Loon and day-old chicks
A photo taken by Diana Whiting in the Adirondacks of a mother loon and two, day-old chicks.

Endangered Great Lakes creatures on the brink of extinction – so called “ghost species” – could be restored and the vast biodiversity of the region protected, according to a Michigan university academic and author.

Renowned environmental historian Nancy Langston, professor at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, recently published her fifth book, “Climate Ghosts: Migratory Species in the Anthropocene.” In the text she explores the fates of three species within the Great Lakes watershed which struggle with environmental changes even amid long-running conservation efforts: woodland caribou, common loons, and lake sturgeon.

Related: Over 4,000 sturgeon stocked in Saginaw Bay watershed rivers thanks to restoration efforts

Nancy Langston
Nancy Langston is a professor at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

Langston argues in her concise, yet heavily researched book, these ghost species or “endlings” can be rescued from the abyss of eventual extinction by turning to traditional Indigenous knowledge and learning from the harmful impacts of European colonization on the land and animals. She chose to focus her research on one fish, one bird, and one mammal.

“All three of them are really at risk from climate change, but all three of them I think, have the potential to be restored. And so, a lot of the book really focuses on both how the collapse of the species was so tightly linked to settler dynamics and the … attacks on Indigenous communities in the basin. And successful restoration, I argue, really depends on getting this right and really having Indigenous communities lead these restoration projects,” Langston said.

First, the author details the plight of the last 15 remaining genetically distinct Lake Superior woodland caribou which in January 2018 were trapped on a Canadian island in the largest of the Great Lakes, all with a growing gray wolf population.

Instead of being witnesses to the extinction of the species, both tribal and provincial officials intervened; wildlife specialists netted and helicoptered the large, deer-family animals to two “wolf-free islands” to foster their recovery. Scientists since confirmed the relocated caribou are now breeding – an ancient species depicted in petroglyphs that nearly vanished from the landscape.

Woodland caribou grazing
Woodland caribou seen grazing in Canada.

It’s a tale Langston says should resonate with Michiganders and all residents of the Great Lakes region.

“We live in this world emptied of living caribou in the Great Lakes now but threaded with their ghosts. We drink Caribou Coffee or drive to Caribou Drive in the suburbs, but people just have forgotten that moose and caribou lived all the way down to Mackinac Island at one point,” she said.

The book also explores the sacred and ancestral importance to Native Americans of lake sturgeon – called nmé in Anishinaabemowin, the language of Indigenous Anishinaabeg peoples of the Great Lakes.

Lake sturgeon can live for 120 years and grow to seven feet and more than 300 pounds, a species that never evolved in 150 million years. The toothless “leviathans” feed on bottom-dwelling snails, insects, mussels and the like.

Lake sturgeon were once targeted for extermination by settlers because they damaged whitefish nets and had little commercial value, then were over-fished for the females’ eggs that could be peddled as counterfeit beluga caviar in Russian markets. Langston contends more recently, successful recovery efforts of the ancient fish species relied on Native leadership under federally recognized treaty rights retained by the Tribes.

Lake sturgeon
A fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources examines a juvenile lake sturgeon at the New Richmond rearing facility. (Cory Olsen | MLive.com)Cory Olsen|colsen@mlive.com

It’s an example of a positive conservation model that may be effective for other species, Langston said.

“That story of Indigenous-led restoration offers hope as diverse communities try to avert extinction of migratory species in the upper Great Lakes,” she wrote in the fourth chapter of her new book.

Finally, the book delves into the wild world of the common loon, the iconic bird Langston said has come to symbolize “cabin culture in the north woods,” with its imagery sold in gift shops far and wide on pepper grinders, comforters, even toilet seats.

Loons are yet another prehistoric species that survived millions of years unchanged, only to be threatened in a post-industrialized world with waves of human-caused harm: mercury and lead poisoning, avian botulism outbreaks, oil spills, and now a warming climate that pushes the migratory birds further north for cooler, cleaner habitats.

Common loon
A common loon | The Plain DealerThe Plain Dealer

Loon numbers remain more abundant in Canada, but fear of extirpation in the United States has become a rallying cry for climate action. Experts believe Minnesota’s state bird could disappear from the state by 2080 if climate change continues unchecked.

Langston argues these three migratory species provide examples of how human intervention can save remaining biodiversity, and that it’s worth the effort. But it will depend on the choices humans make whether to save these endling species and foster their continued existence, she said.

“Actually, all of these, you know, sturgeon, caribou and loons, unlike most of the big animals that bit the dust at the end of the ice age, they managed to thrive, and it was because of migration style,” Langston said. “If they made it through the last really big episode of climate change, they’re not going to die from warming temperatures, they’re going to die because of our policy choices.”

"Climate Ghosts: Migratory Species in the Anthropocene"
Michigan Technological University Professor Nancy Langston recently published her fifth book about Great Lakes “ghost species” that face extinction because of climate change.

Brandeis University Press published “Climate Ghosts” in October 2021. The paperback retails for $29.95, cloth for $45, and e-book for $24.95.

More details about Langston are available at www.nancylangston.net online.