If you were to write a song about “finding an alligator in East Bethel and an armadillo on the road to Duluth,” it would plausibly sound like something Minnesota native son Bob Dylan would have penned in the more “chemically enhanced” phase of his lengthy and legendary music career.
But that tune would be a product of history, not herbs, as Minnesota has seen its fair share of non-native wildlife pop up from time to time.
The story from the opening weekend of Minnesota deer season of a hunter shooting a nice buck, and a 3-foot-long alligator just north of the Twin Cities, at first blush seemed like the latest, “wow, what next” bit of news among all of the 2020 weirdness. As he related on his Facebook page, Corey Klocek of Zimmerman, Minn., first shot a 10-point buck, and then a ‘gator, on Saturday, Nov. 7, near East Bethel. Finding wildlife that has no history or biology in the state is, in fact, common, with plenty of recent examples, per the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
(Un)welcome to Minnesota
In May of this year, conservation officer Scott Staples, who works out of the DNR office in Carlton, picked up an armadillo on the side of a road near Wrenshall. They figure it hitched a ride on a truck coming from Texas or somewhere else in the hard-shelled animals’ normal range in the southeast quarter of the country.
In late 2013 and early 2014, there were plenty of sightings of a pronghorn antelope in the fields and forests of northwestern Minnesota. That region, near Thief River Falls, is also where DNR conservation officer Tony Elwell shot a mule deer in January 2019 that later tested positive for brainworm. In both cases, the animals likely wandered far away from their normal range in western North Dakota or points farther west.
Cougars have been popping up on remote trail cameras with more regularity in recent years. At least one of them was fitted with a radio collar in the Black Hills of South Dakota and was tracked all the way to northwestern Minnesota. Another cougar killed by a car near Bemidji in 2009 underwent DNA tests that revealed it was likely from the Badlands of western North Dakota.
And John Williams, the Bemidji-based Northwest Region wildlife manager for the DNR, said his office was closely monitoring a herd of caribou lingering just on the north side of the Canadian border near Lake of the Woods in recent years, but did not find evidence that any of them crossed into Minnesota.
There are few reports of mule deer or antelope causing any problems to the native ecosystem. There is also little expectation that they could or would establish a base and reproduce here. Although that could be changing as the climate changes, and the range of some animals — moose, for example — is shifting accordingly.
“Usually, species are governed by the natural things that allow them to expand or contract,” Williams said. “Moose are a good example of that. Minnesota is really on the southern end of the moose range, and now that we’re getting warmer summers, I think it stresses the moose population.”
The alligators and caimans (a relative of the crocodile) that one hears about popping up in the Minnesota wilderness from time to time do not come here on their own. In almost all cases, they are pets that are either released into the wild by their owners, or escape a Minnesota home and find temporary refuge in our many waterways. In August, a place like Aitkin County, which is filled with swamps, marshes and other wetlands, cannot feel all that different from the Everglades of south Florida. Although a cold-blooded reptile will not survive a Minnesota winter, and DNR officials noted that the hunter who shot the East Bethel alligator in early November likely only shortened the creature’s life by a few weeks at best.
“Our cold climate up here really limits a lot of things that can survive here,” Williams said. “As the climate moderates, we may be subject to more and more of that.”
The less seen and more problematic issue, especially near the Twin Cities, comes from non-native fish that are released in lakes and can quickly have a negative impact on an aquatic ecosystem.
“To see something really strange is a rarity, but the biggest issue we’ve seen in recent years is people with their koi or goldfish that don’t know what to do with them for the winter, so they dump them in a local pond, not realizing that almost every little body of water is connected some way,” said James Fogarty, a conservation officer in Scott County. He added that the watershed district in Carver County recently removed thousands of invasive goldfish from a pond there. “They can be devastating if there are native fish trying to survive off the same food they’re eating.”
Sunshine state slithers
That reptiles like crocodiles and snakes survive and thrive in a place like south Florida presents its own set of problems for wildlife biologists dealing with invasive species in the southern states. The problems started in the 1980s, when at least a few Burmese pythons were brought to the U.S. from southeast Asia as pets and were eventually released or escaped from homes near the Everglades. Today, some wildlife experts estimate there are hundreds of thousands of Burmese pythons in the region, and they have been devastating to the native population of mammals such as bobcats and opossums, with Florida Fish and Wildlife strongly encouraging the killing of any of the constricting snakes found on private land, no license or permit required.
In Minnesota, conservation officers ask that you check with law enforcement first — as the hunter in East Bethel did before shooting the rogue ‘gator. In the fall of 2019, Fogarty assisted a Prior Lake family who found a caiman floating listlessly in the cold water when taking out their dock for the winter.
“If they see something that doesn’t belong like an alligator or a monitor lizard or something that they can identify... they can certainly call their local conservation officer, or dial 9-11 and advise them of what you have,” Fogarty said.