30 Years of Fighting for Wildlife
Russell H. Bengel, the Conservancy’s founder, was a man of great achievement and vision. He was born into, and experienced, the wildlife abundance of the early 20th century, a time when waterfowl passed through Michigan by the millions. But his good fortune in witnessing this wildlife majesty turned into a burden.
By the mid 20th century wetlands were being drained, filled and altered all across the landscape. “Progress” had destroyed many of the wetlands Russ loved and left the sky wanting for waterfowl. Bengel, who died in 1984, used to get a tear in his eye when he would describe the loss of waterfowl habitat in his beloved Reithmiller Marsh, in Northeastern Jackson County. But he fought back.
Russell Bengel served on the Michigan Conservation Commission from 1940-46 and led the successful effort to acquire the Pointe Mouillee Shooting Club in 1945. The 2,600-acre marsh was the largest wetland area remaining in Western Lake Erie and would become a publicly-owned wetland forever.
Bengel also became active in Ducks Unlimited and supported waterfowl restoration at home and in Canada. But his crowning achievement came in 1979 when he led a small group of waterfowlers to found the Michigan Waterfowl Foundation, renamed the Michigan Wildlife Habitat Foundation, renamed the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.
The Conservancy has now been fulfilling Russ Bengel’s vision for Michigan’s wildlife for 30 years. As we celebrate three decades of achievement we should also remember some basic principles on which he founded the organization on. First, spend he Conservancy’s money on capital improvements – increasing the habitat inventory. Second, make all of our work additive – don’t use our money to supplant state or federal wildlife dollars. And lastly, don’t sit on the money he gave us – spend it on good work and more money will come. While we have spent Conservancy money on some terrific projects over many years, raising new money has been a constant challenge. But the Conservancy has been true to the original operating principals that Russ Bengel described in 1982.
Things were so much simpler in 1982 when the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy was created. Habitat issues really had only one dimension – the loss of millions of acres of productive wildlife habitat. Problems that were so narrowly focused were much easier to address. We just worked to fix the acres in question or tried to create more habitat by planting, enhancing, or changing site conditions.
Invasive exotic species are another issue that habitat conservationists did not consider two decades ago. Examples like the carp, house sparrow, and lamprey are commonly known to all. But the new wave of exotics is coming rapidly and the implications much more ominous. Today’s exotics aren’t just higher order plants and animals, but viruses and microscopic organisms that can hide in a thimbleful of water.
Our Great Lakes are under siege today, with a new species arriving in the belly of a ship about every seven months. It is reported that the Great Lakes currently harbor 183 exotic species.
Terrestrial exotics have also become an immense problem in our state. Invasive plants pose a threat to wildlife as significant as that of habitat destruction. And these terrestrial exotics are smothering the landscape at a rapid pace. The Conservancy plans to respond by educating and training our citizens to recognize and eliminate exotic organisms in their communities.
The future challenges that face wildlife are hard to predict. We know only that there will be many, and some will be completely new to us. To succeed we will have to stay creative, efficient and nimble. But most of all we will have to be open to changing the way we operate, because what is being thrown at us is constantly changing. The Conservancy will be up to the task because we are not committed to a single way of looking at problems. With the support of Michigan’s citizens we are confident that the movement begun by Russ Bengel in 1982 will succeed in sustaining the wild creatures that enrich our lives for all time.