Because feelings run so deep in the wildlife and environmental arena we are making this a "moderated" blog. All comments will be read by the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy before being posted. Please keep your comments factual, smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent.

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.