MSU Students Make a Difference at Goose Creek Grasslands

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Where would you expect to find a group of about 30 college and graduate students on cold, snowy Saturday morning in mid-February? If the group is Dr. Emily Grman’s restoration ecology class, you might find them at MNA’s Goose Creek Grasslands Nature Sanctuary. While some of their classmates were still lying warmly in bed, Dr. Grman’s students were wielding loppers, pruning saws, and PVC herbicide applicators against glossy buckthorn to further the restoration of the prairie fen at Goose Creek.

Restoration at Goose Creek has been a lengthy progress. In 2003, MNA’s former stewardship director Sherri Laier began efforts by removing glossy buckthorn, an invasive shrub, from along the Cement City Highway. The shrub had colonized a spoil pile from a drainage improvement project and had already aggressively invaded portions of the fen. The shrub grows rapidly, produces many berries, and both shades out native vegetation as well as preventing the accumulation of enough fuel to carry a fire.

Fire is the main process by which prairie fens were maintained in earlier times. Fires set by Native Americans would spread from surrounding uplands (usually oak savanna) into the fen, and rejuvenate the rich layer of sedges, grasses, and wildflowers that make prairie fens both picturesque as well as biologically rich. Fire also sets back shrubs, both native and non-native, which, absent periodic disturbance, will tend to expand in fens.

MNA conducted the first prescribed burn at Goose Creek in 2004, after native vegetation bounced back in the space previously occupied by glossy buckthorn. Since then, nine additional prescribed burns have been conducted, covering most of the sanctuary.

In early April of this year, two more burns are planned at Goose Creek. One of those burns will take place where the MSU students were hard at work clearing buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Glossy buckthorn is killed by cutting the shrub near to the ground, and then applying concentrated herbicide to the stem, which is taken to the roots. This is a precise method of delivering herbicide to the plant. The cut buckthorn branches are collected in piles which can be burned either separately or during a prescribed burn.

Students were rewarded with a nice harbinger of Spring – the cry of sandhill cranes – despite the cold temperatures. Students also saw bluebirds, horned larks, and abundant praying mantis egg cases. Several students expressed interest in helping with the prescribed burns.

MNA’s regional stewardship organizer Matt Schultz would like to thank the students for helping out at Goose Creek, Dr. Grman for organizing the trip, and regular volunteers Eugene Lidster, Ken Ross, Mike Roys and Heather Smith, who helped form the students into effective restoration strike teams.

The group after a hard day's work!

MNA expects to conduct prescribed burns at Goose Creek in early April. With usual weather conditions (rain in April) the process occurrs surprising rapidly, with the most obvious evidence of a prescribed burn gone just two weeks after the burn takes place. The sanctuary is worth a visit any time, but it is especially rewarding to observe the resurgence of native vegetation from a blackened landscape.

Dr. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral associate in Lars Brudvig’s lab at MSU, interested in the restoration of Michigan prairies. In an upcoming blog post, she will write about her research comparing the plant diversity at prairie remnants (some of which included MNA sanctuaries) to prairie reconstructions.

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