When were the good old days for wildlife? We somewhat older folks tend to place heydays long ago. But how long ago depends on which species you're talking about. In this issue's Spotlight 75, Michael Kallok writes about the history of moose in our state. As his retrospective points out, the state's moose population counts have fluctuated since European settlement, often confounding wildlife management. Ongoing research offers the best chance to gain the knowledge needed to solve the mystery of why Minnesota's moose are now declining.
In two stories in 1949 issues, Walter Breckenridge, director of the Minnesota Museum of Natural History, drew upon historical accounts, interviews, and trapping records to offer perspective on the relative abundance of various game species. "First we might deflate somewhat the unrealistic picture many have of the Utopian state of continual abundance in which wildlife existed in the 'good old days,'" he wrote in "A Century of Minnesota Wildlife." As an example of hard times for wildlife, he cited a man's 150-year-old observation of an epidemic of distemper that devastated beaver in border waters. And he quoted an explorer's remark about the scarcity of four-legged wildlife on an expedition in the early 1800s: "From Rainy Lake to Lake Superior we did not meet with a single quadruped."
Native elk, once widespread on Minnesota prairies and into the forest, had all but disappeared by the early 1900s. In 1946 Breckenridge interviewed an old hunter-trapper who lived northeast of Thief River Falls. The man recounted his 1907 chase and shooting of two elk. "What impressed me about the account," Breckenridge wrote, "was that this trapper appeared to have no idea of preserving what he then knew must be the last of its kind in the region. He took the attitude that … if he did not track down and kill them someone else would." Though elk were reintroduced to the region in 1935, Breckenridge saw a future for only small bands in large refuges.
Cougars come and go in Minnesota. In this issue "The Ghost Cat," by Joe Albert, follows their wandering trails. Though wide-ranging, cougars rarely showed up in the state's historical records, according to Breckenridge. While he dismissed reports of their presence as rumors, Albert notes some credible evidence and wonders about their future here.
Mary Hoff's "Splendid Fliers" gives Young Naturalists a wonderful aerial view of migratory birds. The marvels of migration exceed our imagination. If you doubt the miraculous nature of these round-trip flights, pick up a copy of Living on the Wind by Scott Weidensaul. He puts you on the scene around the Western Hemisphere. Here is an example: "Every rainless autumn night, half an hour after sunset, the land sighs a great, upward breath of birds, which climb to one or two thousand feet before leveling out, their beaks pointed to the south. More and more join the exodus as the night wears on, reaching a peak around ten o'clock; as midnight comes on, the birds begin to drop out, although some continue to fly all night."
Like scientists who study nocturnal migration, Weidensaul is moon watching. Looking through his spotting scope, he counts the birds in front of the full moon. Then, using the moon as a random sample of the visible sky, he estimates the count for one hour—8,340 birds. Impressive but not a major flight that evening, he says. "What was more important to me [than the staggering numbers] … was the knowledge that the night was alive with secret movement, unknown and almost unknowable."
Kathleen Weflen, editor