Lake symposium, Muskegon bear, and carp testing: this week in environmental news

By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

Students, Teachers Gather at Tech to Learn About Lake Superior (Michigan Tech News): Michigan Technological University will hold its 10th Biennial Lake Superior Symposium this weekend, drawing an expected 200 students and teachers in grades 7-12. The gathering will feature 50 presenters, covering topics such as student stewardship initiatives and conservation issues in the Lake Superior area. The goal of the four-day event is to teach attendees about the Great Lakes watersheds, inspiring them to apply this knowledge in their various communities. The program is made possible by the work of Joan Chadde, longtime MNA steward and volunteer, as well as input from other MTU staff members and Great Lakes organizations.

Muskegon bear may have found his way home, spotted swimming north (mlive): A young black bear seen around Muskegon appears to be headed home, according to DNR officials. After swimming south across Muskegon Lake, “Muskegon bear” was first spotted around Great Lakes Marina early Monday morning and later settled near the Muskegon Lakeshore Trail. Officials closed the bike trail, avoided the use of tranquilizers, and advised onlookers to leave the bear alone. After a day of attention from media representatives and local spectators, the bear reportedly returned to the lake and swam back northward.

Great Lakes Water quality improved but there are still issues, report says (JSOnline): Rapid ice cover reduction and excessive nutrients are growing problems in the Great Lakes, even in the midst of a federal restoration program. Though assessments of the water’s chemical health show mostly positive results, some data reveals an increase in toxic chemicals over the past decade. This could be caused by ballast water discharges from foreign freighters, which were not addressed in the Clean Water Act of 1972. The International Joint Commission suggests that both U.S. and Canadian governments look into creating a structure to reduce the flow of the St. Clair River as a possible solution.

Blind birdwatchers learn to see by hearing sounds (CBS News): Donna Posont, field director for Opportunities for the Blind in Dearborn, has developed a new approach to bird identification: “birding by ear.” Posont teaches blind students to memorize various bird calls in the classroom, which they are later able to identify in the wild. Bird watching becomes bird listening, allowing the blind to recognize birds without seeing them at all. Posont hopes the activity will not only connect the students to the outdoors but also provide them with a sense of confidence.

Grand tested for Asian carp (Grand Haven Tribune): A portable lab was established on the Odawa/Battle Point Launch in Grand Haven Township on Wednesday as part of a federal invasive species monitoring program. Officials took water samples from the Grand River, searching for environmental Asian carp DNA. Though there is currently no indication of the species in Lake Michigan, Asian carp pose a large threat to the Great Lakes. The purpose of the monitoring program is to gather baseline data, hoping to remain one step ahead of a potential invasion.

April’s heavy rains pushed billions of gallons of sewage into Michigan waterways (mlive): Recent heavy rains have revealed that Michigan’s sewage system may be a larger issue than expected. April rains overwhelmed sewer systems, releasing approximately 1.5 billion gallons of partially treated and raw sewage into lakes and streams. The leakage was likely a result of Michigan’s “combined” sewage systems, which carry both sewage and stormwater to treatment plants. This issue has led to a call for increased state funding for sanitary and storm sewers.

How similar are prairie restorations to native prairie remnants in southwest Michigan?

The landscape of the fen at Campbell Memorial.

The landscape of the fen at Campbell Memorial.

MNA’s mission includes studying Michigan’s natural history. While every visit to a sanctuary brings a chance of expanding your knowledge and appreciation of nature, MNA also seeks to support dedicated scientists who try to understand our world and its fascinating flora and fauna. When done in a way that is compatible with conservation, MNA encourages scientific research on sanctuaries.

This post is the second in a series of posts on research done in MNA sanctuaries. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lars Brudvig’s lab in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. She is interested in how species assemble into plant communities. To study Michigan prairie restorations, Lars and Emily teamed up with Tyler Bassett, a Ph.D. student also in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and at the Kellogg Biological Station. More information is available on Dr. Grman’s website

Of the vast areas of tallgrass prairie that once flourished in the central United States, less than 1% remains. In Michigan, scattered patches of native prairie once intermingled with savanna and woodland communities, but nearly all have been converted to cropland or development. This massive habitat loss has threatened the persistence of prairie plant and animal species. Over the past few decades, conservationists have increasingly used prairie restoration as a tool to reverse habitat loss. Prairie restoration in Michigan frequently involves adding seed of native prairie species and returning fire to former agricultural land. These restoration efforts often produce communities with an abundance of native plant species that can provide habitat for prairie insects and animals, but these restored prairies don’t replicate remnant, untilled prairies. This is partly because we still don’t completely understand the complex ecological interactions that allow ecosystems to accumulate species as they recover from a disturbance or change through time. Clearly, though, this information is essential. We must understand how to reconstruct communities in order to successfully rebuild lost prairie ecosystems.

In my current research, I aim to understand how species assemble into a community. I am a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lars Brudvig’s lab in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. To study the assembly of plant communities in Michigan prairie restorations, Lars and I teamed up with Tyler Bassett, a Ph.D. student also in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and at the Kellogg Biological Station. In summer 2011, our research team collected data on the plant communities in five remnant prairies in southwest Michigan, including three MNA properties: the Betty and Ralph Campbell Memorial Plant Preserve at Helmer Brook, Prairie Ronde Savanna, and Sauk Indian Trail. We compared those data to 27 restored prairies throughout southwest Michigan, many on private lands.

We learned that restored prairies and remnant prairies in Michigan differ in important ways. Dominant C4 prairie bunchgrasses, such as big bluestem and indiangrass, were more abundant in restorations than in remnant prairies. We also found some prairie plant species in remnants that we never encountered in restorations, such as Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), veiny pea (Lathyrus venosus), and early goldenrod (Solidago juncea). Some of these differences may be due to the seed mixes used during restorations: none of those remnant prairie species were included in restoration seed mixes, and seed mixes often had high densities of C4 grasses. Even so, including rare prairie species in seed mixes did not guarantee that they would become part of the prairie community. Of the 65 different prairie species commonly included in seed mixes, more than 25% never established in our transects, and another 40% established less than half the time. Despite this, restored prairies had nearly as many species as the remnant prairies: we found 36 species in restorations (on average, per 10 m2 sampling area) and 41 species in remnants.

From this study, we learned that while prairie restoration can create diverse grasslands to provide habitat for many native species, restoration has not recreated the communities we see in rare prairie remnants that have never been tilled. Therefore we believe it is essential to continue to preserve the rare gems of remnant prairie habitat scattered throughout southwest Michigan.

Kirtland’s Warblers, piping plovers, and dunes: this week in environmental news

Kirtland's warbler

The Kirtland’s warbler.
Photo: Cindy Mead.

By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

Michigan’s ever famous, endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (mlive): The Kirtland’s Warbler, one of Michigan’s rarest migratory songbirds, is facing removal from the Endangered Species List, according to the DNR. The species has historically been threatened by the over-growth of Jack Pine trees and competition with the Brown-headed Cowbird. Combating this, the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Plan has helped the population grow from 167 to 2,063 singing males in the past 26 years. Intensive management practices will continue to sustain this species.

Volunteers needed to monitor endangered piping plovers (Great Lakes Echo): The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently seeking volunteers to monitor piping plovers during the bird’s nesting season, May 1st to July 15th. The piping plover, which nests on wide-open beaches, is considered critically endangered, and the population has seen a significant drop in recent decades. Volunteers can help restore the species by reporting sightings of the bird, assisting with habitat recovery, and raising public awareness along Great Lakes shores.

New Metropolitan Planning Council report offers solutions to stem Lake Michigan water loss (Chicago Tribune): The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) may change its regulations for local permittee use of Lake Michigan water, hoping to save both water and money. Currently, northeastern Illinois loses 26 billion gallons of this water each year. The Metropolitan Planning Council released a report that supports the IDNR’s water regulation proposal and also suggests that the department improve its water accounting systems, metering plans, and permittee support. Additionally, they suggest that the department require modernized plumbing plans and restrict outdoor water use among permittees.

Protecting Sleeping Bear Dunes (Grand Traverse Insider): A funding cut to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has resulted in controversy regarding the protection of Michigan’s parks, particularly the Sleeping Bear Dunes. The fund puts a portion of the proceeds from offshore drilling toward the Park Service’s ability to buy privately owned land near parks, affecting animal migration, land and water quality, and environment sustainability. Park allies are working to achieve full congressional funding of the LWCF, which is currently supported by Michigan Senators Stabenow and Levin.

Plan could lead to lifting of land acquisition cap (Holland Sentinel): The Michigan DNR is planning to submit a proposal to lift the cap on state-owned land, which currently limits state-holdings to approximately 4.6 billion acres. If approved by Governor Rick Snyder, the proposal would end the cap statewide, allowing for more state-owned forests, recreation areas, and wildlife reserves. The DNR argues that this lifting is necessary, as the Detroit area in particular sees a general need for public land.

Meet the MNA Staff: Katherine Hollins

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

MNA’s staff is full of people committed to protecting Michigan’s natural habitats. In addition to stewards and volunteers that help manage the sanctuaries, MNA has a group of regional stewardship organizers that oversee the volunteers and organize stewardship projects. Our three regional stewardship organizers are Adrienne Bozic, Katherine Hollins and Matt Schultz.

Katherine Hollins, regional stewardship organizer for the eastern Lower Peninsula. Photo by Kurt Jung.

Katherine Hollins, regional stewardship organizer for the eastern Lower Peninsula. Photo by Kurt Jung.

Katherine Hollins, the regional stewardship organizer for the eastern Lower Peninsula, has been with MNA for three years and oversees 60 sanctuaries in the eastern half of the Lower Peninsula. Her primary duties involve volunteer coordination and land management, but she also spends a lot of time working on removing invasive species—and getting volunteers to help her do it. On top of all that, Katherine conducts plant surveys, monitors sanctuaries, clears trails, marks boundaries, writes management plans, leading hikes, helps with prescribed burns, and conducts outreach to neighbors and communities surrounding some of MNA’s sanctuaries.

Katherine received her bachelor’s degree in psychology, but found that the jobs that most interested her involved the environment. She worked for the Student Conservation Association before joining the MNA staff and has a master’s degree in natural resources and the environment.

We sent Katherine a few questions to learn a little more about her experiences at MNA. Check out her responses below!

Q: What is your favorite part about being a regional stewardship organizer?

A: I love all of the people I get to work with – staff and volunteers. I get to learn from everyone and hear their stories. I also really enjoy getting out to see some of Michigan’s most beautiful spots… spending time outside during every season of the year has really opened my eyes to the wide variety of beauty out there.

Q: What is your favorite Michigan species (flora or fauna) and why?

A: This is an impossible question. However, if I have to pick one, I might choose the tamarack. They are beautiful trees, and pretty unique in that they lose their needles in the fall. Then when the new needles grow in the spring, they are an incredible bright green and feathery soft. They also tend to grow in neat places with other interesting plants… so they keep good company.

Q: If you could be any species (Michigan native or not), what would you be and why?

A: If I’m not a tamarack, I might like to be a spotted turtle. I think it sounds pretty nice to hang out around nice pools and marshy areas, swimming around and basking in the sun all day.