Bison, pigeons & wolverines: A glimpse into the past

We like to think of Minnesota past as a paradise of wildlife, but the paradise may have been lost longer ago than we think. I recently received a copy of “A Century of Minnesota Wild Life” by Walter J. Breckenridge published in Minnesota History, a publication of the Minnesota Historical Society, in June, September, 1949. Breckenridge was the director of the Minnesota Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. It offers remarkable insight regarding the state’s native game species.

While the state was settled by Europeans during the 1800s, the first explorers arrived in the 1600s, followed by fur traders. The records quoted by Breckenridge begin in the early 1800s, when some game species, such as bison, were already in decline. William Keating, who explored the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in 1823, noted that few bison remained. His party saw an abundance of passenger pigeons, but its hunter only killed two or three dozen birds in a distance of over 200 miles. On the same expedition, travelling from Lake of the Woods to Lake Superior along the border lakes, Keating wrote, “From Rainy Lake to Lake Superior we did not meet with a single quadruped. The only animals we saw were about 30 or 40 birds, chiefly ducks.”

In western Minnesota, bison remained numerous until the mid 1800s. Their early abundance was astounding. In the spring of 1801, trader Alexander Henry reported seeing a continuous line of dead bison floating in the Red River south of Pembina after they apparently drowned while attempting to cross the river on poor ice. The rotting carcasses continued floating past for two days, creating an overwhelming stench. In 1866, R.M. Probstfield reported seeing a bison herd numbering “10,000 or 100,000 for all we could tell” on the Dakota bank of the Red River. The last authentic report of bison in the state was a group of four in Norman County in 1880. Henry H. Sibley thought the last bison east of the Mississippi (in Wisconsin) were two killed by Sioux hunters along the Trempealeau River in 1832.

Elk seem to have disappeared in the early 1900s. Breckenridge writes that remnant animals were found in Aitkin, Itasca, Kittson and Roseau counties in 1890. According to the state game commission, they were only found near Thief River Falls in 1894. Breckenridge interviewed an old hunter and trapper in that area who said he had tracked down and killed two elk in 1907, an account he believed authentic. In 1935, elk originating from Wyoming (Breckenridge says they are from the Itasca Park herd), were released north and west of the Red Lake. Due to conflicts with agriculture, he did not believe elk would recover in the state.

Woodland caribou lingered somewhat longer than elk in the northern forests, where they were once common. They were present along the North Shore in 1890 and then disappeared after that. Caribou hung on in the Big Bog north of Upper Red Lake into the 1930s, dwindling to three animals in 1938 when 10 animals from Saskatchewan were introduced. By the time Breckenridge was writing in the late 1940s, they were believed to have disappeared, although occasional animals wandered into the Northwest Angle from Canada.

Moose fared better, although Breckenridge provides no historic information about them other than to say they were killed for food in the logging camps in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Moose numbers were so reduced that the state closed the hunting season in 1922. The season did not reopen until 1971.

White-tailed deer were abundant originally in southern, central and western Minnesota. Sibley recorded an Indian band killing 2,000 deer (think about that) in a winter hunt in southern Minesota and northern Iowa in 1841. Schoolcraft reported they were common around Lake Itasca in 1832. There are no early reports of deer from border country or the North Shore. They began appearing in that country in the 1890s in the aftermath of early logging. By 1900, they were abundant in the Superior National Forest. The last deer in the Minneapolis area were 17 killed in a swamp by a hunter who lived near Minnehaha Falls. Breckenridge said at the time of his writing, deer had returned to every county in the state.

Some animals once existed in the state, but were never common. Breckenridge could find only record of a pronghorn near Tracy in 1885. Mule deer then, as now, were occasional visitors to the state. He said there were only one or two records of grizzly bear in the Red River Valley, which would have been the extreme eastern portion of their range. As for cougars, there were only seven or eight authentic records, with the last one killed near Detroit Lakes in 1897. Breckenridge notes, “All the numerous reports of Minnesota cougars in recent years remain in the rumor class, or at best they are unsubstantiated sight records.” Wolverines were always rare, but a few appear in the reports from early fur traders. One was taken near the Rainy River in 1894, another in St. Louis County in 1918 and one was “dug out” by a farmer north of Bemidji in 1923.

Despite centuries of trapping, populations of most Minnesota furbearers have been resilient. Beavers, the dominant fur of the fur trade era, had dwindled to the point they needed complete protection by the early 1900s, but were well on their way to recovery by the 1940s. Pine marten, valuable and easy to trap, may have been extirpated from the state by the combination of overharvest and habitat loss from early logging. They, too, have recovered. Fisher and otter dwindled, too, but are now common. Breckenridge reported that Canada lynx and bobcat populations essentially reversed. In 1870 the Ullmann company sold 2,286 lynx and 43 bobcats. The state harvest in 1945 was 3,085 bobcats and 56 lynx. He noted that what furbearers had increased over historic times were Minnesota’s populations of opossum, spotted skunk and gray fox. 

Breckenridge also addressed a wide variety of game birds, some of which are no longer hunted and would not be recognized as such by modern hunters. Some once-abundant species are either extinct or extirpated from the state. One of these is the passenger pigeon, which was abundant in the times of early explorers, with breeding flocks numbering in the millions and nesting sites covering several square miles. Large nestings occurred in Minnesota into the latter half of the 1800s, with the last one reported in 1882 in Pillsbury north of St. Cloud. The last known passenger pigeon nest was near Minneapolis in 1895.

The trumpeter swan disappeared even earlier. Giacomo Beltrami, traveling in Major Stephen Long’s expedition in 1823, saw large numbers of them on the Lake of the Swans (present day Swan Lake) north of Mankato. They were also common on Jackson County’s Heron Lake. Unfortunately, during their late summer molt, neither swans or their cygnets were able to fly, making them easy prey for settlers. The last breeding record for trumpeters was in Meeker County in 1884 or 85. It was a century before they were reintroduced to the state.

While Breckenridge didn’t believe any other state waterfowl were threatened with extinction, he warned that waterfowl managers would best err on the side of protecting birds rather than setting liberal seasons and bag limits. He pointed out that human population explosion brought about by the Indian treaties of the 1850s had led to the state having nearly half as many duck hunters in the 1880s as the 130,000 who took to the marshes in 1945. While market hunting and spring shooting were allowed prior to 1900, by the 1940s hunters had much better access to hunting areas, allowing them to kill two to three million birds annually, sometimes surpassing the annual production of ducks. He did not address habitat loss.

Pioneer agricultural development allowed two upland species, the prairie chicken and bobwhite quail, to invade the state and overwhelm native sharp-tailed grouse. Entering southeastern Minnesota prior to 1850, the prairie chicken pushed northward to the Manitoba border by 1881. This era was the heyday for upland hunters who would travel to the shooting grounds via train. Increasingly intensive agriculture caused prairie chicken numbers to decline in the early 1900s. Less detail is provided about bobwhites, which were never as numerous or widespread and declined for similar reasons. Notably, Breckenridge makes no mention of wild turkeys.

On the heels of prairie chickens and bobwhites came the ring-necked pheasant and Hungarian partridge, introduced in 1905 and 1913, respectively. Both thrived on the agricultural landscape, with pheasant harvests at the time of Breckenridge’s report topping one million annually. In the north, ruffed grouse held their own, with hunting seasons being closed during years when the birds were at the low ebb of their population cycle.

Shorebirds were once popular with Minnesota hunters. Abundant during the 1800s, species such as curlews and plovers are little known outside the birding world today. One species, the Eskimo curlew, may be extinct, although it is officially regarded as critically endangered. Another endangered bird, the whooping crane, once nested and was hunted in the state. Breckenridge notes that while sandhill cranes fared better than whoopers, migrant flocks just occasionally passed through western Minnesota in the 1940s and only a few pairs nested in the state. He thought it was unlikely sandhills would ever recover to the point where hunting could be allowed. The most unusual bird he lists as a former Minnesota resident was the swallow-tailed kite, which once nested here but is now found in the Gulf States and Florida. He didn’t know why this raptor disappeared from the state.

In the seven decades that have passed since Breckenridge published his report, we’ve continued to see changes in Minnesota’s wildlife populations. It is fair to say state and federal wildlife managers, along with an engaged citizenry, have done remarkable work to protect and restore state’s wild places and the flora and fauna they support. While human development, especially intensive agriculture and urbanization, continue to carve away habitat on land and in the water, we’ve managed to retain the essence of our natural world. Breckenridge would be proud of what we have accomplished.

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By Shawn Perich