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A field guide to Minnesota's iconic animals

Here are tips for those on the trail of gray wolves, lynx, black bears and more.

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A male Canada lynx kitten is seen at the Minnesota Zoo in August 2012.
A male Canada lynx kitten is seen at the Minnesota Zoo in August 2012. The lynx are found in dense forests in Canada and northern Minnesota.
Courtesy of Minnesota Zoo

Minnesota is proud of its wildlife — even the state’s professional basketball teams are named after lynx and wolves. But spotting these cats and dogs in the wild isn’t as simple as catching a game at the Target Center. They are secretive animals and often stick to the dense forest. Fortunately, wolves, lynx and other iconic Minnesota creatures leave behind evidence — like footprints or poop — that tell us what they’re up to.

Dave Schmidt is a fluent interpreter of these wildlife signs. He’s a volunteer at the Minnesota Zoo and a certified Minnesota Master Naturalist. He says that while many animals are elusive, their signs are not. 

“If you’re observant where you’re walking, you’re going to potentially see scat,” said Schmidt, referring to the scientific term for animal poop. He suggests checking muddy areas for animal footprints — known as tracks.

Even small parks near cities and towns can reveal traces of foxes, turkeys, deer and more. But Schmidt says Minnesota’s most famous animal residents often stay further afield. He offers tips for those on the trail of five of the state’s iconic creatures.

Common loon

Minnesota is home to about 12,000 loons.
Minnesota is home to about 12,000 loons, more than any other states except Alaska. The common loon is Minnesota's state bird.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

The common loon is the most conspicuous creature on this list. In the summer, loons can be found in open water of northern Minnesota lakes. And they love to make noise. Loons will howl to defend their territory, warn of impending danger or let each other know their whereabouts. 

“It’s a very haunting sound,” says Schmidt. While loons mostly hang out up north in summer, Schmidt says they can be spotted on lakes further south during the spring and fall migration seasons.

Gray wolf

More than 2,000 wolves live in Minnesota.
More than 2,000 wolves live in Minnesota, the second largest wolf population in the U.S.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

Like loons, wolves are also northern Minnesota regulars. But they are tougher to spot — wolves usually hide if they sense people nearby. Still, if you scour the mud and snow of the North Woods, “it’s highly likely to see tracks,” Schmidt says. 

Wolf footprints are large — their front paws are over 4 inches long — but otherwise look like a domestic dog’s. But a wolf’s poop doesn’t look like dog poop, thanks to the wolves’ wild diet. 

“You’re going to see remnants of what they ate in the scat,” says Schmidt, pointing to bone fragments and fur of their prey.

Moose

Moose are Minnesota's largest animal.
Moose are Minnesota's largest animal. They can exceed 1,000 pounds. Moose live in northwestern and northeastern parts of Minnesota.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

Moose spend most of their time in the wetlands of northern Minnesota, says Schmidt, noting they can sometimes be seen at road crossings. He says their poop looks like large chocolate-covered raisins — though he doesn’t recommend a taste test — about half an inch long. Their tracks look like two crescent moons with the concave parts pointed toward each other, about 6 inches top to bottom.

Black bear

The black bear is the only species of bear in Minnesota.
The black bear is the only species of bear in Minnesota.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

Black bears generally keep to the northern half of the state, though Schmidt says some bears have been straying south in recent years. Their hind footprints are long and arched like a human’s, while their front footprints are much wider. 

Schmidt says bears eat almost anything they get their paws on — from squirrels to blueberries — meaning their scat can appear equally variable. Black bears may seem scary, but Schmidt says they generally keep to themselves and don’t pose a major threat to people. Still, “it’s always good to be cautious,” he says. If you encounter a bear, do not approach it, Schmidt added.

Canada lynx

The Canada lynx is a rare wildcat in Minnesota.
The Canada lynx is a rare wildcat in Minnesota. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the lynx as a federally threatened species.
Jiwon Choi | MPR News

As their name suggests, the Canada lynx is most commonly found in our neighbor to the north. Here in our state, “the best place to see a lynx is at the Minnesota Zoo,” says Schmidt. Still, it is possible to discover lynx footprints in the northern Arrowhead region of Minnesota, especially in the snow. 

“Their tracks are pretty unique,” says Schmidt. Lynx have fur on the bottom of their feet “like they have mittens on,” he says. The fur obscures a clear imprint of a lynx’s foot pads on the ground, making a lynx’s tracks distinct from a bobcat’s.

On Friday afternoon MPR News is heading to the Minnesota Zoo! We'll be talking with zookeeper Kristi Molitor about some of these iconic animals. What questions do you have about Minnesota wildlife? Any stories to share? Let us know here and we'll try to get them answered during our livestream Friday.

Looking for more news from the outdoors? Check out our full coverage here and download our Outside in MN app where you'll find guides, outdoor events near you and weather updates. Get it on iOS or Google Play.