Large Predators in Michigan

by Hannah Ettema
MNA Intern

Bears, cougars and wolves, oh my! In the past few months and weeks some of Michigan’s large predators have been making it into the news. As scary as predators seem, they are crucial to Michigan’s ecosystems and are most likely more afraid of you than you are of them.

Large predators are regulators of the number of prey in an ecosystem. If the population of large carnivores declines or disappears, plant species composition can be altered because the herbivores that eat them are more abundant. This is called top-down regulation, where the top of the food-chain or ecosystem controls and influences the species below them.

Predators in an ecosystem are indicators of a healthy ecosystem they help create. If a predator exists in a community, they promote the health in the communities around them. In Michigan black bears, gray wolves and cougars should be indicators of the healthy state of the ecosystem.

Here’s some basic information and the real scoop on large predators in Michigan.

Black Bears

Of the approximately 17,000 black bears that live in Michigan, 90 percent live in the Upper Peninsula. The black bear is protected by law and managed by the DNR.


Black Bear distribution in Michigan.

Black bears are shy by nature and rarely attack humans. Earlier this month however, 21-year old Chad Fortune, a hunter in Emmett county, was attacked while in his tree stand. Check out the story here. Black bear cubs began climbing up his stand, and after he defended himself from them the mother bear bit his leg.

To avoid unfortunate circumstances such as Chad’s, there are some easy precautions anyone can take. When camping, hunting or outdoors in Michigan, minimize food odors and waste and do not keep food of any kind in tents. Suspend food and waste 12 feet above ground 10 feet from trunk and 5 feet from nearest branch.


Like black bears, cougars are native to Michigan but their population drastically declined at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, periodic sightings have been reported throughout Michigan. Cougars are highly secretive and solitary; the odds of seeing one are incredibly small. Usually six to nine feet long, cougars mainly prey on deer.

cougar in tree


Recently, a fuzzy photo of a cougar was taken in Bay County. Take a look at the photo here. Cougars have only been confirmed by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but the public has reported seeing tracks in the Lower Peninsula as well. The DNR is still undecided as to whether the photo was of a cougar.

Gray Wolves

In recent years, gray wolves have begun to recolonize the Lower Peninsula. This past August a wolf pup was confirmed in Cheboygan county. Check out the story here. Check out the January MNA newsletter for more information about gray wolves in Michigan and again now in the Lower Peninsula.

Water in danger around the world and in Michigan

by Hannah Ettema
MNA Intern

Earth’s most precious resource is under threat. Of water supplies around the world, 80 percent are in danger according to a new study featured in National Geographic news online.  Not only is 80 percent of water in danger, but two-thirds of the world’s river habitats are threatened. It’s not too late though; experts say that if we, “work with nature,” the water can be secured for future uses.

And the United States east of the Rockies is listed as a hotspot of concern.

The Michigan Nature Association (MNA) is constantly working to protect water systems around the state. “Any sanctuary that has water, we are working to protect it,” says Andy Bacon, MNA stewardship coordinator.

MNA also works to protect the high-quality of the water systems by promoting the diverse plant life and the balance of the ecosystem through:

  • Protecting riparian zones
  • Eradicating invasive species
  • Controlled burns

The Riparian Zone

riparian zone

A well preserved riparian strip on a tributary to Lake Erie.

Many MNA efforts go towards protecting the riparian zone of rivers and creeks. A riparian zone is the area where land and a slow-moving body of water meet and is crucial for maintaining the water quality of a river.

A healthy, undeveloped riparian zone helps to control runoff and dissipate stream energy, which in turn prevents soil erosion and a reduction in flood damage. The riparian zone also allows uptake of nutrients and release of pollutants.

Invasive Species

Invasive species to a habitat, especially to water systems, can be harmful if not removed.

In the Edwin and Margarita Palmer Memorial sanctuary in Kalamazoo county and Goose Creek Grasslands sanctuary in Lenawee county, the glossy buckthorn shrub is periodically removed by MNA volunteers to help the ecosystem.

Buckthorn bush

Invasive glossy buckthorn

The buckthorn has the potential to take over the area, especially floodplains or open communities and force the loss of the diversity of the system. The roots of the buckthorn are less able to slow down water and catch nutrients than native species. If the buckthorn were to spread completely over an open community it would shade out all other plants, which would be damaging for the water system in the community.

In Goose Creek Grasslands sanctuary, seed has been transferred in the sanctuary to instigate re-colonization by diverse native species in areas where invasive species growth has occurred.


controlled burn

A controlled burn at Saginaw Wetlands

Another method of protection for water systems is burning. This year plant life in Sand Creek Prairie sanctuary in Hillsdale county and Goose Creek Grasslands sanctuary were burned to help invigorate plant communities along creeks.

Controlled burns are necessary for systems because the ecosystems originally developed and depended upon fire. It is believed that Native Americans instituted controlled burns in oak, prairie and some dryer wet-prairie systems as a means to drive game, grow crops, or for defensive purposes.

Fires are necessary today to reintroduce the means which led to the original plant diversity.  For example, without burns an oak-hickory system would have secondary forest growth by faster growing trees such as birch and ash. The secondary forest growth would then create more shade and cause the amount of penetrating sunlight to drop from 30 percent to only 5 percent. The increase in shade would then in turn cause temperature and humidity shifts, disrupting the ecosystem.

Today controlled burns are carefully planned and executed. Fire breaks, which can be any barrier from lakes and stream to sidewalks are established first. Burning against the wind, the fire is started and a safety zone is established to prevent the flames from jumping outside the burn area. Eventually the entire burn area is scorched. Systems that have been burned in early spring typically take about a month for plants to re-grow.

Burns allow for the proper plants to grow and continue to filter and clean water, allowing ecosystems to flourish.

On December 6, MNA’s Saginaw Wetlands sanctuary will be prepared for a controlled burn this spring. If you would like to help, click here.

Among the areas east of the Rockies, Michigan is in good shape. “Michigan has so much water that it can replenish itself, and is one of the most sustainable water systems in the world,” Andy says.

If you would like to help protect our water systems, volunteer days in these sanctuaries and more can be found on the MNA events calendar.

We appreciate the time and effort the volunteers and members of MNA put toward protecting Michigan and its water systems.