Minnesota Conservation Summary

A landscape formed and reformed by ice, water, fire and humans, Minnesota lies at mid-continent, at the intersection of North America’s prairie, eastern broadleaf forest and boreal forest. Ice advanced over the state in successive glaciations depositing till, scouring bedrock and creating massive erosional rivers. Eventually, glacial meltwater collected in enormous lakes such as Glacial Lake Agassiz, which once occupied an area larger than the present Great Lakes combined. As the climate warmed following the glacial era, frequent fires maintained the composition and treeless structure of prairies in western Minnesota. In the northeast and along the prairie-forest border, fires created a shifting mosaic of forests and woodlands. Aspen-birch, pine and oak woodlands tolerated droughty, exposed sites. Forests of fire-sensitive and shade-tolerant species such as white cedar, sugar maple and basswood were restricted to moist, fire-protected sites.

Fires were part of a legacy of human influence on the landscape, one that also included hunting of bison, moose, ducks and other game, and gathering of native plants such as wild rice and blueberries. Containment of wildfires characterizes modern management of the landscape, but recent large forest fires in the border lakes of northern Minnesota following a major blowdown are a reminder of the role of fire in shaping the state’s ecosystems.

Today, Minnesota is rich in fresh water, with over 12,000 lakes, 69,000 miles of natural rivers and streams, and 10 million acres of wetlands. At the headwaters of one of the three major drainages in the state, the Mississippi River is easily crossed on stepping stones at Itasca State Park. Cascading streams that dissect the cliffs of Lake Superior are a dramatic expression of another major drainage to the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes. Hudson Bay, the third primary drainage, receives water exiting the northeastern forests through the Rainy River and from the prairie region through the Red River. The state’s shallow lakes, marshes, wetlands and rivers are important waterfowl and shorebird habitat. Nearly one-quarter of North America’s Lesser Scaup migrate through the state each spring along the Mississippi flyway. A prominent expression of Minnesota’s extensive groundwater resource emerges at the surface in mineral-rich seepages. Calcareous fens with distinctive assemblages of rare plants have been documented at over 200 seepage locations.

The most widespread human influences now are agriculture, logging, mining, energy development, recreation and residential development. At present, only about 1 percent of the approximately 18 million acres of prairie recorded in the 1850s remains due to conversion to cropland. Drainage and development have eliminated about half of the wetlands historically present in the state with many prairie counties retaining less than 5 percent of their wetlands.

Distinctive Species and Characteristic Habitats

Minnesota has healthy populations of several notable species that are otherwise rare in the lower United States. Timber wolf and bald eagle populations are the largest of these species in the lower 48 states. Numerous Neotropical migrant bird species venture to the state during their breeding season. Minnesota is one of a handful of states with a significant moose population, although numbers have declined dramatically in the northwestern part of the state in the past two decades, possibly in relation to climate change.

Some lesser-known but notable species include Nabokov’s blue butterfly and the pugnose shiner, a small minnow that prefers clear lakes and streams with abundant submerged vegetation. Rare mussels, including the ellipse and monkeyface, have been the focus of detailed studies of glochidia (larval mussel) brooding behaviors, periods of gravidity, and host fishes. Prairie habitats support 375 populations of small white lady’s slipper, well over half of all North American locations. This rare orchid is one of 45 species of orchids found in the state. Aquatic plant surveys conducted in over 1,500 lakes have documented 976 new records of rare aquatic plants, including olivaceous Guadalupe Island naiad, a Great Lakes region endemic.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts resulting from the Minnesota County Biological Survey

The Minnesota County Biological Survey, a systematic, statewide survey of rare species, native plant communities and functional landscapes, is partially funded by the state’s Environmental Trust Fund. Completed in 72 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, MCBS has collected over 16,000 rare feature records and has mapped over 42,000 native plant community polygons. Data from the survey have been used to guide:

  • Conservation by state and local units of government of the native forests, prairies, and bedrock outcrops lining the Minnesota River valley. The establishment of Cedar Mountain Scientific and Natural Area is one example of this effort.
  • Thousands of acres of Aspen Parkland brushland and prairie protection in state wildlife management areas and natural areas. An Important Bird Area of 400,000 acres was nominated in the Parkland in coordination with Audubon Society. It provides critical habitat for species such as the yellow rail, Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow, and marbled godwit.
  • Conservation action in central Minnesota’s rolling prairie-forest landscape, including technical assistance and stewardship plans through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Prairie Bank program and acquisition of prairies by The Nature Conservancy as an outcome of its ecoregional plan.
  • Development of monitoring protocol to improve tracking of effects of prairie management practices in coordination with the MN DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and TNC.
  • Collaborative management planning by a county, federal, state and private partnership known as Sand Lake Seven Beavers of a 40,000-acre site featuring the headwaters of several rivers, including the St Louis River, the second-largest river entering Lake Superior.


One of the major challenges for conservation of Minnesota’s ecosystems and species is the destruction and fragmentation of habitat from development. Residential development is expanding from large cities and has accelerated in rural parts of the state in the last two decades due to new and second homes on lakeshores, river bluffs, forestlands and other scenic sites.

Climate change will likely have a major impact. The state’s expansive peatlands could be a bellwether of ecosystem change due to their location at the southwestern extent of North America’s boreal peatlands. It’s possible that change could rapidly accelerate peat decomposition leading to the release of large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

Minnesota’s Future

These challenges are large, but the outlook for Minnesota’s ecosystems and species is hopeful. The citizens of the state consistently support natural resources. At the landscape scale, over one million acres of the state’s northern rivers, lakes, and forests are federally designated as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. The most diverse patterned peatland in the country (Red Lake) is one of 18 protected peatland Scientific and Natural Areas, collectively encompassing 146,000 acres. Citizens, under the direction of the MN DNR,enthusiastically conduct annual monitoring of the state’s iconic bird, the common loon, and participate in frog and toad call surveys. Since 1985, volunteers have endured the prairie heat to monitor populations of the western prairie fringed orchid. Most recently, in the midst of the 2008 global economic downturn, Minnesotans approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment, providing substantial annual funding for conservation of prairies, forests and wetlands, and enhancement of water resources.

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