Michigan nature is so full of wonder that… Some of the rarest species can be found here.
Once common across much of the Midwest, now one of the rarest butterflies—the globally endangered Poweshiek skipperling—exists in only a handful of locations in Manitoba (Canada) and northern Oakland County, including at an MNA nature sanctuary. Over the course of just a few decades, the population of Poweshieks has crashed, for reasons mostly unknown (see Plight of the Poweshiek story map here). In the most recent surveys in 2021 and 2022, the number of wild Poweshiek skipperlings surveyed in the field has continued to decline.
An international partnership that includes MNA, is working to better understand the reasons for the Poweshiek decline, and provide habitat and ex-situ (off-site) and captive rearing efforts to assist with recovery.
One such recovery effort involves partners at the Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo, and the Haddad Lab at Michigan State University. The research partners have been collecting Poweshiek skipperling eggs for a captive-rearing program to help the species recover. And last month, 12 captive-reared Poweshiek butterflies were released at MNA’s nature sanctuary—representing a milestone for MNA and hope for future generations of Poweshiek in the wild. In all, a few dozen butterflies were released this year in the program, with hundreds more eggs laid. These eggs will overwinter in the rearing facility at John Ball Zoo, for breeding and release next year.
In May, John Ball Zoo held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a second hoop house for the Poweshiek skipperling, more than doubling the capacity of the rearing program. “This is more than just a ray of hope. This is a giant leap forward,” explained Nick Haddad, who leads the Haddad Lab at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station.
MNA is proud to protect habitat critical for the Poweshiek skipperling’s survival, and to be part of the important partnership that is working to save this species from extinction. MNA looks forward to continuing participation in this partnership effort to increase the Poweshiek skipperling population in the wild in the coming years.
from the Spring 2012 feature story in Michigan Nature magazine (with updates)
Stunning vistas of Lake Superior. Rugged shoreline harboring secluded sandy beaches. Hidden inland lakes glittering in the sunlight. Remote old-growth forests with towering, cathedral-like canopies.
Few places in the Midwest offer the natural beauty and solitude found in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.
The Michigan Nature Association has been working to protect the splendors of “Keweenaw country” since 1973. After decades of hard work by volunteers and generous support from donors, MNA currently owns approximately 20 nature sanctuaries along the peninsula, protecting a spectacular array of habitat types and rare species.
Given its name by the Ojibwa Indian tribe meaning “a place of crossing,” Indigenous people inhabited the remote region as early as 7,000 years ago. It was these native tribes that began the copper culture so commonly associated with the Keweenaw. Along with Isle Royale National Park, the Keweenaw is the only place in the country with evidence of prehistoric mining by Native Americans.
Industrial mining began in the 1840’s and the area quickly became one of the nation’s leaders in copper exports, but the industry declined and the old mining shafts and remaining ghost towns now add a unique sense of history to the natural beauty that characterizes the Keweenaw. The mining legacy endures in both positive and negative ways. The Keweenaw National Historic Park was established in 1992 to celebrate the life and history of the Keweenaw Peninsula. But stamp sands left behind from those mining operations now threaten important spawning grounds for fisheries and other important natural features.
A Rich Natural Heritage
The Keweenaw’s distinctive geologic past and location now make it an ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife. Forming one of the Great Lakes flyways, the Keweenaw is a crucial stop for thousands of raptors traveling north in the spring and south in the fall. Bald eagles, hawks and peregrine falcons can all be seen during their migratory journeys in the Keweenaw. Birds share the habitat with larger mammals such as black bear, moose, wolf and bobcat, showcasing the ecological diversity that can be found in the peninsula.
MNA’s Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary remains one of the most extraordinary sites for visitors to explore untouched Keweenaw wilderness. Saved from logging in the 1970s, the first 160 acres acquired in 1973 have grown to slightly over 570 total acres. Those who visit can immerse themselves in one of the largest stands of old-growth eastern pine in the Midwest, with trees reaching up to 125 feet tall and five feet in diameter. Copper mine pits dug three to four thousand years ago by Native Americans can also be spotted off the sanctuary’s Cathedral Grove trail if hikers look closely.
Much of the rock material found in the peninsula was created by ongoing volcanic activity about 1.1 billion years ago during the Mid-Continent Rift, which left behind layers of thick rock that are exposed in the northern reaches around the Keweenaw. The basin that was created from this rift eventually formed current-day Lake Superior. This massive syncline was filled with sediment and now separates the rock found on the Keweenaw from Isle Royale, which is composed of the same material.
More recently, after the last ice age more than ten thousand years ago, retreating glaciers carved out the many interesting hills and features that can be seen on the Keweenaw today. And sea stacks and cave structures formed by the powerful glacial lakes left behind can be seen throughout the peninsula, including MNA’s Grinnell Memorial Nature Sanctuary.
Protecting a Scenic Treasure
Northeast of the towering Estivant Pines is the Keweenaw Peninsula’s storied Brockway Mountain Drive, the highest road between the eastern Alleghenies and the Black Hills of South Dakota. The steep cliffs and stunning views of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, make this one of the most scenic stretches of road in America. And as the road reaches the summit of Brockway Mountain, there is often more to see than Lake Superior. Raptors, which can be viewed flying at eye level, are among the tens of thousands of birds that migrate through the area.
MNA now owns six natural areas along Brockway Mountain Drive, including the 150-acre James H. Klipfel Memorial Sanctuary adjacent to the summit of Brockway Mountain. Tucked away in the Klipfel Memorial Sanctuary are rare plants found only on the Keweenaw, like the heart-leaved arnica. Once privately held, the summit of Brockway Mountain itself is owned by Eagle Harbor Township as part of an ambitious conservation plan for the area.
Public and privately-owned natural areas along Brockway Mountain Drive not only conserve land but promote tourism, the mainstay of the local economy. Unfortunately, the scenic vistas so important to the Brockway Mountain experience could be negatively impacted by the siting of a proposed cell phone tower next to an MNA nature sanctuary. In addition, migratory birds, such as eagles, falcons, and hawks, could suffer increased mortality rates, and running electrical lines across the landscape could also cause further loss of habitat for rare plants and wildlife. The Eagle Township Board denied a special use permit for the tower in September 2021, but that may not yet be the end of that issue should tower proponents try to find ways around local zoning.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is a special place, with special people. They believe in conservation and practice it in countless ways. MNA is proud of the many relationships and partnerships we have forged in the Keweenaw over the years as we have worked together to protect critical habitat, strengthen local communities, and prepare the next generation to meet the challenges ahead.
And we are just getting started. …
As MNA celebrates our 70th Anniversary in 2022, we look forward to protecting habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species in the Keweenaw Peninsula and other exceptional lands throughout the state. Land acquisitions on and around Brockway Mountain have been ongoing, most recently with an additional 42 acres on Brockway and a 60-acre addition to the Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, increasing the sanctuary to 570 acres and adding a half-mile of frontage on the Montreal River—one of Michigan’s cold-water rivers that provides critical spawning grounds for trout and habitat for other aquatic species.
As part of a multi-agency partnership, MNA also supports the effort to secure nearly 16,000 acres of land for the public trust for habitat protection and recreational use. The Keweenaw Outdoor Recreation Coalition—a 300-plus member organization of individuals, businesses, and recreation, conservation, and community organizations—is currently working to have the land purchased using Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars. If successful, the campaign would secure permanent, public access to these recreational and conservation lands that are now in private ownership and at risk for development.
But it is not just the conservation and recreation values that inspire Keweenaw residents to act. “There’s a soul that exists here… and at the heart of that is the wilderness,” explains Keweenaw resident and photographer Steve Brimm in a video that MNA created with the help of award-winning videographers Fauna Creative.
MNA is proud to be part of protecting the splendors of Keweenaw country. The work that we do would not be possible without the incredible support of our members, donors, and the generations of individuals who have helped us achieve our mission. And we look forward to continuing this work in the future, across the state, to protect Michigan nature forever, for everyone. You can join us at michigannature.org.
On June 15, 2012 after burning more than 21,000 acres including part of MNA’s Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary in Luce County, the Duck Lake Fire was officially contained. Now, 10 years later, we are taking a look at what has changed at this sanctuary as a result of the fire.
The sanctuary derives its name from the surrounding area known as the Swamp Lakes which is of significant importance as a large block of wildlife habitat. This area is known to be frequented by moose, gray wolf, pine marten, and numerous other species of wildlife requiring a landscape intermingled with forests and wetlands.
The forest here is dominated by Jack and Red Pines which, once mature, create a dormant understory of easily burning materials—a critical part of the Jack Pine life cycle as their cones will not release seeds except under the extreme heat of fire.
But the Jack Pine isn’t the only benefactor of wildfire. As William Rapai wrote in the July/August issue of Jack Pine Warbler, “Only days after the fire was brought under control, bark beetles moved in to eat the damaged trees. And where there are insects, there are insect-eating birds—including the Black-backed Woodpecker, a species of special concern in Michigan… That woodpecker species is associated with burned areas because one of its primary foods—the bark beetle—attacks trees damaged by fire.”
Other species that were observed returning to or newly entering the area shortly after the fire were white-tailed deer, black bear, snowshoe hare, and gray wolf.
Beaver are common to the area, and have been able to expand their territory without human intervention in the years since the fire. At Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge, beaver activity has restored the wetlands and allowed much regrowth to occur.
Possibly the most significant result of the fire is the potential for thousands of acres of new habitat for the Kirtland’s Warbler, which prefer nesting in young (5-20 years old) Jack Pine forests. These formerly endangered neotropical migrants have experienced population recovery after many years of habitat management efforts in the northern Lower Peninsula. While MNA does not have record of Kirtland’s Warbler at the Swamp Lake Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary, the existence of young Jack Pines in the nearby forest gives hope for future populations.
Not all areas are expected to see the same recovery. Fire suppression efforts resulted in a significant amount of leaf litter and dead wood accumulating in the path of the fire, allowing the fire to burn much hotter and longer (nearly a month) than the soil is able to tolerate. “In some places, the Duck Lake Fire destroyed all the organic matter and microorganisms for some depth,” wrote William Rapai, “Particularly damaging will be the loss of the mycorrhizal fungus that is critical in the lifecycle of many species. The fungus has a symbiotic relationship with plants, helping them to absorb nurtients.”
A month after the fire, early indications were that the natural communities within Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge would recover without restoration efforts. Given the sanctuary’s wetland composition, the fire has proved beneficial, thinning out the canopy and allowing other plants like bracken fern, blueberry, and leatherleaf to regenerate. MNA will continue to monitor nature’s recovery from the fire and the landscape changes through the years.
Today, May 20, 2022, is National Endangered Species Day. Michigan is home to nearly 30 plants and animals that are listed on the federal endangered species list. MNA works to help these species recover by protecting habitat that is critical to their survival, and by educating the public about each of their crucial roles in the environment.
Learn more about one of Michigan’s rarest species below.
Saving a Rare Butterfly on the Brink of Extinction
One of the rarest butterflies, the Poweshiek skipperling, is truly on the brink of extinction. Once abundant in the tall prairie grasslands and the prairie fens of several states and provinces in the upper Midwest, the tiny butterfly is now found only in a handful of sites in Manitoba and northern Oakland County, including an MNA nature sanctuary. Loss of habitat and other factors contributed to a decades-long—and now a relatively recent and rapid—population decline that has scientists scratching their heads and worried about what their disappearance may mean for other pollinators.
The globally endangered Poweshiek is now so rare that only 100 individual butterflies were counted in a 2021 census. Recovery plans—aided by an international partnership that includes MNA—call for captive breeding efforts to headstart individuals and increase survival to adulthood in order to build a reserve population that can be reintroduced to the wild. The Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, and Michigan State University’s Haddad Lab are specifically collaborating within the Poweshiek Skipperling International Partnership to annually produce more individuals for wild releases in 2022 and beyond in what is known as ex situ or “offsite” conservation.
Ensuring genetic diversity in a managed breeding population is always a concern, especially when wild populations are so low. All of the Poweshiek that are being bred through this partnership in the United States were collected from sites in northern Oakland County. As the MNA sanctuary has been isolated from those sites, a female collected with MNA’s permission from our sanctuary is making significant genetic contributions to the whole—a critical component of species survival.
“The Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo, and MSU Haddad Lab sincerely appreciate the permissions granted by the Michigan Nature Association to help improve the prospects for Poweshiek skipperling conservation and recovery,” says Dr. Erik Runquist, Conservation Biologist, Minnesota Zoo, one of the ex situ lead scientists.
Poweshiek P21.3, as she is scientifically known, or “Penny” by some, successfully laid eggs in the fall of 2021 after pairing with a male that was captive-reared at the Minnesota Zoo and before being safely returned to the sanctuary from which she was collected.
Penny’s progeny will likely be used for further ex situ cross-breeding to enhance genetic diversity. But her story informs the path forward. To keep the Poweshiek from going extinct requires a multi-pronged conservation intervention to rebuild the population including management efforts to sustain the remaining habitat the butterfly requires, restoring other suitable habitat, and captive breeding to ensure there is a population left to reintroduce should the wild population blink out.
MNA’s contributions, and that of Penny’s, are a critical part of bringing the Poweshiek back from the brink with lessons learned for other rare species that inhabit prairie fens.