Threatened, Endangered, Exterminated
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The last plains buffalo was shot five years before the state became a territory. The next to become extinct within the state of Wisconsin were the Richardson’s caribou, the American elk, the cougar, the Carolina paroquet, the passenger pigeon (the world’s last was shot in Wisconsin), the peregrine falcon, the pine marten, the trumpeter swan, the whooping crane, the wild turkey, the moose, the fisher, and, in 1922, the common wolverine.
Jump forward to today. First, the bad news: Wisconsin has more than 200 species of flora or fauna listed as either endangered or threatened by state or federal agencies. The state ranks in the middle for species diversity and at-risk status—0 percent of mammals are at risk, but 6.2 percent of fish are at serious risk (the rest are in the middle).
Yet all is not lost. Wisconsin instituted preservation measures long before the federal government did and is consistently recognized by environmental groups for at least trying (one reason so many green groups are here). The fisher, falcon, pine marten, trumpeter swan, and wild turkey have been reintroduced to varying degrees of success.
Perhaps befitting a state in which the International Crane Foundation is headquartered, cranes are making a comeback. The regal, French horn–sounding trumpeter swans, once nearly extinct, are well on the way to the target of 51 breeding pairs by 2020 (they now total about 300 birds in 14 counties). A great big by-the-way: The International Crane Foundation (E11376 Shady Lane Rd., 608/356-9462, www.savingcranes.com) has information on wonderful volunteer opportunities to tramp through central Wisconsin counting the birds—great fun!
In 2000 the state also established nesting sites for whooping cranes over 100,000 acres in central Wisconsin; eventually nests will be found at the Sandhill State Wildlife Area, Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, and two other sites. In 2002, before national media, the first eight whooping cranes made their migration to Florida behind an ultralight plane (most returned). By 2020 hopes are to have 125 of the majestic birds in the state. Most amazing was the return of a nesting pair of piping plovers to the shores of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1999. In the entire Great Lakes only 30 nesting pairs exist, all in Michigan. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed setting aside nearly 200 miles of shoreline—20 in Wisconsin— for critical habitats, and possibly to establish a colony.
One of the most visually amazing birds—the white pelican—has also made a recent comeback. Thank the universe if you spot one in the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
Though never extinct, the bald eagle, once perilously close to vanishing, may have had the most successful recovery of all. The state now harbors about 850 pairs of breeding eagles, and the birds are so prevalent along the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers that certain communities make much of their tourist income because of them. The state is also gobbling up riverine land near Prairie du Sac to continue the comeback.
Wisconsin does take forceful steps to preserve wildlife through its Department of Natural Resources. It was the first state in the United States to designate Natural Areas throughout the state. These vigilantly protected areas harbor fragile geology, archaeology, or plant and animal life; some are even being nudged toward a return to their presettlement ecology.
Absolutely the most intriguing question now is if cougars are preying the woods. Since 1994, more than 300 sightings have been reported and many of these confirmed (the last one supposedly perished in 1908); they’re most likely migrating from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
If there is one endangered fish all Badgers worry about, it’s the perch, especially the yellow perch. In a state that treats fish fries as quasireligious experiences (there is no better fish than perch for a fish fry), plummeting lake perch populations in the early 1990s absolutely freaked out the fish-loving population. But since the turn of the new millennium, sufficient numbers were being seen for the DNR to be “cautiously optimistic.” Trout lovers rejoice—blue-ribbon status streams have increased 1,000 percent in 20 years!
Still, the picture could be much better. Even as many species are rebounding, annually other native species are added to the threatened and endangered lists. Just under 3 percent of native plants are now threatened or endangered. And one-quarter of the state’s species are nonnative, or invasive.
© Thomas Huhti from Moon Wisconsin, 5th Edition