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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mute Swans...Friend or Foe

Some people love em’.  Others consider them pests.  But most are more than a little confused.  Afterall, a swan is a swan, right?  And aren’t swans native to Michigan?  So, why should conservationists want them out of our state?

Mute swans have generated lots of controversy since scattered populations have exploded over the years.  They were imported to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800’s, desired because of their looks.  They were placed in zoos, garden pools, and ponds around the country, valued as sort of moving landscape ornaments.  But the graceful, white-feathered birds eventually escaped and established populations in several states.
Michigan’s mute swan population began with just one pair brought to Charlevoix County in 1919.  Now, Michigan has North America’s largest mute swan population with 15,500.  Continent-wide, mute swan numbers are now increasing by 5 to 10 percent each year.

All of the Great Lakes states have problems with mute swans.  They displace native trumpeter swans (a threatened species in Michigan), destroy wetland habitat, and sometimes even injure humans.  Mute swans will attack trumpeter swans and geese, preventing them from nesting.  The mute swans nest about three weeks earlier than trumpeters and defend large areas.  They may also attack swimmers and boaters.  Cuts, scrapes, bruises, or broken bones are the more common results of mute swan attacks on swimmers, beach walkers, and boaters.  But at least two humans have been killed by swans on the East Coast, and in Chicago in mid-April of this year, a 37-year-old man was knocked out of a kayak by a mute swan.  Witnesses watched as the swan continued to attack Anthony Hensley, who worked for Knox Swan & Dog which used swans to keep geese off ponds.  Hensley drowned as the swan continued to harass him. 
Mute swans also do serious damage by uprooting aquatic vegetation.  Even small flocks can reduce habitat for other waterbirds, muskrats, and fish over big areas.

The DNR is starting to whittle away at Michigan’s flock of mute swans, with an eye toward getting rid of at least 13,500 by 2030.  Some have already been shot, and the DNR is providing permits to residents to remove mute swan nests and destroy eggs.
Despite its destructive tendencies, the mute swan has its supporters.  There have been petition drives to thwart the DNR’s mute swan reduction plans.

“Many people enjoy viewing mute swans, but looks are deceiving in this case,” said Dennis Fijalkowski, Executive Director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.  “Protecting our natural resources from invasive exotic species has to trump any emotional ties to animals that simply look pretty.  Conservationists should support the DNR’s reasoned approach to control this destructive exotic species.”

Dr. Patrick Rusz
Director of Wildlife Programs

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cougar Photographed In Marquette County

July 18, 2012

CONTACT:  Dr. Patrick Rusz                       OR       Dennis Fijalkowski
                        Director of Wildlife Programs             Executive Director
                        Michigan Wildlife Conservancy          Michigan Wildlife Conservancy
                        (989) 865-6701                                     (517) 641-7677

Cougar Photographed in Marquette County

BATH, Mich. – The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy (MWC), a non-profit organization based in Bath, near Lansing, recently confirmed the presence of a cougar in southern Marquette County.  The cougar was photographed by a cased and padlocked trail camera on private property on June 1, 2012.  The property owners will also share their information with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) but do not wish to be publicly identified.    
Dr. Patrick Rusz, Director of Wildlife Programs for the Conservancy, and Michael Zuidema, a retired DNR forester, verified the trail camera’s location on a well-worn wildlife trail atop a wooded ridge.  The camera has also photographed wolves, coyotes, fishers and numerous other species at the same site over a four year period. 

The MWC is publicizing this photograph because it may be the best, clearest photograph of a wild Michigan cougar ever taken.  It is also unusually interesting because Mr. Zuidema has recorded over twenty credible cougar sightings in the same vicinity since the 1970s.  These include several sightings within a few miles of the trail camera location.

Dr. Rusz stated that “the long history of sighting reports in the area indicates the cougar photographed on June 1 may be part of a resident population rather than a wandering cat from a western state.”  Dr. Rusz has studied cougars for the Conservancy for 14 years and is co-author of a peer-reviewed study that confirmed cougars in both peninsulas of Michigan by analyses of DNA in droppings.  He has also identified a long list of additional physical evidence dating back to 1966, and notes that Michigan State College zoologist Richard Manville documented several cougar sightings or incidents when he inventoried the fauna of Marquette County’s Huron Mountains from 1939 to 1942. 
The large volume of recent Michigan evidence includes fifteen MDNR confirmations since the agency formed a cougar team of specially trained biologists in 2008.   The most recent MDNR confirmation occurred last May when a cougar was photographed with a hand-held camera near Skanee in Baraga County.  That photograph was taken about 50 miles north of the Marquette County trail camera location.   

“The MDNR cougar team should now look at the very good evidence of a remnant cougar population collected before 2008,” said Bill Taylor, President of the Conservancy.  “They could still easily verify cougar photos taken in the 1990’s in Alcona and Oscoda Counties in the Lower Peninsula and some others.  The vegetation and other landmarks needed to confirm the photos are still there.”

The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy is a non-profit citizens group established in 1982 to restore Michigan’s wildlife legacy.  The Conservancy has restored more than 8,200 acres of wetlands, 2,500 acres of prairies and grasslands, and hundreds of miles of trout streams, and helped with several rare species recoveries and the creation of many backyard habitats.  The Conservancy website,, highlights some of the completed habitat restorations and other work. 


NOTE:  The cougar photograph from the trail camera is attached.  To compare this photograph with photos of a wolf, coyote, raccoon, and porcupine taken by the same camera in the same location visit the homepage of the Conservancy (

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Muskrat Lake Wetlands Restored!

On May 16, conservationists from Clinton County and surrounding areas gathered near St. Johns to celebrate the restoration of the Muskrat Lake Wetlands.  The Lake, located mostly on state land, was lowered by about two feet in 1972 by a nearby drainage project and removal of a beaver dam.  Areas around the Lake, which were formerly 18-24 inch deep flats used as spawning and nursery grounds by bass, sunfish, and northern pike, were turned into dry or muddy areas quickly colonized by reed canary grass, an invasive exotic species.  The restoration brought the water back up and will not only benefit waterbirds, furbearers, and the Lake’s resident fish, but thanks to a rock ramp, allow passage of fish from Stony Creek.

Three sets of rocks (wiers) built with 18-24 inch-diameter boulders were placed across a 35-foot-wide outlet channel (leading to Stony Creek) to create a five percent slope.  It all took place in a 110-foot long stretch.  About 50 acres of shallow water flooding were restored through the project, which was funded by the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy and Clinton County.  The Timberland Resource Conservation and Development Area Council coordinated a study of hydrologic conditions, and many other organizations worked to obtain state approvals for the project. 

At the May 16 event, project organizers, including Gary Fritz of the Clinton County Conservation District, recalled the many state-imposed administrative hurdles that had to be overcome.  It took intensive efforts over the past five years to get permits for the project, noted Fritz.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Return of the River Dancer

What You Otter Know About The Otter: 

Otters are even more aquatic than the mink discussed in the May-June issue, and have a variety of specialized adaptations to help live in watery environments.  These include webbed feet and a muscular tail to enable them to catch most fish, long whiskers to help locate prey in dark water, and dense brown fur and very high metabolism to stay warm in cold water.  Otters are versatile eaters, and supplement their normal fish diet with frogs, crayfish, waterfowl, turtles, small rodents, and assorted other prey. 

Otters are also much larger than mink.  A big male can weigh 30 pounds and exceed four feet from its nose to the tip of its tail.  Both sexes travel long distances along lakes and streams foraging for food, and they sometimes also make long overland trips between bodies of water.  Otters are not good diggers, and usually rely on burrows made by other animals or natural hollows or beaver lodges for shelter. 
Otters were originally found throughout Michigan, but by the 1920s they were scarce in the Northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula and probably gone from Southern Michigan.  This led to a statewide ban on otter trapping from 1925 through 1939 that caused an excellent population rebound in the north.  And limited taking after trapping resumed has helped maintain healthy otter populations there.

However, the species is still recovering in Southern Michigan, and the otter that I saw in a Duck Lake marsh in the summer of 2001 seems to have been one of the first modern sightings in northern Calhoun County.  This was followed by a few more brief sightings, and then an outstanding one on Christmas Day of 2007.  Our Christmas otter obviously felt secure on an ice shelf far out in Duck Lake, and dove for fish and ate its catches on the ice while several of us watched through spotting scopes.  It caught a fish on every dive, and finally quit after catching and eating one that appeared to be two feet long.
When I mentioned this sighting to a conservation officer he said that the DNR had been receiving otter reports from all across Southern Michigan.  This expansion obviously included Clinton County because a trapper caught an otter in a mink trap on the edge of the MWC’s Bengel Wildlife Center property in 2010.

The otters’ versatile diet and roaming nature usually prevent them from seriously harming prey populations.  However, they can devastate confined prey, as one did at the Palms Book State Park near Manistique in 2010.  This otter ate every one of the large trout that fascinate visitors to the Park’s Kitch-iti-kipi spring, and then returned and cleaned them out again when the DNR supplied new fish.  I have not been back to see the outcome, but members of the weasel family are notoriously hard to deter by any means short of trapping. 

Some otters reportedly also eat muskrats and small beavers, and a fishing friend and I had an experience in Ontario a few years ago that demonstrated how one beaver family felt about them.  We were fishing in a river when several beavers slapped their tails in alarm and swam away from their nearby lodge.  Then four otter heads popped up beside the lodge and showed us why the beaver had fled.     
Otters can tread water with their heads and upper bodies sticking up like mermaids, and these animals swam within about 50 feet of our boat and observed us this way for several minutes.  They were obviously annoyed at our presence, and clicked and chattered loudly throughout the inspection before finally swimming away.      

The literature is divided about how much help (if any) male otters provide the females in raising young.  While one situation does not prove anything, this Ontario group consisted of two adult otters and two young ones, and they all remained close together while they were observing us.         

No article about otters would be complete without mentioning their playful side.  Numerous people have reported otters belly-sliding down snowy or muddy slopes and then climbing back up the slope and doing it over and over again.  And both young and adult otters have been observed pushing objects like stones and twigs around like toys.  As a result, this intelligent animal is sometimes referred to as the playful weasel as well as the aquatic one.