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The importance of endangered species

Surveyors use brightly colored flags to mark the locations of dwarf trout lilies. Photo by Tamara Smith/USFWS.

Surveyors use brightly colored flags to mark the locations of dwarf trout lilies. Photo by Tamara Smith/USFWS.

By Andrew Horton
Minnesota-Wisconsin Ecological Services Field Office

The endangered dwarf trout lily is a forest wildflower found only in Minnesota. Photo by USFWS.
The endangered dwarf trout lily is a forest wildflower found only in Minnesota. Photo by USFWS.

The dwarf trout lily (Erythronium propullans) occurs on fewer than 600 acres of woodland habitat in Minnesota, on rich slopes dominated by maple and basswood and adjoining floodplains dominated by elm and cottonwood. The dwarf trout lily can be difficult to distinguish from a similar but larger species, the white trout lily, and can only be positively identified when flowering. The species is believed to have existed for about 10,000 years (after the last glaciation). Floodwaters then uprooted the species and deposited it in a very localized area along the banks of the Cannon River and its tributaries where it exists today.

As the species lead for the Minnesota dwarf trout lily, I am often asked what would be the significance if we completely lost this endemic species. Honestly, ecologically, there would not be much affected if the dwarf trout lily were to become extinct. It does not inhabit a unique environment and there are no particular species that entirely depend on it. It has a very short blooming time (about one week each spring) and the rest of the year, the species has identical leaves to the white and yellow trout lily that inhabit the same areas.

With that said, there would be something very important lost: diversity. Again, one small endemic species lost would not be missed by most, but those who know it exists would miss it and more importantly, who decides what an acceptable loss should be? How about 5 rare species, maybe 10? Or maybe one wide ranging species or three others species that we do not know much about?

The dwarf trout lily in a way, acts as an indicator species. An indicator of the current environment and of how some species respond to the pressures we have put upon them. Development and flooding pressures have reduced the population to less than 600 acres of forest. Now, it helps brings awareness to researchers and the public on how fluctuating climate affects species, how mismanagement causes erosion that affects species, or how invasive species are affecting the environment by pushing out native species.

Beyond that importance, I would say that most who see a dwarf trout lily in bloom, appreciate it. It is a very unique plant and the fact that it is so rarely seen blooming, is intriguing to those who find one. It causes us to slow down and open our eyes, while others walk on by never knowing or caring about what they are missing.

We continue to learn from this species, just recently finding out that the species can propagate by seed dispersal (before it was believed that the species spread only by rhizome). And, who is to say that we have learned enough from this species now to let it disappear from the landscape. What if there is something about this plant that we have not learned yet and can benefit others, such as development of a new medicine? "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts." - Aldo Leopold.

I am also asked what we are doing to prevent the extinction of the dwarf trout lily. We have listed the species as endangered, and that provides some protection from development that may threaten populations. We continue to monitor the species through partnerships with the Department of Natural Resources, which help in determining population trends and identifying new threats. These threats may eventually result in the loss of this localized species, but we strive to learn as much as we can and do as much conservation good, wherever we are able to.

If you are near the Twin Cities or Northfield, Minnesota area and are interested, I suggest that you see one of these dwarf trout lilies for yourself. They bloom in early May and can be seen at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden (transplanted population) or Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.  


Last updated: September 9, 2019