawea," Larson said. "So, we're trying to keep those genetics going, and at Garrison Dam Fish Hatchery, they bring those in the spring and they've been really successful at spawning them in captivity and releasing some of the small ones back."

Listing options

There are a couple of ways a species can get listed under the Endangered Species Act, Larson said. Partners such as universities or state game and fish agencies can provide information for the Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate, he said. Or—more commonly—groups or individuals can gather information they believe supports federal protection and petition the service to list a particular species.

"That starts a process for us to go ahead and evaluate it," Larson said. "Over the past five or 10 years, we have gotten so many evaluations we have had to prioritize which ones we'll do in that time frame."

Species set to be evaluated between now and fiscal year 2023 include the yellow-banded bumblebee this year, the monarch butterfly in FY2019, the northwestern moose population — moose in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — in FY2020, the Plains spotted skunk and regal fritillary butterfly in FY2022 and the little brown bat and golden-winged warbler in FY2023, Larson said.

"This by no means indicates we're going to list these" species, he said. "These are just the ones we're going to evaluate, see if they do fit (the criteria). Over the last number of years — I don't know if there's a good rate — but it seems like the ones we look at, we actually propose for listing less than 50 percent of those we evaluate."

ON THE LIST

Here's a look at species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and believed or known to exist in North Dakota and Minnesota.

North Dakota

• Whooping crane: Endangered, wherever found, except where listed as an experimental population.

• Poweshiek skipperling (butterfly): Endangered, wherever found.

• Pallid sturgeon: Endangered, wherever found.

• Least tern: Endangered, interior population.

• Gray wolf: Endangered.

• Red knot (a shore bird): Threatened, wherever found.

• Piping plover (Atlantic Coast and Northern Great Plains populations): Threatened, wherever found, except those areas where listed as endangered.

• Dakota skipper (butterfly): Threatened, wherever found.

• Northern long-eared bat: Threatened, wherever found.

• Western prairie fringed orchid: Threatened.

Minnesota

• Rusty patched bumble bee: Endangered, wherever found.

• Karner blue butterfly: Endangered, wherever found.

• Higgins eye (pearlymussel): Endangered, wherever found.

• Winged mapleleaf (mussel): Endangered, wherever found, except where listed as an experimental population.

• Sheepnose mussel: Endangered, wherever found.

• Snuffbox mussel: Endangered, wherever found.

• Piping plover (Great Lakes watershed Distinct Population Segment): Endangered; states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and province of Ontario.

• Topeka shiner: Endangered, wherever found, except where listed as an experimental population.

• Poweshiek skipperling: Endangered, wherever found.

• Spectaclecase mussel: Endangered, wherever found.

• Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake: Threatened, wherever found.

• Dakota skipper (butterfly): Threatened, wherever found.

• Gray wolf: Threatened, Minnesota.

• Northern long-eared bat: Threatened, wherever found.

• Red knot: Threatened, wherever found.

• Canada lynx: Threatened, wherever found in contiguous U.S.

• Minnesota dwarf trout lily: Endangered.

• Prairie bush-clover: Threatened.

• Western prairie fringed orchid: Threatened.

• Leedy's roseroot: Threatened.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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