The Rare Ones: Introduction

North Dakota is a place where east meets west and north meets south. It has diverse flora and fauna, with species ranging in abundance from very common to extremely rare. Some species, such as Audubon sheep and passenger pigeon are extinct and others, such as whooping crane and grizzly bear will probably never breed in the state again.

National concern for the status of our rare and endangered plants and animals has centered on species in danger of extinction; many national and local lists have been created. Certain species have been designated by the federal government as deserving special consideration because of their tenuous status.

Statewide wildlife conservation efforts historically focused mainly on species more common and usually hunted. Because of the national concern for threatened and endangered species, many states are beginning to look within their borders realizing that they, too, need to focus attention on species no longer common and in danger of being lost from the state. North Dakota is one of those states which is beginning to draw attention to these fragile species and their habitats. The species of concern are those rare in North Dakota as breeding species.

Wild animals seldom conveniently fit man-made lists. Some species are both rare and endangered, such as the black-footed ferret, while others may be rare but not endangered such as the smooth green snake. Species such as sturgeons, about which we know so little, make it difficult to designate status.

Obviously we cannot return all wheat fields to rolling prairie for the sake of the buffalo or return the grizzly bear to the Red River Valley. We can, however, better manage rare species in our own state once we identify those needing help and determine their habitat requirements.

What are Endangered Species?

Extinction of a species could potentially mean the loss of a cure for cancer, a new antibiotic drug, or a disease-resistant strain of wheat. Each living plant or animal may have values yet undiscovered. Scientists estimate there are thirty to forty million species on earth. Many of these species are represented by dozens of genetically distinct populations. We know very little about most species; less than two million are even described. Oftentimes, we do not even know when a plant or animal becomes extinct. Game animals and a few insects are watched and studied. Other species need attention too. Perhaps in them may be found a cure for the common cold or a new organism that will prevent millions of dollars of loss to farmers in their constant fight against crop diseases.

There are many examples of a species' value to society. A new antibiotic was recently discovered in the soils of the threatened New Jersey Pine Barrens Natural Area. A new species of perennial corn was found in Mexico; it is resistant to several diseases of corn. An insect was discovered that when frightened produces an excellent insect-repelling chemical.

Why have species become endangered?

Habitat Loss

Some plants and animals are highly specialized in their habitat requirements. A specialized animal in North Dakota is the piping plover, a small shorebird which nests only on bare sand or gravel on islands of rivers or shorelines of alkali lakes. Such animals are much more likely to become endangered through habitat loss than a generalist like the mourning dove, which nests successfully on ground or in trees in the country or city.

Some animals are dependent on more than one habitat type and need a variety of habitats near each other to survive. For example, many of North Dakota's waterfowl depend on upland habitats for nest sites, and nearby wetlands for food supplies for themselves and their broods.

It must be emphasized that habitat does not have to be completely eliminated to lose its usefulness to an organism. For example, the removal of dead trees from a forest may leave the forest relatively intact, but eliminate certain woodpeckers that depend on dead trees for nest cavities.

The most serious habitat loss totally changes the habitat and renders it unfit for most of its original resident organisms. In North Dakota, the greatest changes came from plowing native grasslands, draining wetlands, and constructing flood-control reservoirs.

Exploitation

Direct exploitation of many animals and some plants took place before conservation laws were enacted. In North Dakota, exploitation was usually for human food or furs. Some animals, such as Audubon's sheep, were hunted to extinction. Others such as the grizzly bear, maintain remnant populations elsewhere.

Disturbance

The frequent presence of man and his machines may cause some animals to abandon an area, even if habitat is not harmed. Some large raptors, like the golden eagle, fall into this category. Disturbance during the nesting period is especially harmful. Disturbance combined with exploitation is even worse.