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Monday, December 31, 2012

Coming Home - the Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpeckers disappeared from Southern Michigan shortly after the logging and wildfires at the turn of the 20th century.  Pileateds prefer older growth, drier woods—a rare commodity in post-settlement Southern Michigan.   Five generations of Michiganders growing up south of Saginaw Bay lived in a world without the pileated, the inspiration for Walter Lantz’s cartoon creation “Woody the woodpecker.”  


I observed pileated woodpeckers several times in the Upper Peninsula in the 1970s, and later in the Northern Lower Peninsula.  But I had been waiting many years for my first Southern Michigan sighting.  Naturalists knew pileateds were moving eastward down the Grand River and Maple River systems.  In May I saw my first chisel-bill in the Rose Lake Wildlife Area (Clinton County).  And in June a pileated woodpecker entertained my wife and me in our own backyard (Shiawassee County).  His return ticket to Shiawassee County had been punched. 


The Great Lakes region was covered with primeval forests in 1800.  The settlers coming here all carried sharp axes and ambitions to make the wilderness productive.  The virgin timber they felled built their homes and provided heat for them.  The wildlife of these vast forests seemed boundless, enough to feed an emerging nation.


By the 1850s swamps were being drained and the forests cleared for the plow.  Animal species dependent on large trees would suffer the most losses, but none more than the saw-whet owl, marten and the pileated woodpecker.


The pileated woodpecker is North America’s largest chisel bill, if you discount the possibility of the ivory-billed still existing in southern swamps.  “Sir pileated” is almost the size of a crow and is known for its calling card—large, deep, rectangular diggings, usually low on dead and dying trees.  This is a place where you would find carpenter ants—the pileateds favorite food.


The early settlers and loggers knew the pileated well, referring to him by many names—log-cock, wood cock, great black woodpecker, cock of the woods, wood hen.  The loggers in particular referred to him fondly as thunder cock, owing to his raucous presence.  When they could hear “thunder cock” in the distance they knew big timber lay ahead.


When the big timber was gone so was the woodpecker.  By 1900 he was rare in Southern Michigan, probably limited to the rugged terrain of the Lake Michigan dunes and the lowland riverine forests of the Kalamazoo and St. Joseph Rivers, in Southwest Michigan.  Barrows in his 1912 book “Michigan Bird Life” recounted some of the last sightings in Southern Michigan: one taken at Bangor, Van Buren County, in the autumn of 1897, by Frank H. Shuver; one seen at Ann Arbor March 1, 1899 (Chas L. Cass); two taken near Greenville, Montcalm County, in 1896 by Percy Selous; and two taken near Okemos, Ingham County in 1905 (Barrows).  It is presumed “taken” meant killed.  Professor Barrows was the curator of the General Museum at Michigan Agricultural College (later becoming Michigan State University).  John Baumgartner, of Grand Ledge, has studied pileateds for decades.  He believes birds were killed in the late 1800s to be sold to museums and collectors.  This was a period before birds were protected.


No doubt pileateds were eaten by settlers because of their large size, like flickers, robins and blackbirds were.  My limited Michigan research uncovered no reviews of “thunder cock” as table fare, but the settlers ate everything.


In the Northern Lower Peninsula the pileated remained abundant until the lumber barons came for Michigan’s white pine to rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871.  Between 1870-1920 enough white pine was cut from Michigan forests to cover the entire state with a board 1” thick, and have enough wood left over to cover the state of Rhode Island with a similar board.  The loss of Northern Michigan’s forest treasure forced the pileated to retreat to the hardwoods and swamps that remained.


The Upper Peninsula pileateds fared better because of the vastness of the hardwood forests and swamps.  There they remained an uncommon bird, but known to all.  The Upper is probably where many Michiganders, like me, got their first glimpse of the pileated woodpecker.


The history of Michigan’s thunder cock is very closely tied to the management of our forests.  The bird went from being common throughout the state to disappearing in the South.  And while we anguished over the plight of Michigan’s wildlife the forest was re-growing. 


The often unnoticed phenomenon of forest-growth is called succession.  It occurs on every piece of land, but succession is defined on a given tract by the soil and water regimen found there.  Each piece of land is attempting to re-grow its most suitable vegetative cover.  The suitable cover for most of Michigan soil/water conditions is forest.  If man were to ignore a given tract of land long enough, the most suitable, best adapted, forest would grow.  After most of Michigan was cleared of trees by settlers and lumber interests the forests attempted to re-grow.  However, the forest was continually “set back” anywhere agricultural production was pursued.


Certain soil and water characteristics were good for farming as well as trees.  Highly productive agricultural soils stayed in farming while less productive soil couldn’t support a “family farm” and were abandoned by the mid 20th century.  These areas re-grew to the forest cover most appropriate for the site.  Fast forward 60 years, or more, and the forest recovery is obvious.  Michigan today is growing almost three times as much wood as we are harvesting, meaning the trees are maturing in many places.


Added to that, our forests today are being managed by a cadre of professional foresters, with an eye toward sustainability.  Foresters recognize the importance of the pileated woodpecker and all species.  Today, most strive to accommodate woodpeckers in the forest by leaving 5-10 snags and rotted trees per acre on timber harvest operations. 


We will never again make the mistakes of the past if we are wise enough to follow the principles of sound natural resource management.  Forests are capable of producing wood, recreation, wildlife and aesthetics, all at the same time.  And they also produce large amounts of oxygen. “Old growth” timber should be a planned component of our forest management system. 


The recovery of Michigan’s forests provided a one-way ticket back to Southern Michigan for the pileated woodpecker.  There may be other species just waiting to return home if given a chance.



Friday, December 14, 2012

More Action, Less Planning

U.S. and Canadian officials signed a new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in early September, updating the original document first signed in 1972.  The strategy to protect the water shared by the two countries now includes focus on climate change, invasive species and other emerging issues.  But not all Great Lakes advocates are happy.

“We were wanting real targets eliminating certain things, certain percent habitat restoration, things of that nature that are clear targets with guidelines,” said John Jackson, interim executive director and program director for Great Lakes United.  “Our frustration is that these planning processes can take far too long and we need action now.  Lake Erie can’t wait three years for you to decide what your targets are and for [another] five years before you develop an action plan.”

Lack of specifics, and the need for transparency and accountability are among the criticisms being leveled by many other advocates.  Negotiations between the U.S. and Canada on water quality management have historically been somewhat secretive and citizen groups like Great Lakes United want that to change.

Andrew Buchsbaum, co-chair of Healing Our Waters Coaltion (of which the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy is a member organization), noted that in the past four decades the Water Quality Agreement has played a major role in battling nutrient and sewage pollution, and other contaminants like mercury and polychoinated biphenyls (PCBs).

“The question is whether the Agreement can move us quicker toward action plans that really have a chance of working,” said Conservancy President Bill Taylor, of Duck Lake in Calhoun County.  “We don’t need any more vague problem statements.”

A week after the new Agreement was signed, scientists gathered in Cleveland to discuss the health of the Great Lakes, and in particular, Lake Erie.  Among the topics were toxic algae blooms, possible entry of Asian carp, and fish kills in July (near Cleveland) and September (in Canadian waters of Lake Erie).

Last year, scientists from both the U.S. and Canada monitored a huge toxic algae bloom that covered the western third of Lake Erie.  The bloom clogged harbors and fouled boat motors.  Less phosphorous entered Lake Erie this year, but biologists are discussing strategies for long-term phosphorous control to thwart re-occurrences of the bloom next year and beyond.  

“We hope all this discussion leads to prompt action,” said Taylor.

Friday, December 7, 2012

2012...Project Complete.

Since it was founded in 1982, the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has served as a fiduciary, contractor, supporter, educator, and trainer of volunteers.  On occasion, the non-profit organization has even been involved in political and legal battles.  In 2012, the Conservancy served in all those roles while celebrating three decades of conservation efforts.

Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservancy played a key role in the St. Clair Reef construction, administering a $75,000 construction grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Grant Program.  The cost of constructing the reef was more than $335,000, with most of it covered by other federal grants.  The Conservancy’s effort allowed for the reef to be larger and more effective, and in spring of 2012 came the “proof in the pudding.”  Numerous sturgeon used the reef for spawning and divers were able to film the remarkable event.  To view some of the footage go to and click on “Sturgeon Reef Video” under Community Events.

Once common and widespread, the lake sturgeon dramatically declined around 1900.  It now has a limited distribution in the Great Lakes region, and is a threatened species in Michigan waters. 

The new reef is located at the head of the Middle Channel in the St. Clair River delta, where the water currents and bottom type are well-suited for reef construction.  The St. Clair River historically served as an important spawning grounds for many other native species as well as sturgeon.  But channelization, loss of coastal wetlands, filling/armoring shorelines, water pollution, and dredging limestone bedrock and gravel caused the sturgeon population to drop to less than one percent of its former abundance.  The St. Clair River reef will likely help walleyes, whitefish, the endangered northern madtom and other fishes in addition to sturgeon, and its success will be a catalyst for similar projects in the future. 

In August of 2012, the Conservancy received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to educate landowners about wild boars and the problems caused by this invasive exotic species.  At least 22 meetings plus small-group informational sessions will be conducted by MWC over the next twelve months in many parts of Michigan.  The Conservancy has already conducted work sessions at multiple sites in the central Lower Peninsula.  The effort is part of a push for early detection and removal of Eurasian wild boars. 

The Conservancy has long been a leader in battling the species, which destroys crops, lawns, wildlife and a host of related resources.  In 2010, the organization launched the Michigan Wild Hog Removal Program, a partnership between the MWC and USDA’s Wildlife Services branch.  Private-sector groups that have contributed financially to the Program include the Michigan Pork Producers Association, the Michigan Corn Grower’s Association, and the Michigan Forest Association.

The aim is to increase the number of wild hogs killed annually, and thereby reduce damage to property and resources and/or slow the invasion of wild hogs into new areas.  A secondary objective is to obtain samples from free-ranging wild hogs to test for pseudorabies and other diseases.  The important features of the program include the purchase and lending of hog traps to landowners and other citizens, dissemination of information on wild hogs and trapping options, and training volunteers to work with biologists on monitoring and reducing wild hog numbers.

The Conservancy has teamed with USDA to conduct several group training sessions for volunteer hog trappers, and produced web-site training materials.  Wildlife Services has the traps made and delivers them to landowners and other volunteers.  The Michigan Department of Agriculture occasionally provides veterinarians to sample caught hogs for diseases, and recently provide funds for traps and two USDA employees directly involved in the effort.  In addition, a grant through USDA’s NRCS provides financial incentives for certain landowners to trap hogs in Arenac, Bay, Gladwin, and Midland Counties.  One (near Midland) has now trapped more than 25 wild hogs in an area of less than one square mile.

The new effort by MWC will boost landowner awareness and skills.  Given Michigan’s mix of private and public land, citizen involvement in hog control is critical.  Unless landowners can be quickly educated about the importance of rapid responses to wild hogs, private properties will continue to serve as “refuges” where hog numbers will build and then expand onto adjacent properties.

The Conservancy started to develop another citizen/landowner effort in 2012, one focusing on getting people to actively participate in the collection of information about wildlife.  The organization is emphasizing use of trail cameras to detect not only nuisance species like wild boars, but rare species such as cougars, and wolves in the Lower Peninsula.  For a good example of the kind of information citizens can collect see the MWC website and click on the “Training for Volunteers – Michigan Wild Hog Removal Program” under Community Events.

Conservancy staff were also very active in 2012 in political/legal arenas supporting Michigan’s ban on possession of live wild hogs, calling for the permanent separation of Lake Michigan from the Illinois River to stop the entry of Asian carp into the Great Lakes, and supporting measures to improve Great Lakes Water Quality.

“This has been a very busy year for the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy,” said President Bill Taylor of Duck Lake in Calhoun County.  “We are facing some of the most serious challenges in our state’s history, and citizen involvement in resource management has never been more needed.”

Monday, November 19, 2012

Running through a Furrow

We received this letter from a resident of Auburn, Michigan. 

Dear recipient:

I just read an article in the Bay City Times about "Cougars Amoung Us" by John Flesher of the Associated Press, dated 11-4-01.  In the issue of "Michigan Out-of-Doors" that I just received today I read another article, "Lions on the Beach?" written by the editor, Dennis Knickerbocker.

To make certain that history is properly recorded, I contacted John Flesher about an actual physical encounter with a cougar that I had in western Bay County about 49 years ago.  I am contacting you for the same reason.

Mine is a true story if you are interested.  I will give some of the key elements of the enocunter.  The incident occurred on our farm which was located 0.9 miles north of Fisherville (which is in Bay County between Bay City and Midland).  My dad had a sawmill and had cut some large trees down in our small woodlot in preparation for sawing into lumber.  Some of these trees had fallen into a field which had been planted into sweet clover and alfalfa to be powed under for green fertilizer.  This was a very thick level of vegetation with the sweet clover about four to five feet high when my Dad started plowing.  I happened to be walking from our house to our barn when I saw my Dad waving me to come to the field.  He had just started plowing near the woodlot and had a swath about forty feet wide when I reached the north end of this swath.  He was approaching me from the south with the Farmall H and double bottom plow so I walked up the soft earth in his last furrow on the east side of the swath.  With the noise of the approaching tractor, and me walking in the bottom of the furrow with the soft black dirt, I didn't make any noise.  As my Dad and I got closer together I noticed something on my left moving slowly toward the plowed swath.  It moved the clover for a length at least four feet.  I had no idea what it was but for some reason I decided to run up the furrow and jump on the patch of moving clover as this approached the furrow.  I leaped as high as I could and landed directly on the patch of moving clover (it was too thick to see what was moving).  When I landed with both feet on the moving object I heard the most vicious snarling and hissing that I have heard in my life.  I leaped back into the air as fast as I landed.  My landing was several feet into the clover and when the animal got up and ran across the plowed ground I was totally shocked.  This was an actual cougar, mountain lion or puma as some call it.  It was in full view of the forty feet that it ran across the plowed ground and another hundred feet or so that it ran along the north side of our woodlot.  It was obviously injured because its body sagged a little and didn't run at what I believe should have been full speed.  I suspect that I broke some ribs or at least knocked most of the wind out of it.  If it had heard me coming I think that the outcome of the incident could have been much more serious.  After my dad stopped to talk to me about the incident he related why he motioned for me to come to the field.  He had not seen the cougar earlier.  What he did see was several large, approximately two foot diameter holes, around one large felled oak tree which he showed me.  There also was a large amount of dirt spread in a pile around each hole.  If I had known that there was a den of a large animals so close to me I certainly would not have jumped on the animal.

I know there are many references to the extinction of the cougar in Michigan in the late 1800's and early 1900's, but I can assure you that at least one still existed in Michigan as late as about 1952.

I thought that I would share this first-hand account. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hunters Contribute to the Cause

Hunters have something to crow about this year.  Seventy-five years ago, a coalition of conservationists – almost all of them hunters – pushed Congress to divert receipts from a 10 percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition into a special fund for wildlife restoration.  The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, now usually referred to as the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, was enthusiastically supported by hunters and has exceeded all expectations.  It has funneled money to the states for non-game and endangered species restoration as well as traditional habitat work for game animals.

The tax was raised to 11 percent during World War II and now provides over $160 million annually for projects.  Excise taxes on handguns (since 1970) and archery equipment (1972) added $41 million and $25 million annually, respectively.  To date, $7.2 billion in PR funds have been granted to the states.

The “strings attached” include provisions that states can’t turn over P-R revenue to other (non-conservation) state programs and that they must employ trained wildlife specialists.  Also, grants are only available on a 3:1 matching basis so the DNR must come up with one dollar match for every three it receives.  Nationwide, more than half of the funds goes for purchase, maintenance and operation of wildlife management areas, while another large chunk of the funds goes for research projects.

The results have been very impressive.  In the first 50 years, a myriad of wildlife species including wild turkeys, white-tailed and mule deer, wood ducks, black bears, prairie chickens, pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain lion (cougars), bighorn sheep, caribou, beaver, bobcat, and sea otters made incredible comebacks with help from P-R funded projects and programs.  In Michigan, the state used P-R funds for acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres for use as game areas, completed habitat improvements on these and other state lands, re-introduced wildlife species, and conducted a variety of research projects.

To date, the Michigan DNR has received $261 million, the fourth highest total among the states.  Michigan got $12.3 million in 2012.  The match is usually provided by money from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, so hunters and fishermen have a hand in both the granting and matching.  

Labor Day officially marked the 75th anniversary of the Pittman-Robertson Act, but the entire year of 2012 is a landmark for wildlife conservation.  While not everyone agrees that each dollar was well spent, there is no question that without P-R funds Michigan would not be the wildlife-rich state it is.  The Dingell-Johnson Act of 1950 taxed fishing equipment to similarly fund conservation work in rivers and lakes.

The future of this funding seems fairly bright, at least in the short term.  This August, preliminary results of a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed a nationwide nine percent increase in hunters and an 11 percent increase in fishermen between 2006 and 2011.  There was a 17 percent increase in anglers fishing in the Great Lakes.

Big-game hunters increased by eight percent since 2006, and migratory bird hunters by 13 percent.  Small game hunters declined in numbers by six percent.  

Spending was also up considerably, and that’s what directly affects P-R and Dingell-Johnson funds.  Many states including Michigan have been investing time and money into youth and women-oriented programs to boost recruitment of hunters and anglers.  Whether this effort, or other factors, has led to the greater numbers of hunters and fisherman has not been determined. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fishers and Martens: Weasels of the Trees

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the nine members of the weasel family that are found in Michigan.  More mustelids will be featured in future issues. 

The mustelids (weasel family) of Michigan include species that occupy a wide variety of habitats.  Some scurry across the land, one -- the badger -- is a digger, and otters and mink are at home in ponds and rivers.  Two species – the fisher (Martes pemmanti) and pine marten (Martes americana) – move through the trees with the greatest of ease.  They are capable of acrobatic catches of prey ranging from mice to birds to squirrels among the limbs of the tallest trees and can kill animals much larger than themselves on the ground.
Both species were listed as extirpated in Michigan by the early 1960’s.  But the smaller of the two – the pine marten – was written off before its time, and some naturalists suspect that the fisher also survived in small numbers.  Valued for its fur, the pine marten was declared by wildlife officials to be gone from Michigan by the 1950’s.  Even the authoritative 1983 book, Michigan Mammals by Rollin Baker, parroted statements from other biologists that intensive trapping and loss of habitat had eliminated martens from both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.  After pine martens stopped showing up in trapping records and field reports of biologists, the species joined wolves, cougars, and other predators on the list of extirpated species.  Wildlife biologists assumed that a combination of land development, logging and wild fires in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s wiped out any martens that had not been trapped.  

Actually, there were small remnant populations of pine martens in Michigan that went undetected, according to a 2006 peer-reviewed paper, “Evaluation of a Marten Reintroduction,” by Dr. Brad Swanson and L. Robert Peters of Central Michigan University and Christopher Kyle of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.  The authors noted that the Michigan pine marten population today is expanding and healthy from a genetic standpoint because of multiple reintroductions and follow-up relocations within the state.  They added, “The success was further aided by the presence of small remnant populations that remained in Michigan….”

In 1955-57, with the pine marten considered extirpated, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) obtained 27 martens from Ontario and two from British Columbia and released them in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Ontonagon County in the western Upper Peninsula.  However, by 1962 there were no reliable reports of martens in the area and the planting was considered a failure.

In 1968, a new effort was launched with funding from the U.S. Forest Service as well as the DNR.  Between 1968 and 1970, another 99 martens from Ontario were released in Delta and Alger counties.  In 1978, the DNR, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the Michigan Marten Reintroduction Program.  The next year, a third planting of 148 Ontario martens was made in the Huron Mountains in Baraga and Marquette counties, and in western Iron County.  Finally, the DNR conducted several transfers in 1989-1992 that moved 20 martens from Iron to Chippewa, and 19 from the western U.P. to southern Keweenaw County.

In the Lower Peninsula, the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 85 pine martens in 1985-1986 in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, the Pigeon River Country State Forest, and the Pere Marquette State Forest.  As in the Upper Peninsula, monitoring has since showed small, slowly expanding populations near the release areas. 

The evaluation by Swanson, Peters and Kyle found that Michigan’s pine martens are now a genetically-diverse group unlikely to have reproductive and survival problems that often plague new populations that come from small numbers of re-colonizing animals.  They found no evidence of such a “genetic bottleneck.” So, the population is not limited by in-breeding.  In addition, the researchers also detected unmistakable genetic markers only found in Michigan.  These genetic sequences are not seen in Chapleau or British Columbia pine martens.  That means that remnant populations of Michigan martens had survived.  How large the remnant populations were, and their exact locations, may never be determined. 

Since Michigan now has expanding populations of pine martens, many people would consider those questions somewhat moot.  The remnant martens may have been so low in numbers that the populations would never have bounced back on their own.  Many wildlife species slowly become extinct when they are geographically and genetically isolated.  So, the reintroduction of pine martens starting in the 1950’s by the DNR was probably a good idea, especially since most of the animals came from a nearby (Ontario) source that was adapted to climate and vegetation conditions similar to those found in Michigan.  Michigan’s martens were probably not genetically distinct enough to be of biological significance. 

Fishers were also declared extirpated, and reintroduction efforts began in 1961.  About the size of a domestic cat, the species was, like the pine marten, highly valued for its fur.  They were certainly wiped out in some locations by the early 20th century.  The stocking program and trapping restrictions gradually led to increases in fisher numbers in the U.P.  But continued population monitoring showed a 70 percent drop in fisher numbers from 1996 to 2007.  That prompted the DNR to make changes in trapping rules to reduce the harvest of fishers beginning in 2011. 

There are some U.P. locales where it is now easy to find fisher tracks.  But there is a quiet controversy over the animal’s status in the Lower Peninsula.  The DNR says it has no verified reports of fishers in the Lower Peninsula.  However, some naturalists have reported fisher sightings and evidence such as tracks and scat from Emmet and Cheboygan Counties south as far as the Traverse City area.  Remnant fisher populations went undetected for many years in Montana until (as in the case of Michigan’s pine marten) genetic tests showed unique genes. 

One of the fisher’s claims to fame is its ability to kill porcupines.  The attacking fisher makes repeated bites to the face of the porcupine, eventually killing it.  When feeding, it avoids most quills, but ingests a few.  Thus, fisher scats often contain quills. 

Fishers also prey on snowshoe hares, showing great agility on snow.  They have oversized feet that help them stay on top of snow, but they struggle in powdery deep snow.  Their climbing prowess is linked to extremely flexible ankle joints; fishers can rotate their hind paws almost 180 degrees.  That lets them climb down head first – a great advantage when it is hunting in trees. 

A big male can weigh 18 pounds, yet fishers have been known to kill turkeys and are suspected of occasionally killing deer fawns.  One study in Maine found fishers responsible for at least four deaths of lynx.  It’s possible that fishers occasionally kill bobcats as well.  But, tales of their killing powers are probably exaggerated somewhat because they feed on carrion.  So, their stomachs and scats often contain evidence of animals they did not actually kill. 

Fishers and pine martens are now found in the same general areas, but most biologists think of the two species as separated ecologically by habitat type.  Fishers favor mature hardwoods, and martens do best in coniferous forests.  But recent studies suggest both fishers and martens can be found in second growth habitats.  Fishers will move to habitats with large pines in winter, following porcupines.  So, fishers and martens do occasionally occupy the same locales. 

Dr. Patrick Rusz
Director of Wildlife Programs


Facts About Martens

·         In Michigan, the marten is usually referred to as the “pine marten” or American sable.  It has a fairly broad distribution across the northern part of North America, and there is a related species, the beech or stone marten, in northern Eurasia. 

·         Martens are similar to mink in size, with a head and body length of 14 – 17 inches and a tail about one-third that length.  They typically weigh about two pounds; males are larger than females. 

·         The brown fur of martens has long been valued.  Hides of martens were the third most numerous, behind beaver and raccoon, in furs exported at Michilimackinac in 1767.  Almost 10,000 were shipped that year.  Between 1835 and 1839, the American Fur Company in the Upper Peninsula and Detroit handled nearly 23,000 marten pelts.

·         Martens are born and reared in a hollow tree, a hole in a fallen log or stump, or in a rock pile.  Home ranges are 4-8 square miles for males, and typically about 1-2 miles for females.  They are generally solitary animals that associate with each other only briefly during mating times.

·         Martens tend to be nocturnal and have excellent vision, hearing, and sense of smell.  Like most weasels, they are very quick and can kill prey larger than themselves.  Major predators of martens include fishers, coyotes, bobcats, wolves and great horned owls.
·         The pine marten does best in fairly dense stands of pines, hemlocks, or firs where there are lots of large woody tree limbs and fallen trees on the ground.  Pine martens are excellent climbers and feed on squirrels (especially red squirrels), birds, small mammals, insects, and occasionally fruits and nuts. 

Facts About Fishers

·         Fishers are larger than pine martens.  Males are 31-41 inches long and can weigh up to 18 pounds.  Females are much smaller, usually weighing four to six pounds.  
·         Fishers lack the orange throat patches that distinguish martens.
·         Female fishers can delay implantation of fertilized eggs as long as 10 – 11 months and give birth to as many as 6 young.
·         Like pine martens, fishers are mostly nocturnal, but also hunt in daylight.  Fishers will often enter water and typically have home ranges of 50 to 150 square miles.
·         Its name is a misnomer because the species seldom feeds on fish or any other aquatic animal.  But fishers feed on carrion, so almost any kind of animal matter and  prey parts can show up in fisher scat. 



Monday, October 29, 2012

The Status of Wild Michigan, Part 6

This is the sixt of six articles.
Government Programs – Citizen Science
In 1984, shortly after the MWC was formed, then-Governor James Blanchard stated that the Conservancy’s projects “symbolize a new era in Michigan conservation.”  The nation was trying to climb out of a recession and it was widely-recognized that government programs for fish and wildlife were experiencing cutbacks.  The private sector needed to step forward to fill the gap – especially with habitat restoration projects.
Over the years the amount of funds for government projects has ebbed and flowed, roughly with fluctuations in the economy.  But funding was also greatly influenced by federal legislation and (more recently) campaign promises.  The Forest Service’s Challenge Grant Program, Farm Bill, North American Waterfowl Conservation Act, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative were among the government efforts to bolster funds for wildlife conservation.  The amount of money spent certainly increased over the last 30 years, but it is disappointing that not all of it directly boosted wildlife.  Money for wetland restorations often went for purchase of wetlands, and the transfer to public ownership did not result in more animals in those habitats in most cases. 
The Conservation programs within the Farm Bill recently had to be changed to get rid of many inefficiencies.  And some of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative habitat projects have moved slowly despite the program’s emphasis of “shovel-ready projects.”  At the state level, funds for both habitat restorations and maintenance have dwindled.
Often overlooked has been a gradual reduction in government-funded research.  This is unfortunate because wildlife research capabilities are advancing along with technology.  Geographic information systems can quickly produce habitat maps.  Computers handle complicated data analysis with ease.  Heat-sensing cameras and radio receivers can track animals from the air.  Genetic tests reveal complex relationships among individual animals and populations.  
Yet, the potential value of all this modern technology often can’t be realized because funds for the old-fashioned field work necessary to obtain the basic data are lacking.  Federal and state agencies, in particular, don’t have sufficient person power to track or capture animals, locate nests, make detailed observations, and complete other important tasks that gobble up hours and log miles.  Universities get some of the work done using students earning advanced degrees, but the rest of the research so important to good wildlife management is often not attempted or falls to volunteers.
Increasingly, the private-sector has also filled this gap – perhaps one Governor Blanchard and others did not foresee when they commented in the early 1980s.  Over the years, the MWC, the Michigan Sharptailed Grouse Society, the National Wild Turkey Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited and a host of other organizations and individuals have conducted important fish and wildlife research.  Some of it has been done independently of agencies.
Today, volunteers are assisting with the Michigan Wild Hog Removal Program and monitoring of wildlife ranging from frogs to waterfowl to black bears.  In fact, the state’s longest-running black bear research project was started in large part in 1990 by Mart Williams, then-owner of a wholesale sporting goods company in Cadillac.  Collectively, citizen scientists symbolize another era in Michigan conservation, and the MWC is committed to assisting these important wildlife volunteers.
Our state’s “Pure Michigan” ads notwithstanding, we still have plenty of resource management challenges.  The need for private sector involvement is greater today than in 1982 when the MWC was founded.  But things are much more complex than when we simply looked to put water back into drained wetland basins, plant grasslands, or repair silt-filled stretches of rivers.  A “new era” of conservation is surely on its way – one that will require citizens to be better informed about the nature of wild and the legal/political systems that dominate resource management.  Citizens who want to make a real difference will have to do more than just go to meetings or write a check.  They will have to be active members of organizations that work in the middle not just the edge of issues and problems.  The MWC will to continue to be that kind of group.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Status of Wild Michigan, Part 5

This is the fifth of six articles
Shifts in wildlife distributions and densities have been remarkable in the last three decades.  High deer numbers around the fringes of urban areas, expanding coyote, bear and turkey populations, and declining numbers of pheasants and quail characterize the period.
There has been a shift southward by several species that is likely linked to re-growth of the forests of Southern Michigan.  Bears, bobcats, pileated woodpeckers, and most recently porcupines are among forest wildlife gradually moving into Southern Michigan after being nearly eliminated for more than a century.  And Michigan has exploding populations of deer, coyotes, raccoons and other species that cause problems in many locales.  Population control of native species – not just exotics – is now a more serious problem than it was 30 years ago.  And the related threat of wildlife diseases is now gaining in importance.
Other Michigan wildlife species are expanding their ranges northward.  A recent study by University of Michigan researchers found that four species – the white-footed mouse, southern flying squirrel, eastern chipmunk and opossum – are on the increase in Northern Michigan.
These kinds of “quiet changes” have been overshadowed by some highly successful wildlife restorations.  The MWC played a major role in bringing back the wild turkey to Southern Michigan, and other trap-and-transfer successes included the stockings of moose (to the Upper Peninsula), pine martens, and fishers.  Wolves came back on their own in the Upper Peninsula, and are now present in the northern parts of the Lower Peninsula as well.  Other rare species on the comeback trail in Michigan include the bald eagle and osprey.  Private-sector groups – the Michigan Nature Association in particular – have quietly purchased and protected habitats for both rare plants and animals.
Many Michigan sportsmen decry the loss of pheasants from peaks in the 1950’s and 60’s.  In 1982, pheasant numbers had already dropped significantly.  Despite a variety of schemes, no solution has been found. 
On the fisheries front, there has been a renewed interest in restoring spawning habitats for native species like the lake sturgeon and brook trout.  Significant progress has been made during the past three decades, but the widening of streams during the logging era has left Michigan with a never-ending need for fish habitat restoration. 
The next article will appear on October 22, 2012

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Status of Wild Michigan, Part 4

This is the fourth of six articles.
Public Lands
Michigan’s public lands have changed significantly since the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy began in 1982.  There is more of it and it is managed much differently.  The U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DNR juggle a wide array of interests in establishing priorities.
Less than one percent of the Great Lakes Basin’s original forest remains.  About 213, 800 of the 600,000 remaining old growth acres are in Michigan.  In the Upper Peninsula, Porcupine Mountains State Park has 31,000 acres, the largest ancient northern hardwood forest on the continent.  Also in the UP are Sylvania National Wilderness (18,000 acres), Isle Royale National Park (86,000 acres), Dukes Experimental Forest (8,000 acres), and the private Huron Mountain Club Reserve (6,500 acres).  In the Lower Peninsula, the major old growth area is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (12,000 acres).  This has changed little in the last 30 years, signifying that at least the rate of loss has been slowed.
U.S. Forest Service lands have become increasingly managed as habitat for rare species such as the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, endangered Karner Blue butterfly, and sharp-tailed grouse.  Federal refuges were once managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service almost exclusively for waterfowl.  Now, the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge also manages habitat for the eastern fox snake and trumpeter swan.  Lake sturgeon now spawn on a reef the MWC helped create in the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.
When the MWC was founded, there was great need for habitat restorations on State Game Areas.  Improvements to wetlands and grasslands were frequently done with a mix of state and private sector dollars.  Then in the 1990’s considerable federal money also became available for such work on state lands.  Now, federal rules and state cutbacks will likely soon shrink budgets for habitat restorations and maintenance.  Many state lands remain overgrown with invasive exotic species and urgently need management to reach their full potential.
The state’s Land Trust Fund has been used to acquire important lands especially along our Great Lakes coast.  New opportunities to obtain lands for green space and wildlife are available in decaying urban areas where vacant lots have plummeted in value.
The next article will appear on October 15, 2012.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Status of Wild Michigan, Part 3

This is the third of six articles.
Exotic Species
In the 1980’s, the exotic species we knew of in the Great Lakes were pretty big and their impacts very noticeable. Sea lampreys that reached 17 inches in length latched onto lake trout and other game fish and did not let go until the fish was dead or at least emaciated.  
Alewife, another species that entered the Great Lakes area via the St. Lawrence Seaway, were also obvious to everyone who used the Great Lakes or its shoreline.  The pale-colored fish had died by the millions in the 1960’s and 70’s and washed up on beaches in stacks several feet high.  
Today, we still have plenty of sea lampreys, and exotic species are entering the Great Lakes arguably faster than when we were less enlightened.  There are now 183 invasive species known to already be in the Great Lakes and a new species arrives on average every 7 months.  Few of today’s newcomers swim in on their own through the St. Lawrence Seaway, rather, they ride on the hulls or in the ballast water tanks of ocean going ships.  Among the more notorious are the zebra mussel and quagga mussel and two small fishes- the round goby and the ruffe (pronounces as two syllables: ruff-ee).  But the list also includes things we can hardly see such as the spiny water flea, the fishhook flea, and other zooplankton forms.  Fishermen spot them fouling their lines, but most Michigan citizens aren’t aware of them.  Instead of scarring fishes or making messes on beaches, the new breed of Great Lakes exotics mess up the food chain and affect the clarity of the water.
Problems associated with ruffe and gobies are not as dramatically apparent as with sea lampreys or alewife, but they are also detrimental.  Young ruffe eat the same food and compete for the same habitat as native yellow perch, walleye and a variety of other species.  Because of this, ruffe can have a serious impact on perch and walleye fisheries without leaving external scars as a calling card.  Gobies eat small fish and eggs and in low light conditions have a major competitive advantage over native fish such as darters and sculpins.
Zebra and quagga mussels, on the other hand, feed by filtering from the water large amounts of microscopic algae, which are an integral part of the Great Lakes’ food chain.  They kill native clams and crayfish by attaching to their bodies, increase aquatic plant growth by increasing water clarity, and compete with larval fish and other aquatic organisms for food.  Zebra and quagga mussels have so thoroughly cleared the Great Lakes water that plants such as Cladophera (an algae) can now grow in much deeper water.  
Biologists acknowledge that for today’s exotic species the only effective strategy is prevention.  Once ruffe, gobies, or the host of exotic zooplankton, mussels, crayfish and other life forms become established you can’t control them.  So, the emphasis has shifted to educating the public as to how to keep them out of inland waters, and on legislative action to stop the introduction of new species by requiring the treatment of ballast water in ocean-going ships.
Prevention is also supposedly the strategy for dealing with the Asian carp, another disaster in the making.  The alien invaders have been swimming north since the 1970’s when floods washed them from Arkansas fish farms and lagoons into the Mississippi River.  For more than 35 years the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency and numerous state fish and wildlife agencies have documented their progress towards the Great Lakes, spending millions on research and planning.  But they have failed to place a long-term barrier to entry of Asian carp into Lake Michigan. 
On land, control (or lack thereof) of invasive exotic species is perhaps our biggest and most important natural resources management issue.  In the 1980’s, some conservationists were sounding alarms but the general public and land managers were just beginning to get it.  There was a long period when federal and state biologists actually recommended planting exotics such as Autumn olive and mutiflora rose which have since fallen from grace.  Our state’s failure to recognize the inherent threat posed by exotics also led, in part, to inadequate containment of the emerald ash borer.  The insect has spread over much of the state, leaving millions of dead trees in its wake.  Now, wild boars and other invasive, exotic species are recognized by many as the foremost threat to Michigan’s wildlife.  The tragedy is that it took so long for some, especially in management, to get the memo.
The next article will appear on October 15, 2012.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Wildlife Spectacular

Photo taken by L. Malaski
What are you doing next weekend?  You should join us at CraneFest!  The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy will have a booth with skins, skulls and information about our organization.  Here are the particulars:

This is the Eighteenth Annual CraneFest and it will be held on October 13 and 14, at Michigan Audubon’s Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary, about 3.5 miles north of Cornwell’s Turkeyville, in north central Calhoun County, just south of Bellevue.  For directions please visit

CraneFest celebrates Michigan’s tallest bird, the Sandhill Crane, as they migrate south.  Festivities are from noon to sunset (around 7 p.m.) each day.  This is a free event hosted by Kiwanis Club of Battle Creek but there will be a small $3 parking fee that goes toward their service projects. 

Some of the featured activities are nature walks, educational presentations, hands-on activities provided by local environmental groups, live birds of prey by the Michigan Hawking Club, native reptiles and amphibians by Nature Discovery on Saturday, live creatures of the night by the Howell Nature Center on Sunday and a wildlife art show with over 20 different artists. 

We hope to see you there!

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Status of Wild Michigan, Part 2

This is the second of six articles.
The Great Lakes Water Quality
In the 1980’s, the banning or restriction of chemicals such as DDT and toxaphene and the adoption of tough pollution standards were among actions being lauded.  “Victories” – such as the apparent recovery of a once-dying Lake Erie and the establishment of a world class fishery for salmon – were also being celebrated.
By 1997, numerous environmental conditions in the Great Lakes were reported by government agencies as mixed to good with exception of wetland and shoreline resources, stormwater runoff, and status of exotic species.  
In hindsight, some of these reported conditions and trends were overstated, especially with respect to sewage outfalls.  In the last 15 years, Chicago and Detroit have discharged tens of billions of gallons of untreated wastewater into the Great Lakes. Less massive but troublesome overflows also occurred at other cities along the Great Lakes.  Levels of most pollutants entering the Great Lakes have indeed been drastically reduced.  But, there is a polluter’s legacy manifested in what bureaucrats refer to as “areas of concerns (AOC’s)”.  These are fairly large geographic areas where contaminants still impair our ability to use the water.
Michigan’s 13 AOCs have “legacy pollutants,” those that can persist in the environment for decades.  This indicates that while regulating the sources of pollution is critically important, it does not equate with restoration.  Pollutants persist in sediments, change forms, and bio-accumulate in the food chain – they don’t magically disappear.
Advisories to restrict consumption of fish owing to bioaccumulated chemicals are in still effect over many parts of the Great Lakes Basin.  With exception of toxaphene, levels of contaminants are at least slowly decreasing.  Yet, scientists continue to document increased levels in humans that eat more fish. 
Toxic materials are only part of the array of pollution problems in the Great Lakes.  High bacteria counts have prompted health officials to close some beaches and issue broader advisories against swimming.  Phosphorous is being released in municipal and industrial sewage, and also comes from runoff of agricultural lands and fertilized lawns.  There is interest in a statewide ban of phosphorous in fertilizers, a step seen as a logical and important extension of Michigan’s ban of phosphorous in laundry detergent in the 1970’s.  But as in the case of toxic pollutants, bans won’t entirely solve the problem.  That’s because the phosphorous already in the Great Lakes is consistently recycled.  Phosphorous is a key nutrient that causes algae growth and subsequent oxygen loss.  We have a large and growing “dead zone” in Western of Lake Erie that testifies to the detrimental impact of excessive nutrient loading.
Many of the changes in the Great Lakes’ values and pollution levels have been influenced by fluctuations in water levels and temperatures. The biological impacts of water temperature increases, in particular, are becoming obvious.  Blooms of some of the more noxious algae forms are occurring earlier and more frequently.
The next article will appear on October 8, 2012.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Status of Wild Michigan

This is the first of six articles. 
The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has been working for 30 years to restore our state’s wildlife.  While we can be proud of the hundreds of worthwhile projects completed with our partners and cooperators, the question arises: How have Michigan’s natural resources fared overall during the last three decades?  Is conservation winning, or do we have much more work to do?
Land Use
When the Wildlife Conservancy was formed in 1982, there were new laws in place to keep urban sprawl -- that phenomenon characterized by massive subdivisions, strip malls, industrial parks, and snarled traffic where farms, woods and wildlife used to be -- out of important wetlands and floodplains.  But over the next ten years, Michigan lost 7.8 percent of its farmland acreage, and biologists became increasingly aware that “leap-frog” development was making remaining habitat too fragmented to support certain species.  
Particularly in Southeast Michigan, but also in the Grand Rapids and Traverse City areas, urban sprawl was not simply the inevitable result of population growth.  Local governments were eager to extend roads, sewer lines and other utilities to far-flung developments.  And zoning rules – ironically enacted to avoid land use conflicts and boost the quality of life – required large building lots and low density developments, thereby bringing in fewer people to areas zoned for residential use and minimizing open space.  
The Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act of 1974 provides tax credits to farmers who give up development rights.  By 2000, about 40 percent of Michigan’s farmland was enrolled in the program, but today, very little of that land is in areas where development pressures are intense.  The tax breaks have largely gone to farmers who were not going to sell to developers anyway.  And where urban sprawl is a real threat, the program has not offered enough money to individual farmers to persuade them to keep their land in agriculture.
In 2001, the final report of the Michigan Land Resource Project predicted that between the years 2000-2040, there would be:  a 17 percent reduction in agricultural land, a 178 percent increase in “built” land, an 8 percent drop in private forestland, a decrease of 10 percent in wetland acreage and a 24 percent loss in other vegetation.  The report also predicted that “land available for hunting will dramatically decrease, while ‘edge’ species such as white-tailed deer will continue to increase in numbers.”
The recent economic downturn has slowed growth in general, so the report’s predicted tripling of the amount of built land is questionable.  But the trends are not.  Habitat fragmentation is still considered one of Southern Michigan’s most serious wildlife management concerns.  Some tough choices must be made if Michigan is to preserve the character of our 36 million acres for future generations.
Michigan is one of only two states that tax land according to its most valuable use rather than its existing use.  Farmland and open space thus sometimes get taxed according to their potential value for housing or commercial development.  That puts real pressure on landowners on the urban fringe to sell sooner, rather than later, and that type of taxing should be eliminated.
Michigan recently started a program to purchase development rights, ironically using penalties and other funds paid back to the Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program by landowners who wanted out.  But the amount of cash generated has been minimal in comparison to the interest by landowners.
Michigan now has more than 40 private-sector conservancies that acquire and hold conservation easements that preserve open space.  Most focus on lands with unique resources such as rare plant or animal species, or scenic views.  
Such programs for purchase of development rights need to be better funded, and local governments need to stop subsidizing road, sewer, and water projects that encourage developments in outlying areas.  Incentive-driven programs of tax credits, low interest mortgages, and school modernization funding can and should be used to promote new development in urban areas.  The Michigan Land Use Institute has rightly called for a program which controls the way taxpayer’s money is spent rather than placing severe restrictions on developers and formulating complex land use regulations. 
Next article will appear on October 1, 2012.

Friday, September 14, 2012

30th Anniversary Celebration/2012 Fall Harvest Social

It’s that time of year again…Fall Harvest Social time! But this year our celebration is even more special. 2012 marks the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy’s 30th year. So, plan for a day of fun with your family at our combined 2012 Fall Harvest Social/30th Anniversary Celebration on September 22.
Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has declared our grand celebration in the name of the birds.
  • 8:30 A.M. –
    • Bring your binoculars and hear Michigan’s morning choir with Michigan Audubon Society on a guided bird walk (running until 10:30 A.M.).
  • 10: 00 A.M. –
    • The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy will take you on a guided bog tour (first of three) and a singer will entertain at a bonfire in our new fire pit.
  • 11:00 A.M. –
    • Join Dr. Patrick Rusz and P.J.’s Percherons on a horse-drawn wagon ride around the prairie (running throughout the day), take a self-guided tour of the Bengel Wildlife Center grounds and stop at all 4 birding stations set up by the Michigan Audubon Society, and don’t forget to find Robbyn Van Frankenhuysen at the fire pit, telling amazing stories that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Wait… there’s more! We have arranged many intriguing programs that are great for the family:
  • 11:00 A.M. –
    • Michigan Audubon Society will be helping us “Fall in Love with Birding”
  • 12:00 P.M. –
    • Nick Van Frankenhuysen will teach kids how to draw animals and birds.
  • 1:00 P.M. –
    • Attending “Skins and Skulls,” will allow you to see both the outside and the inside of some of Michigan’s animals. Don’t forget to complete your experience by making your very own plaster cast of a Michigan animal track.
  • 2:00 P.M. –
    • Chad Kister will amaze you with his exquisite photos of the Arctic in “Arctic Screaming,” a presentation about his experiences from his treks through the Arctic. Chad is an award-winning environmental journalist who has made protecting the Arctic environment his life’s work. Check out his books:
§ Arctic Quest: Odyssey Through a Threatened Wilderness (Available in the Dancing Crane Gift Shop)
§ Arctic Melting: How Climate Change Is Destroying One of World’s Largest Wilderness Areas
§ Against All Odds: The Struggle to Save the Ridges
§ Arctic Screaming: A Journey to the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis
  • 3:00 P.M. –
    • Joe Rogers will finish off the day with birds, birds, and more birds in “Birds of Prey” (sponsored by Clinton County). Come see some of our predators of the sky up close. Mr. Rogers will introduce you to each bird and explain to you the strengths and characteristics of the magnificent feathered species’.
Don’t just come for the fun programs! From 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. we are offering many different children’s activities, such as “Bobber Bob,” “Find That Bird” scavenger hunt, and “Fruits and Nuts.” Tickets for these games are $0.25 a piece. You may buy tickets at the information booth. Five lucky kids will win a prize!
We invite you to take in the day with us at Bengel Wildlife Center. You may want to bring a picnic lunch, sun screen, binoculars, and a blanket. For those of you who do not bring a picnic lunch, we will have a hot dog vendor here for your convenience.
We will also need volunteers to set up for our 30th Anniversary Celebration/2012 Fall Harvest Social. We are asking for volunteers for 3 shifts 8:30 A.M. – 10:00 A.M., 10:00 A.M. – 1:00 P.M., and 1:00 P.M. – 4:30 P.M. If you are able and willing to volunteer we would love to have you. Lunch will be provided for volunteers inside the building.
We look forward to seeing and working with you on September 22, 2012!
  • P.J.’s Percherons L.C. - Horse Drawn Carriage Service
  • Risks Apiary
  • Bath Farmers Market
  • Chad Kister - "Arctic Screaming"
  • Michigan Audubon Society
  • Joe Rogers - Birds of Prey
  • Skins and Skulls - Jane Gordon
  • Gene Wasserman
  • Bluebird Society
  • Campfire Storyteller - Robbyn Smith
  • Campfire Singer – Ana Cristina Lesmez
  • Nick Van Frankenhuysen
  • Clinton County Conservation District
  • Department of Waste Management
  • Girl Scouts
  • Jim Atkinson
  • Fenner Nature Center