DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- The loon could retreat into Canada, leaving Minnesota for good by 2080, if climate change continues to deteriorate the bird’s habitat in the state.
Tamarac wildlife biologist Wayne Brininger says climate change has happened gradually for millions of years, and plants and animals have been able to adapt to the slow changes. The problem is, habitats are beginning to change faster as climate change happens faster, and the flora and fauna can’t keep up.
Minnesota’s climate is changing faster than most, studies are showing. Rather than gradually easing into a winter freeze and easing back out into a spring thaw, like it used to, Minnesota is losing its normal winters and beginning to experience more extreme weather events, which could spell trouble for the state bird and other area wildlife.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, the state just keeps getting warmer and is receiving more precipitation, though the precipitation seems to come in “hundred year flood events” and then completely stops, causing flooding and then drought, neither of which are friendly to area wildlife. Minnesota has warmed 2.9 degrees between 1895 and 2017 and now gets an average of 3.4 more inches of precipitation, though the most dramatic changes have happened in the last several decades and are expected to continue.
Rob Baden, Detroit Lakes DNR wildlife manager, says many studies are showing that the state is experiencing more extreme precipitation events, droughts, as well as winter freeze-thaw patterns. He says numerous species in the area, including deer, walleye, ticks, turkeys, pheasants, snowshoe hares, and others as well as a number of plants, could be affected by these changes.
Experts say some species will do even better in Minnesota, but some may struggle. Some may straight up leave.
Everything is connected
“Deer, turkeys, pheasants, some of those species that people really like to hunt, if they don’t have to spend as much time digging through snow, looking for food, they’re going to probably do better,” said Baden.
While this may sound good to the deer that would thrive under these conditions, it may be too good to be true for the hunters trying to tag them. Because lakes, ponds, and wetlands are freezing later and thawing sooner, access to some hunting grounds is limited, according to one a testimonial posted on the DNR website by Bryan Lueth, a Minnesota hunter.
Not to mention, the pests will be thicker.
“More warm weather, less winter, less snow, I would say more ticks,” said Baden, adding that when the ticks fall off their host in the spring, fewer will die off if there’s less snow and warmer weather.
Baden says deer and ticks numbers are also correlated. More deer is a strong indicator that there will be more ticks because deer are a prime feasting species for the parasite. More deer also means a higher potential for the animals to cause car accidents
Wildlife that may not fare so well are species like the snowshoe hare and ruffed grouse, both of which need snow to survive.
“Snowshoe hares, that’s a species that turns white due to daylight times. Well, if you’re a white snowshoe hare in January, and there’s no snow, it’s going to be pretty easy for predators to find you,” said Baden.
The ruffed grouse also uses the snow, burrowing into it to insulate itself from the cold temps. Without that insulation, many grouse would freeze to death.
And extreme cold snaps, like the most recent polar vortex, Winter Storm Jayden, are thought to become more frequent with climate change as well.
“Most species can tolerate extreme heat, but those cold temperatures, that’s what’s limiting for a lot of our species,” said Baden, explaining that in some cases, that natural die off is necessary to control populations.
In other cases, it can be detrimental to a species, particularly if their environment has changed because of the climate or if they are more susceptible to disease because of it -- and an increase in the number of ticks is just one indicator that diseases will become more common for wildlife.
In the warmer months, increased rainfall spells its own trouble for species like ducks, muskrats, and wild rice.
“If you’re a duck or a muskrat or something when you’re nesting...in May and early June, they can’t handle three, four inches of water at a time because the water comes up too quick,” said Baden, adding that wild rice can’t tolerate water level changes either. “It can wipe out an entire wild rice stand, which definitely hurts. A lot of people like to harvest that.”
Walleye are also affected by water changes, just in a different way. They may move to deeper water, as temperatures rise, as they like colder water.
“The warmer the lakes get in the summertime, they’re more conducive to largemouth bass. I know people don’t like to hear that because walleye is king in Minnesota,” said Baden.
Counteracting the change
As the DNR and Tamarac wildlife scientists study these changes in climate, they are also trying to figure out ways to counteract their effects and maintain habitat balance for the wildlife here. Two of the biggest ways they’re looking to do that is by diversifying plants and finding ways to maintain water levels.
“We’re trying to diversify the forests a little bit more and...we’re picking species to replant that tolerate the dryer conditions,” said Baden, though he adds that it’s more complicated than that. There are many factors that go into picking certain seed mixes to plant, so they don’t “put all their eggs in one basket” with one single species.
Adding control structures to lakes to maintain water levels is another way the DNR is counteracting some of these changes, but Baden admits they have a ways to go and, while their actions are based on science, he says it’s not exact.
“You know, it’s science, and science isn’t complete truth or fact. It changes,” he said. “We’re trying to make educated guesses. I mean, we don’t have all the answers.”
For more information on how climate change is affecting the state and ways the DNR is working to counteract that change, people can visit https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/climate/climate_change_info/index.html.