On the hunt for rare species

Border trail
The view from the Border Trail across South and North Fowl Lakes toward Canada is spectacular. The cliff face, the open area on top of the cliff, and the talus or rocky field at the bottom of the cliff each have their own community of plants. These are such unusual environments that they are home to many rare and endangered species.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Researchers have found several rare species of plants and animals in Minnesota in the last several years.

When they find such treasures, it's usually not by accident. A hardy band of explorers is out scouring different parts of the state every year, looking for plants and animals we didn't know were there.

MPR's Stephanie Hemphill went along on a recent excursion along the Border Route Trail, less than a mile from Canada, where 60-foot jackpines tower above glistening balsams and spruces.

We leave the trail and strike off through the underbrush. Gradually the trees open up into a clearing, and we're walking on lichen and rock. We stop short at the edge of a cliff.

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In front of us, there's nothing but blue sky. Four hundred feet below us, the forest is so dense, the trees hide broad curves of a river winding into a deep lake.

"This is one of my most special places," said Lynden Gerdes, a botanist with the Department of Natural Resources.

DNR botanist
Lynden Gerdes points to a rare plant on a cliff overlooking North and South Fowl Lakes. Gerdes has discovered several rare plants in northeastern Minnesota, including slender rush (juncus subtilis E. Meyer), rough-fruited fairy bells (disporum trachycarpum) and weak arctic sedge (Carex supina), which hadn't been recorded anywhere in Minnesota since the 1930s.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Just under our feet, Gerdes points to a short plant that looks like a thick fern pushing up from the shallow soil.

"This is a quite unique legume. The common name is sticky locoweed. It was found in the '30s, and to date this is the only area in Minnesota that we know that it occurs," he said.

Sticky locoweed -- or in Latin, oxytropis viscida -- has a purple flower in early summer.

"And since it's a legume, it puts out little peas, little pods," said Gerdes.

Forest detour
A small section of the Border Lakes Trail is rerouted to protect an area rich in rare plant species. DNR researchers are evaluating the area to determine what degree of protection it should have.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

He couldn't answer what the plant's function is in the ecosystem.

"I'm not enlightened enough to say what its greater purpose in life is," said Gerdes. "I know it thrills me on a regular basis. And I would like to think that if Minnesotans got to know it, and knew that it was part of their treasure chest in the state, I think they'd be pretty proud to know it's here, too."

Gerdes is working on the DNR's County Biological Survey. This year the survey is concentrating its efforts in the Border Lakes country.

The cliffs are sandstone, with an overlay of volcanic rock. The unique combination of geology, weather, and native plant communities provides fertile ground for rare plants.

In Minnesota, sticky locoweed (Oxytropis viscida) has been found on only one cliff in Cook County. It is classified as endangered in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Gerdes spent two years doing research here to earn his master's degree. He catalogued 567 species of plants. And he says they're all connected to each other in some way.

"This population doesn't stand alone. It needs the pollinators, it needs the mycorrhizae, it needs, likely, some sort of regime in nature for it to persist, and for the genetics in this little population to mix with another one, so that over time it can withstand changes in climate or weather," he said.

The DNR's County Biological Survey is in its 22nd year. Researchers have poked and prodded the hills and fields and forests of the state, starting with the western prairies. In another eight years, they'll finish up in the peatlands of north central Minnesota.

They haven't identified entirely new species, but they've found 19 plants and three animals in Minnesota for the first time. The animals were all salamanders.

Looking for bats
The DNR's Gerda Nordquist is an expert on mammals, including bats. She uses a "bat detector" that captures bats' signals and converts them to a form humans can hear. She can identify the different types of bats based on their signals.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The survey starts with aerial photographs and satellite images that point to likely sensitive natural habitats. Then comes the grunt work of walking the land to find rare species and record their locations. The DNR has identified about 5,000 areas with significant biodiversity; 10 percent of those are considered outstanding.

Lynden Gerdas's colleague Gerda Nordquist is a mammologist with the DNR, and another member of the County Biological Survey team. She's tracking the bats in this corner of the world.

On a quiet night with a full moon, she drives out to Trout Lake, a short distance up the Gunflint Trail, and pulls out her handy bat detector to see if any of the animals are out and about.

"That's a bat, there, right there," she said as her bat detector starts emitting noises. "It took a little spin around the lake and went back into the trees."

The bat detector captures the bats' signals and converts them to a sound we can hear.

Carex supina
Carex supina, a rare sedge plant, hasn't been seen in Minnesota since it was documented in the 1880s.
Photo by user Kenraiz, via Wikimedia Commons

"From the sounds of that, the quickness and the tone, it's probably a little brown Myotis," said Nordquist. "Did you hear how it got really fast right there? That's when they're pursuing an insect. They increase their speed of emission so they can home right in. They call it a feeding buzz as they're zooming in on the insect."

After checking out the lakeshore, we cruise down the road to look for more bats. Nordquist records each one on a clipboard. She'll share her information in a database designed to track bat populations around the country.

A devastating bat disease called white nose syndrome, first discovered in New York two years ago, has scientists concerned about bat populations everywhere, including Minnesota. Gerda Nordquist says if we lost our bats, it could pose a problem for other species.

"All of our seven species of bats are insect eaters," she said, "so if this very effective predator on noxious insects is removed, what's going to be the impact on forest insect pests or crop pests?"

White-nose syndrome hasn't showed up in Minnesota yet, and the bat populations here seem stable. But Nordquist wants to keep track of them.

Once the DNR finishes its County Biological Survey, that could be the next step -- monitoring the populations that are at risk.