Understanding Conservation Impacts on Michigan’s Rare Turtles

MNA works every day to protect the most vulnerable plant and animal species in the state. Two recent projects of particular interest are the turtle surveys being conducted at MNA sanctuaries in the southern Lower Peninsula.

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Blanding’s turtle crossing a road near Lefglen Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Rachel Maranto.

The Blanding’s turtle is a Michigan species of special concern, due to the risk of habitat fragmentation. Because the Blanding turtles utilize a range of terrestrial and aquatic habitats, they are especially impacted by the use of pesticides and the construction of roadways near wetlands, which causes fragmentation of the landscape at wetland complexes.

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Steward Rebecca Kenny holds a spotted turtle during a survey in May, 2019. Photo by Rebecca Kenny.

Spotted turtles are a Michigan threatened species, which have historically been found in the southern and western areas of the Lower Peninsula. These turtles prefer shallow wetland habitats, such as marshes and fens, and require clean water for their survival.

Both the Blanding and Spotted turtles are currently being reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for potential listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act; and both are considered vulnerable to climate change according to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. MNA Volunteers and Stewards have recently conducted preliminary surveys to better understand these species’ usage at several MNA sanctuaries. The initial Blanding’s turtle survey will determine where larger populations may exist within the MNA sanctuary system.

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Steward Dan Burton holds a spotted turtle during a survey in May, 2019. Photo by Rebecca Kenny.

It is important to continue gathering data on the habitats, plants, and animals that MNA works to protect, as monitoring helps to determine what methods and management techniques are working. MNA looks forward to these turtle surveys, and continuing to provide crucial habitat for these species in the southern Lower Peninsula.

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Honoring Pollinators During National Pollinator Week

As some of you may know, pollinators come in all shapes and sizes – from well-known bees and butterflies, to birds and even bats. These animals are critical components in a healthy ecosystem, helping plants thrive and provide food to all members of the food chain. But many pollinators have been experiencing population decline in recent years, which prompted the designation of this week in June as “National Pollinator Week” – to recognize the important role pollinators play in our world, and to focus on ways to help support pollinator populations.

MNA is proud to be a part of protecting many pollinators in Michigan – a few of these species are detailed here.

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Poweshiek skipperling photo by Kelly Nail, USFWS

MNA works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to better understand the decline of the endangered Poweshiek skipperling – a small butterfly at risk of habitat loss due to agriculture and landscape development. The Poweshiek requires plants and soils normally found in prairie fen habitats, which are a vulnerable natural community in Michigan. This once abundant butterfly can now only be found in a handful of sites in the world, including at MNA Sanctuaries.

Bumble bees are some of the most recognizable pollinators in the world, and have been the predominantly referenced species in the fight to save pollinators. The Rusty-patched bumble bee is one of these that have experienced decline due to habitat loss and pesticide use. The Rust-patched bumble bee, named for the brownish-orange patch found on the backs of males and worker bees, requires grasslands and prairies with undisturbed soil for both food and housing. However, many of these areas in the Midwest have been converted to farmland and other developments, such as roads. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Bumble bees are keystone species in most ecosystems, necessary not only for native wildflower reproduction, but also for creating seeds and fruits that feed wildlife as diverse as songbirds and grizzly bears.”

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Rusty-backed bumble bee photo by Kim Mitchell, USFWS

One of the larger pollinators that can be found in Michigan is the Swallowtail butterfly. Many varieties of the Swallowtail exist, some more common than others, but they all play a critical role in the process of plant reproduction. One unique sight in Michigan is groups of swallowtails foraging along damp or muddy sand, where they sip dissolved minerals and salts. They are also for their caterpillar’s defense mechanism – a pair of false eyes that form on the fore section of their body.

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Black swallowtail butterfly photo by Marianne Glosenger.

It is critical that we recognize the important role that pollinators play in our natural communities, and work to protect those habitats that are critical for the pollinators’ survival. There are many ways that you can help pollinators that extend beyond this important week, learn more at pollinator.org or pollinators.msu.edu and canr.msu.edu/pollinators_and_pollination.

Why We Burn

Sanctuary stewards in safety gear stand over a patch of scorched ground at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

Seán Mullett, Sam Brodley, and Lance Rogalski pause for a moment while conducting a prescribed burn at Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary.

April is traditionally the peak of burn season in the land stewardship world. You’ve probably noticed more controlled/prescribed burn photos filling up your social media feed; people dressed in yellow, flames and smoke over charred ground. But for as much of the media coverage as these burns get, you don’t often see the stories behind the need for them.

Controlled burns can take place for a number of reasons – to treat and manage invasive species like autumn olive, or in some prairie environments, to prevent trees and shrubs from encroaching and crowding out essential sun-loving wildflowers and prairie plants. Over the past month, MNA stewards conducted prescribed burns at several of its sanctuaries, including Butternut Creek Sanctuary in Berrien County, the goal of which was to maintain the open grassland features of the prairie fen. Prairie fens are critical habitat for a high number of imperiled and declining species including the federally endangered Mitchell’s Satyr, one of the rarest butterflies in the world; known only to exist in Midwestern fens that were created by the retreating glaciers. While the Mitchell’s Satyr has not been observed at this particular sanctuary for a number of years, maintaining healthy prairie fen communities like that found at Butternut Creek is essential to improving threatened, fen-dependent species across the state.

In an excerpt from MNA’s spring 2011 magazine, Conservation Director Andrew Bacon explains:

Historically, fire crept through the understory of the forest, but did not necessarily ignite the mid- or upper-levels of the canopy as observed in the intense wildfires of recent times. Prior to human settlement, fire prevented shade-tolerant trees from populating oak-hickory forests, oak barrens and open communities. Without fire, trees like red maple, American beech, basswood and elm survive in the understory and fill gaps in the forest canopy.

As gaps are filled, less sunlight reaches the forest floor, making it impossible for shade-intolerant species like oak and hickory to grow. Herbaceous prairie and savanna species also become shaded out as trees become established. Slowly, the entire species composition of natural communities changes, and many species of plants and animals must find food and habitat elsewhere.

Prescribed fires have had significant and measurable results, such as restoring and protecting the habitat of the federally-endangered Karner blue butterfly. Without active management to keep these critical habitats healthy, these species and other habitat specialists like them would be at greater risk of decline.

2018 Year in Review

A Year of Milestones

2018 Year in Review Cover

Two major anniversaries distinguish a busy and exciting 2018.

The first, of course, is the 45th anniversary of the Michigan Nature Association’s campaign that prevented logging of the largest stand of old growth white pine left in Michigan and established our Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary in 1973. The drive to raise needed funds to secure Estivant galvanized individuals, organizations and service clubs from all over the state and still stands as one of MNA’s crowning achievements.

In that spirit, we were delighted to receive a $90,000 challenge grant in honor of the Estivant Pines anniversary, and this new campaign is underway as this Year in Review goes to print.  With your generous support, we will add 60 more acres to this iconic nature sanctuary and direct $90,000 in challenge dollars to stewardship needs in our nature sanctuary network.

2018 is also the 45th anniversary of the federal Endangered Species Act.  The Endangered Species Act is an essential, national framework for protecting rare, threatened and endangered species but it has been under assault since its passage in 1973.  2018 was no different and we made our voice heard by stepping up to formally oppose rule changes that could have a devastating impact on the statute. We will continue to monitor and act on threats to this critical environmental law.

One of the major limitations of the Endangered Species Act, however, is the lack of funding for protecting critical habitat.  Remarkably, twenty years before Congress passed this landmark legislation, MNA’s founders recognized the need for action to protect Michigan’s rarest and most vulnerable species and natural communities, pioneering the strategy of protecting land in Michigan to do so.  We pursue that mission every day thanks to their foresight and our members and donor who continually rally to the cause.

Celebrating these two major milestones bookend a year’s worth of notable activities that you will read about in this Year in Review.  None of our work is possible without the commitment of our members, donors, and volunteers, and I hope you are as proud as I am of what we have accomplished together.  Be it saving old growth white pines in the Keweenaw, protecting imperiled natural communities across our great state, or defending critical policies for threatened and endangered species, we are truly all in this together.

Thank you for all you do—I look forward to another year of working with you to protect Michigan’s incredible natural heritage.

Garret Johnson
Executive Director

 

The Importance of Environmental Stewardship in Fighting Phragmites

By Hannah DeHetre, MNA Intern

The Michigan Nature Association is a land conservation organization that works to protect and preserve natural areas in Michigan by recruiting local volunteers to help maintain MNA sanctuaries as well as implementing conservation education. MNA was founded in 1952, as a bird study group, and now the organization owns and manages over 175 sanctuaries across Michigan. MNA relies heavily on volunteers and environmental stewardship. According to Rachel Maranto, the Stewardship Coordinator in the Lower Peninsula, volunteers are the “bread and butter” for MNA because “Michigan is such a big state and there are very few staff covering the state, so what is accomplished hinges on volunteer participation.”

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A massasauga rattlesnake that we saw at one of the MNA sanctuaries this summer. The Massasauga is, as of 2016, listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (Service, U. F.), demonstrating the importance of preserving MNA sanctuaries (photo: Rachel Maranto).

To manage over 175 sanctuaries across Michigan, volunteers come out and help with work days. Over the summer, the work days involved the removal of invasive species such as autumn-olive, garlic mustard, and phragmites. According to Maranto, the management practice that is predominately used to control phragmites is spraying of herbicide. Due to her limited time, volunteers, and funding, herbicide backpacks are the tools used to deal with phrags, and it normally takes three days throughout the season to hit all the phrags in Saginaw Wetlands. Maranto also said that ideally, she would like to try mowing the phrags in the winter when the ground is frozen, and then spraying in the spring so that the vegetation is shorter, and therefore less herbicide would have to be used and it would be easier to spray. According to Maranto, the main goal of MNA in dealing with phragmites, especially at Saginaw Wetlands, is containment. Right around the sanctuary is a large invasion of phragmites around Lake Huron, and so without large-scale cooperation, all MNA can do is control the phrag invasion within their own sanctuary.

This summer, I interned at the Michigan Nature Association as a Stewardship Assistant. I spent the summer traveling to sanctuaries all around southeastern Michigan doing site-monitoring, setting up boundary markers, and most importantly: removing invasive species. We used various techniques to remove invasive species (not just phrags), such as just pulling them out of the ground, herbicide spraying, and cutting the plant and dabbing herbicide sponges on the cut stem. During my time with MNA, I got to meet some really great and dedicated volunteers, who were taking time out of their day, in the heat, to make their neighborhood a nicer place by managing their local sanctuary. Maranto told me that MNA attracts volunteers who are engaged and dedicated to helping MNA, so whenever someone leaves, it is hard to fill their shoes. For a small-scale conservation organization like the Michigan Nature Association, volunteers are vital for invasive species management. This was an interesting thing for me to learn this summer, as it really emphasizes the importance of local people caring about their neighborhood.

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The entrance sign to Leflgen Sanctuary (photo: Hannah DeHetre)

My last day interning for MNA was phrag spraying at Saginaw Wetlands. Rachel, another intern, and I spent hours walking around and spraying any phragmites that we saw. It was hot and sunny, I had on a really heavy herbicide backpack, and it was really hard work. It takes real dedication and passion to work that hard for a goal that some people think is impossible to achieve, and when I asked Maranto if she ever feels discouraged, or like she is fighting a losing battle, she said that overall she is not discouraged with the work the MNA does and any discouragement that she may feel just comes from a tough day spraying phrags in the heat. She also says that overall she has seen an improvement in the phrag management in the five years that she has worked for MNA. She says that typically, one year they spray a large stand of phragmites, the next year they are dead, and the following years, volunteers just have to come back and spray any repsouts- so there is improvement, which is why Maranto does not feel discouraged.

The areas around Saginaw Wetlands are really infested, and MNA has to fight against that, and as I said before, MNA’s goal in phragmites management is containment, and that the best invasive management practice is to discover the invasion and remove it before it can get out of control, which MNA is doing well. When asked about MNA’s future plans for dealing with phragmites, Maranto said that if resources and personnel do not change, then it will be more of the same: spraying herbicide with volunteers who are willing to help. However, if some sort of biocontrol were to be developed and implemented, MNA would be a willing participant in that management practice. Another opportunity that Maranto would be interested in would be more collaborating with neighbors of sanctuaries, and with the help of partners to share the administrative burden and workload, bigger equipment could be used for ecological management.

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Another intern, Liz, and I taking a break after LOTS of phrag spraying. We still have a smile on our faces! (photo: Rachel Maranto)

The Michigan Nature Association is a conservation organization that manages and protects over 175 sanctuaries throughout Michigan. While working there this summer, I learned about and employed various management practices used by MNA to remove invasive species from their sanctuaries. More than that though, I learned about the power of local volunteers. These are people who just care about nature, and about their neighborhoods, and are willing to spend hours in the summer working hard outside for the sake of taking care of these sanctuaries. Effective conservation and management can only happen with the help of these volunteers (so go out and volunteer)!

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Bonus: Monarch caterpillar that we saw at Saginaw Wetlands (photo: Rachel Maranto)

Estivant Pines 45th Anniversary Challenge

2018 marks the 45th anniversary of a remarkable example of what people can do when they join together to make a difference. In August of 1973, after a statewide campaign rallying the support of people across Michigan, MNA prevented Michigan’s largest remaining stand of old growth white pine forest from being destroyed forever. Because people across the state helped MNA purchase the land, nearly half-a-century later you can visit MNA’s Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, walk its trails, and experience first-hand a majestic virgin forest that has been undisturbed for hundreds of years.

This year, MNA received a special challenge in honor of the 45th anniversary of the campaign to save Estivant Pines from logging. The grant will provide the $90,000 we need to purchase 60 acres along the southern border of Estivant Pines, but only if we show strong statewide support by raising an additional $90,000 for general stewardship.

Support Protecting Michigan Nature this #GivingTuesday

We need 45 individuals to give $100 between now and midnight Tuesday, November 27. As an added incentive, your $100 gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar. Donate to help save the Pines!

Expanding a 510-acre Living Museum of Michigan’s Old White Pine Forests

The majestic white pines at Estivant were once slated for logging and would have been lost were it not for MNA’s members, donors and volunteers who answered the call of concerned locals to save this Michigan natural treasure.

No single project has introduced more people across Michigan (and the nation) to the work of MNA and the importance of protecting Michigan’s natural heritage than Estivant Pines.

And there is no more inspiring example of what MNA can accomplish when we all pull together than the successful effort to protect Estivant Pines.

So much more than the white pines were saved! The dense, old growth forest canopy provides habitat for 85 species of birds, including 15 species of warblers. Many other animal species that prefer a mature forest habitat utilize these unique woods, including the pine marten. The pine marten was nearly eliminated from Michigan’s northern forests in the early 20th century.

Below the towering trunks of the pines live an astonishing array of wildflowers, such as asters, baneberry, pyrolas and twinflower. More than a dozen species of orchids and over 23 species of ferns, including spleenwort, maidenhair and holly fern, are also scattered across the forest floor.

Adding 60 Acres Near Where the Eight-Foot-Diameter “Leaning Giant” Once Stood

The additional 60 acres comes in two tracts, one on either side of the old growth white pine forest where the Leaning Giant was found years ago. Many of the more adventurous visitors to Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary take a rough and rugged hiking trail and cross the Montreal River to see the famous Leaning Giant, a celebrated white pine with a trunk eight feet in diameter. Named a Michigan champion white pine in 1971, the Leaning Giant was later brought down in 1987 by a fierce north wind but you can still see its massive trunk lying across the forest floor today.

With your support, we can meet this ambitious challenge and acquire this remarkable property. Along with old growth white pines, the 60 acre property contains large cedar and eastern hemlock trees and would serve as an important buffer to the heart of Estivant Pines. Wetlands found on the property are integral to the hydrology of an emergent wetland on the existing sanctuary that is regularly used by American bittern, a species of special concern in Michigan. Acquiring the 60 acres would also ensure the protection of a half mile of the Montreal River with frontage on both sides.

MNA Expands with Room to Collaborate

The creation of a collaborative space at our headquarters in Okemos where nonprofit, agency and other partners can gather has been a vision since we purchased our building a few years ago. That vision is now reality with the recent completion and furnishing of our new Margaret and Clifford Welsch Environmental Education Room.

Margaret Welsch with her daughter, granddaughters and great-granddaughters

Thank you to the Welsch family!

Fostering conservation dialogue and action are primary motives behind the construction of the new room, made possible by a generous gift from Margaret and Clifford Welsch, enthusiastic supporters of MNA’s education mission. The Welsch Education Room has already been used for meetings, training workshops, educational seminars, and collaborative partnerships by groups such as Michigan Audubon, Michigan Forest Association, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Wetlands Association and the Michigan Vernal Pool Partnership.

Ed Room with groupFlexible seating and table arrangements can accommodate theatre, classroom or workshop configurations for as many as 100 participants. The room is available to any nonprofit but reservations are required, and reasonable fees may be applied for use of the room outside of normal business hours. Contact michigannature@michigannature.org to inquire about reserving the room.

To complement the Welsch Education Room, plans are underway to convert the grounds at our building from conventional office park landscaping to native plants friendly for birds, butterflies, bees and pollinators. The goal is to use the outdoor space to educate landowners and businesses about the importance and attractiveness of native landscaping.

Plant sign in the gardenMembers of District IIB of the Michigan Garden Club donated plant signs for MNA headquarters to help visitors identify a wide variety of recently installed native plants. The project to transform our conventional office park landscaping to one that is bird, bee, and pollinator friendly is a collaboration between Michigan Nature Association, Michigan Audubon (and a grant from National Audubon’s Plants for Birds program), Christopher Hart of HartScapes LLC, many volunteers, and now District IIB.