Minnesota is an upper midwestern state that shares borders with the Dakotas, Canada, and Lake Superior, the largest of the great lakes. In fact, the state is known as the Lakeland of North America with more than 10,000 bodies of water, but it’s also home to the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis and Saint Paul which are brimming with cultural landmarks.
Minnesota is well known for its breathtaking natural scenery, dense forests, pristine prairie land, and crystalline waters. Still, as such attractive hiking and camping territory, you might be wondering, are there any dangerous animals in Minnesota?
With diverse landscapes comes a wide range of ecosystems and wildlife. In fact, Minnesota is home to wild cattle, venomous snakes, and a host of nasty critters that you might want to avoid. Most of Minnesota’s animals are harmless and will avoid contact with humans before you have to worry about them, but there are still some you should look out for. Let’s get into it.
Bears are one of America’s most deadly predators. They are responsible for more deaths nationwide than any other wild animal and there are around 11 attacks on humans every year in the states. Although Minnesota has only ever reported 14 bear attacks in state history, they can all be attributed to the American black bear.
Black bears are distributed throughout the upper midwest, as well as the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Canada, and some parts of the south. In fact, you can find black bears in 40 of the 50 US states and all but one province in Canada. Of the 300,000 black bears in North America, Minnesota is home to around 15,000 of them. The state’s black bears dwell in the forests and swamps, eating insects, berries, acorns, and hazelnuts, and occasionally feeding on fish, honeycomb, human food, and garbage.
Black bears can be attracted to human settlements by poorly disposed of trash and discarded food, and this is when attacks are more likely to occur. If you’re camping or staying in a rural environment, make sure all your gear is bear-proofed and that you never leave food packaging lying around.
They might be called black bears, but their fur can also come in blueish-gray, brown, or tan as well. They reach heights of around four to seven feet with small eyes, round ears, a long snout, and a large body but a short tail. Females weigh between 40-80 kg while males can reach around 60-300 kg at maturity.
Black bears aren’t characteristically aggressive, but with humans continuing to encroach on their habitats, along with their large populations in the US, attacks can happen and they’re not unheard of in Minnesota. Black bears aren’t true hibernators but they do experience “denning” which refers to a period of reduced activity and laziness. Females give birth during this time, which takes place over winter, and they emerge in mid-March. Black bears are hungriest at this time and females can be protective over their new young, so you should be most cautious of black bears in the spring.
If you do encounter a bear in the wild, walk away slowly and to the side so you can keep your eye on it. They’re unlikely to follow, but if they do, stand your ground and try to look as big as possible. If it still doesn’t retreat you can try making loud noises or throwing small stones and sticks toward the bear but not directly at it. If all else fails, drop to the ground, play dead, and cover your head and neck.
There are three species of wolf found in North America—the gray wolf, the eastern wolf, and the red wolf. Gray wolves are the largest, weighing 30-80 kg on average and reaching lengths of 1-1.6 meters. They also make up most of Minnesota’s wolf population, of which there are thought to be around 2,700 individuals.
Gray wolves have long bushy tails with a mixed coat of gray and brown. They resemble somewhat of a large German shepherd, but they’re far more fearsome. Gray wolves are elegant predators and highly sociable within their species. Wolves are known for forming tight, nuclear packs and although they avoid humans, gray wolves can be more aggressive and defensive than other wolves.
Wolves have been responsible for dozens of unprovoked attacks in the US but just a handful of fatalities in the last 50 years, and one attack in Minnesota in 2013. Luckily the 16-year-old victim, who was camping near Lake Winnibigoshish in north-central Minnesota, was able to fight the wolf off and survive, but not before the 75-pound animal had mauled his head which led to needing 17 staples.
One of the concerns of a wolf attack like this is the spread of rabies. Since wolves would rather avoid humans, a spike in aggression could be an indication that they’ve contracted the deadly disease and they might spread it to a human through their saliva. Rabies moves quickly through to the spinal cord and brain, causing delirium, hallucinations, hydrophobia, insomnia, and in extreme cases, death.
If you come across a wolf in the wild in Minnesota, particularly if it’s aggressive, begin scare tactics as soon as you can. Don’t let the wolf get less than 100 meters from you before you start waving your arms around, making a lot of noise, and trying to look bigger.
Throw sticks and rocks close to the wolf to try and scare it away. Whatever you do, don’t run. Wolves can run at speeds of 50-60 km/h—which is twice as fast as an Olympic sprinter. Running will only make the wolf see you as prey.
The eastern massasauga is one of two venomous snakes found in Minnesota and it dwells in the swamps, mashes, and grassland across the state and throughout midwestern America. It gets its name from the native American Chippewa language where “massasauga” means “great river mouth” as a result of its distribution near rivers and lakes.
This snake carries highly toxic venom, and although it has short fangs that can only inject a small volume of venom at a time, small children and anyone with ill health face a greater risk of a serious reaction. The venom can destroy skin tissue and the digestive enzymes can disrupt blood flow and prevent clotting which can affect the healing process of the wound.
Most of the snake’s prey, which is made up of small mammals, amphibians, smaller snakes, and insects, will die from internal bleeding after being bitten. After injecting its venom, the eastern massasauga withdraws to avoid injury and waits for the toxins to take effect.
Eastern massasaugas aren’t typically aggressive towards humans and will try to avoid them if possible—striking only when threatened. Venomous snake bites are rare in Minnesota, but there have been a few cases of hospitalization as a result of rattlesnake encounters in the state. That said, the eastern massasauga has been responsible for at least 75 reported bites in nearby Michigan and around Lake Superior, with which both states share a border.
In humans, extreme cases of envenomation from an eastern massasauga can result in hemorrhage, tissue necrosis, and shock which can lead to death.
The eastern massasauga, like all rattlesnakes, is a pit viper. They are distinguished by their heat-sensing pit organ between the eye and nostril, but also by their distinctive rattle tail which means you have a good chance of hearing one in the wild. If you’re walking off-the-beaten path or through tall grass—which you should never do in snake territory—the recognizable rattling sounds are nature’s way of telling you to get out of there.
The eastern massasauga is dark in color with a thick triangular head, dark stripes on either side of the head, and light dorsal markings with rounded dark blotches against its gray-brown body. It’s a stocky snake and adults can reach lengths of around two to three feet.
Should you come across one in the wild, it will likely try to avoid you but bites are most likely to happen if you accidentally step on the camouflaged rattlesnake. Keep an eye on where you place your footing and stick to trails when hiking. Avoid areas with low visibility at ground level.
You might be surprised to learn that cattle are among the most dangerous animals, not only in Minnesota but the world at large. Cows are responsible for more deaths across the globe than any other land mammal, beating big cats, gators, snakes, and spiders to the mark. Belonging to the same family as the domestic cow, the American bison is one of the most formidable beasts in Minnesota with a short temper, mammoth strength, and large population distribution.
The American bison, often referred to as American buffalo, is native to North America and there used to be an estimated 30-60 million individuals roaming the great plains. Today, although numbers have dropped dramatically, there are still around 500,000 bison in the US with around 5,000 living in Yellowstone National Park where attacks are most common due to tourist visitors.
Minnesota is home to its own protected population of wild bison, most of which can be found in Minneopa State Park and Blue Mounds State Park. Herds of bison once roamed the prairies but, as a result of hunting and human development, the wild bison disappeared around 150 years ago in Minnesota and only the Minnesota Bison Conservation herds remain.
This still gives bison access to park visitors but encounters are rare. However, as recently as August 2022, a 19-year-old British student was left paralyzed after a bison attack in Custer State Park, South Dakota, some 400 miles from the Minnesota state border.
Bison can grow to 11 feet tall and weigh between 900 and 2,200 pounds. They sometimes possess horns that can grow to two feet long and they live between 12 and 20 years. Despite their size, American bison can reach top speeds of up to 40 miles per hour making a human no match for their explosive power.
If you see a bison and it stops what it’s doing to start paying attention to you, this could mean that you are too close and you need to back away slowly. You should always stay around 25 feet away from wild bison. If a bison continues to act aggressively, try and seem bigger or throw something to break its gaze. Don’t run and if all else fails, drop to the ground and protect your head and torso.
It’s hard to believe that this seemingly innocuous insect is responsible for even more deaths worldwide than the hardy bison, but ticks are one of the most dangerous animals in Minnesota and there are a dozen different varieties living across the state. You might not initially notice the bite from a tick and they don’t carry any naturally-producing venom in their body. However, ticks can carry deadly diseases from host to host and they’re the number one culprit for the spread of Lyme disease in the US.
Not all ticks spread disease but the wound from a bite could still lead to a nasty infection. The three most common ticks in the stake are the black-legged tick (or deer tick), the American dog tick (or wood tick) and the lone star tick.
Since they cling on to pets, people in Minnesota are often bitten by American dog ticks but these rarely spread disease, although some have been known to carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia. Lone star ticks have the lowest population distribution in Minnesota but they can spread ehrlichiosis and tularemia.
It’s the deer ticks that you need to look out for. On average 1 in 3 adult black-legged ticks are infected with Lyme disease in Minnesota and global warming has to a yearly increase in tick populations. They’re common in east and central areas of the state in hardwood forests and grassland.
More than a thousand people contract Lyme disease every year in Minnesota alone, with the five-year average sitting at around 1,200 reported cases. Initial symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and skin rashes. If left untreated, the infection can quickly spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system and patients can be affected for months on end.
Always wear long sleeves and pants when hiking in Minnesota, especially if you plan to visit woodland or brushy areas. Use insect repellent as often as you can and check yourself and your pets for ticks after every walk.
If you come across a tick, don’t pry it off carelessly if it’s already latched onto the skin. Find clean, sharp tweezers and pinch the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible before pulling upwards with even pressure to ensure the whole head is removed along with the body. Failing to remove the head won’t increase your likelihood of contracting a tick-borne disease, but it does make infection more likely in both humans and animals since a lot of bacteria is carried in the head.
After removing a tick, don’t crush it with your fingers. Instead, put it in alcohol or in a sealed container to destroy it, before flushing the tick down the toilet.
Are there poisonous spiders in Minnesota?
It’s rare for people to be bitten by poisonous spiders in Minnesota, but there have been sightings and incidents of envenomation over the years from several different spider species. The northern widow is less deadly than its southern counterpart, but it’s still capable of injecting its neurotoxic venom into victims. The brown recluse also lives in Minnesota, although it’s more common in the southern states. A few suspected bites from this spider have been reported in the last few decades.