WILDERNESS WILDLIFE AND HABITAT
Photo credit: Ryan Tischer
Wildlife and wildlife habitat are fundamental components of Wilderness. Observing wildlife while we are immersed in wild, natural habitats is the quintessential wilderness experience. For many of us, fishing and hunting are an integral part of our wilderness and are in fact, world-class experiences.
The BWCAW is rich with a diverse and complex mosaic of wildlife habitats; lakes, large and small, deep and shallow, bog ponds rimmed with rich fens, rivers wide and narrow, with white-water rapids and pools. There are cliffs and talus slopes, old growth black spruce swamps, bedrock outcrops, and old growth red and white pine forests and woodlands. The resulting web of intricate biotic and abiotic interactions support varied and rich wildlife communities. For example, consider the astounding diversity of birds: Some 163 species nest here, and at least an additional 100 species use the Boundary Waters, mostly during migration. For many of these birds, the unfragmented forests and pristine waters are essential for their survival.
NMW believes that within Wilderness, aquatic and terrestrial species and communities should be free to function within their evolving native landscapes, without human manipulation. Active management that favors certain species and populations for commercial value or for other human purposes, such as occurs outside Wilderness, is not appropriate within the Boundary Waters. While the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources retained its jurisdiction over fish and wildlife with passage of the 1978 Boundary Waters Wilderness Act, NMW believes that state management activities should be done in a way that is least intrusive and most consistent with wilderness values, and that trends toward a more natural condition.
Recognizing that ecosystems function across boundaries, NMW favors management activities in wildlands adjacent to the Boundary Waters Wilderness that benefit the health of the ecosystem and do not damage its wild character.
Photo Credit: Interlaken Imagery
As top predators and critical keystone species, wolves are central to the ecological health of the Boundary Waters ecosystem. By regulating prey populations, they enable many other species of plants and animals to flourish. Wolves are also at the heart of the way we perceive the BWCAW, and are of enormous spiritual and cultural significance to Native people living near the Boundary Waters, who want to see wolves protected. The thrill of hearing wolves howling in the night, following recent tracks along a portage trail, catching a glimpse of one in a chance encounter or just the knowledge that they are present, gives us the sense that we are wholly and completely immersed in wilderness.
NMW supports the full protection of wolves throughout their range, and is opposed to recreational hunting and trapping of wolves, as well as licenced killing of “problem” wolves, in the BWCAW.
Far from “common,” the sights and sounds of this iconic species as it moves through the lakes, rivers and skies of the wilderness landscape are unforgettable. Watching a loon diving for fish, swimming along with a chick on its back, the graceful takeoffs and landings and their gathering in ever greater numbers as the summer progresses, are treasured memories. Their plaintive wail, melodic yodel and wild tremolo is the music of the Wilderness.
As top predators on freshwater fish, loons are crucial biological indicators of water quality and aquatic ecosystem integrity. NMW supports efforts to monitor loon populations, prey abundance and water quality, and opposes any activities that increase acidity, methylmercury (MeHg), and other heavy metal toxins in aquatic systems. A simple step we can all take to help loons and other waterfowl is to choose alternatives to lead tackle and ammunition. The Pollution Control Agency and the Center for Biological Diversity have good information on the lead shot issue.
For many of us, spotting a moose turns a good wilderness trip into a great one. There’s nothing better than identifying a distant splashing as a bull in velvet, feasting on aquatic vegetation. Or, hearing a tearing and munching that turns out to be a cow and calf browsing their way through a dense thicket of “moose” maple. Sadly, these sightings have become less common. According to the MN DNR, the moose population in Minnesota has declined from an estimated 8,840 in 2006 to 3,150 in 2020, and reproductive success, one of the factors that has the greatest impact on moose survival over time, remains low. Low reproductive success and continued deaths from brainworm and other diseases make it difficult for Minnesota’s moose population to recover.
It seems impossible to imagine the Boundary Waters without its moose. But at one time woodland caribou swam across Boundary Waters lakes, cropped lichen from rock outcrops and trees, and gave wolves and human hunters another dining option. Now they are gone, with no prospect of their coming back in the foreseeable future. The fate of the caribou reminds us that moose may be more vulnerable than they look, and that humans have a role in how their future plays out.
NMW supports the DNR’s suspension of the moose hunting season and the 1854 Authority’s permitting of a subsistence bulls-only hunt. Other actions that might help the moose recovery include reducing the deer population in prime moose range by liberal hunting limits and extending the ban on deer feeding to northeastern counties. Every success in slowing climate change will benefit moose and all Wilderness wildlife and habitats.
Old Growth Red and White Pine Forests and Woodlands
Photo Credit: Nate Ptacek
Majestic red and white pines towering over the landscape are an iconic symbol of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. These giants are an integral part of a dynamic, ever-changing landscape mosaic, dependent on the natural disturbance processes of fire and wind to perpetuate the composition and structure of the forest ecosystems that occur in the Wilderness. The story of old growth red and white pine forests and woodlands, and many other old growth forests in the BWCAW and surrounding landscape, includes a history of logging and fire. By 1920, large areas of old growth red and white pine had been logged off and the intense slash fires that followed favored aspen and birch. Fortunately, many mature, “legacy” pines survived in areas that were skipped by these fires, serving as seed trees for the regenerating forest. With the passage of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978, the Boundary Waters was spared further logging and over half of the Wilderness remains as virgin forest areas. Today, Wilderness travelers enjoy an intimate experience with red and white pines and other old growth conifer forests in the BWCAW as they travel protected near-shore areas, and camp behind sloping bedrock shorelines or perched on bedrock knobs.
NMW supports the perpetuation of red and white pine forests and woodlands through the use of fire as an ecological tool to re-establish conifers and other native vegetation and by efforts to control invasive species at campsites and picnic stopovers, including the temporary or permanent closure of heavily impacted areas within the BWCAW. NMW supports forest management to encourage the regeneration of red and white pine forests and woodlands outside the BWCAW boundaries, where it will not lead to the introduction of invasive species or threaten red and white pine communities in the Wilderness.
Photo Credit: Alex Falconer
Nearly a century of fire suppression has contributed to a dramatic increase in the length of historic natural fire intervals and has inhibited the development of fire-dependent, predominantly conifer forests. Allowing a sufficient number of wilderness wildfires to burn, possibly supplemented by prescribed fires if needed and carefully executed, may enable red and white pine, jack pine and other conifer forests to regenerate, develop and adapt as the climate changes. Read the 2009 study by Drs. Lee Frelich and Peter Reich to learn more about research into the conservation of Boundary Waters forest ecosystems in an era of global warming.
NMW cautiously supports agency efforts to restore a natural fire regime to regenerate, develop and foster resiliency in the boreal conifer forests of the BWCAW ecosystem. Within the Wilderness, NMW generally supports allowing lightning-ignited fires to burn and generally opposes human ignitions. Whether within or outside the Wilderness, we expect agencies to incorporate the most advanced ecosystem and climate science, fire ecology, and existing on-the-ground conditions when considering whether to let lightning-ignited fires burn, and when evaluating the need for prescribed fires. Agencies also need to plan, fund and implement long-term monitoring to determine the level of success in achieving these restoration goals. NMW supports minimum impact techniques within the BWCAW for all fire management activities, including wildfire suppression. Chemical fire retardants, chainsaws, motorboats and aircraft should be used as sparingly as possible, and not at all after the fire is out. NMW supports efforts to minimize risk from wildfire to human development near the BWCAW by following guidelines developed by the National Firewise Communities Program including the use of prescribed burns outside Wilderness boundaries, to reduce the risk of wildfire and to restore and promote resiliency in boreal conifer forests.
Non-native invasive species (NNIS)
The introduction of a new species, either plant or animal, that is able to out-compete its native counterparts (such as purple loosestrife) or dramatically changes physical or biological processes (such as earthworms) can knock an ecosystem badly out of balance. Human activities have introduced a number of these disruptive species into the Boundary Waters ecosystem. NMW supports public education, monitoring, non-chemical removal, and regulation and enforcement to address the problem. Learn more about NNIS in the Boundary Waters and across the region from this Superior National Forest NNIS resource site.