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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.

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