Nurturing a Symbiotic Relationship with Michigan Nature

by Dan Burton, MNA Sanctuary Steward

March signals the end of another winter, woody invasive shrubs removal season. It is not exactly a season noted on the calendar or managed by regulators, but is well known to many volunteer stewards. For me the season begins when the trees have lost most of their leaves in late fall and ends as sap begins to swell overwintered buds in early spring. As I recently toured a prairie fen I steward noting this season’s piles of cut invasive shrubs and open canopy, I was excited for the restoration work completed. I was also saddened to see another season go, even though I knew it meant spring was around the corner.

Before restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

There is something about this restoration work that I find very rewarding. It is tough physical work in cold winter conditions, but I am still drawn (if not addicted) to it. Part of the draw is working outside immersed in the natural elements that awaken dormant senses not unlike the hours I spend hiking and canoeing. Part of it is the physical tasks that drain my ageing body’s meager energy reserves taking with it pent-up anxiety from everyday life and yet somehow leaving me recharged. Part of it is the positive feeling of helping out an underdog prairie fen as it fights off a formidable foe in invasive shrubs. The prairie fen has historically had the help of fire in this battle, but that friendly partner has been mostly absent these days and sorely missed by many of the prairie fen’s native flora and fauna that benefit from the open canopy created.

Another part is the human elements I find outdoors even when working solo. I usually get to work with some dedicated like minded volunteers and enjoy the camaraderie, but COVID restrictions made this a solo season. As this season came to an end and I looked around the prairie fen I had worked so hard to help in its struggle against invasive intruders, I found myself alone and thinking about my stepdad and his brother who introduced me to the outdoors as a kid. They are both gone now and in some way, I think I was hoping they would be proud of the restoration work, its benefit to wildlife, and how they played a role in it by introducing me to the outdoors so many years ago.

After restoration work. Photo by Dan Burton.

As I rested on a weathered downed tree tossing back trail mix, faded fond memories of early morning fishing and hunting trips with the two of them drifted in lifting my spirits. They would be proud of the restoration work, but being old school they likely would have questioned my sanity. It does seem crazy to think of the hours, effort and resources I put into volunteer stewardship, yet I benefit as much as the prairie fen and its fantastic native flora and fauna. I guess you could simply say I am in a symbiotic relationship with a pretty prairie fen and thankful for its many mutual benefits.


Learn more about how you can become a Sanctuary Steward with MNA and start nurturing your symbiotic relationship today at michigannature.org.

Species Spotlight: Fairy Shrimp

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

A vernal pool fills with water around the springtime, bringing new life. Here, a small crustacean hatches; a lesser known relative of the lobster.

This crustacean’s common name, fairy shrimp, is the perfect nod to its graceful demeanor in the water and its small, delicate body. These aquatic dancers glide through the water on their backs by slowly rippling their eleven pairs of legs to create propulsion. They vary in size but are typically around three quarters of an inch long.

Fairy shrimp photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

The fairy shrimp would not be able to survive without the protective habitat created by the emergence of vernal pools each year. Though the ephemeral nature of vernal pools makes them a safe place for fairy shrimp to live without fish predators, surviving in such impermanent conditions is no small task. Fortunately, fairy shrimp are well adapted to do just that.

Once their eggs hatch, fairy shrimp have relatively short life cycles, only about a few weeks, allowing them to age and usually reproduce within the short window provided by the pool. In the case that the vernal pool dries up too quickly for the fairy shrimp to reproduce, these clever crustaceans have a backup strategy. Each spring, only a segment of the fairy shrimp eggs that had been laid the previous year will hatch, leaving the rest to remain dormant for potentially several years. That means that the fairy shrimp population can continue to survive, even if the pool doesn’t fill with water one year.

The presence of fairy shrimp is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, as it is considered an indicator species to confirm the presence of a vernal pool; and is exciting to behold if you are lucky enough to witness it.

Spotted salamanders are another species that use vernal pools. Photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

As a lead partner of the Michigan Vernal Pools Partnership, the Michigan Nature Association is committed to protecting vernal pools for all of the species that use them at a number of our more than 180 Nature Sanctuaries throughout Michigan.

Women’s History Month, March 2021

March is Women’s History Month. Women have long been active leaders in the conservation movement, and so we are proud to recognize just a few of those women who have contributed to conservation, both nationally as well as here in Michigan.

MNA Founder Bertha Daubendiek and Others Paddling at Carlton Lake Wetlands Nature Sanctuary. Undated photo from the MNA Archives.

National/Global

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson is most well-known as being the author of Silent Spring, her bestselling book that shed light on public and environmental health concerns surrounding the use of DDT, and is widely credited with advancing the environmental movement.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a dedicated supporter of conservation in the Everglades, writing the iconic book The Everglades: River of Grass the same year that Everglades National Park was established. “”It is a woman’s business to be interested in the environment.”

Margaret Murie

Margaret Murie accomplished great things in her work to preserve wilderness in Alaska. Dubbed the “Grandmother of the Conservation Movement” by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, one of her great victories was the establishment and expansion of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Dr. Dorceta Taylor

Dorceta Taylor is an environmental sociologist, who was the first black woman to earn a PhD from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Her research into the history of environmental injustices in America has been captured in several of her books.

Read about more women who made great conservation strides in this article by The Wilderness Society.

Michigan

Bertha Daubendiek

Bertha Daubendiek (second from right) and a group of visitors at an MNA Nature Sanctuary. Undated photo from MNA Archives.

Bertha Daubendiek was born in Montana, but moved to Michigan in 1936. She worked as a secretary and a court reporter for several years prior to founding the Michigan Nature Association in 1952. What began as a bird study group has grown to become the oldest statewide land conservancy in Michigan, protecting habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species at its more than 180 Nature Sanctuaries throughout the state. Bertha also authored the “Michigan’s Natural Beauty Road Law” which was enacted in 1970, and prevents widening of roadways without public hearings. For her many contributions to conservation in Michigan, Bertha was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Historical Society’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

Emma Genevieve Gillette

Genevieve Gillette was born and raised in the Lansing, Michigan area, and was the first female graduate of the landscape architecture program at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) in 1920. As a close friend of P.J. Hoffmaster, then superintendent of state parks, Genevieve was enlisted to scout areas in the state with the potential to become state parks. Genevieve raised public support and funding for state parks at Ludington, Hartwick Pines, Wilderness, Porcupine Mountains, P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, as well as Kensington Metropark and the national lakeshores at Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear Dunes. Her biography on the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame states: “It might justly be said of Gillette: ‘If you seek her monument, look about you.”

Huldah Neal

Huldah Neal has been described as “the epitome of what contemporary newspapers referred to as the ‘new woman’ of the 1890s.” A native of the Lower Peninsula’s Grand Traverse County, Huldah reportedly became frustrated by poaching of fish and game, and determined to resolve the issue herself. This is how Huldah became the first female conservation officer in the country; as game warden, she patrolled the remote areas of the county enforcing fish and game laws, and garnering national attention. Huldah paved the way for women in conservation enforcement, with dozens of women serving as conservation officers in Michigan recently.

Edith Munger

Most Michiganders know that the state bird is the American robin, a classically recognizable bird. Though you may not know that we have Edith Munger, first woman president of the Michigan Audubon to thank for this designation, as it was her campaign celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Michigan Audubon in 1929 that resulted in the naming of the state bird.

Joan Wolfe

Another founding woman was Joan Wolfe, who in 196 established the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, the first diverse member environmental advocacy organization in the state. She coordinated the drafting and passage of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act of 1970. Joan also served on a number of environmental boards and commissions including the Natural Resources Commission, the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, and more.

A group visits an MNA Nature Sanctuary. Undated photo from MNA Archives.

These are just a few of the amazing women who have made great strides for conservation in their communities. At MNA, we are proud to have been part of the incredible history of women in the environment and look forward to more women having a positive impact on protecting Michigan nature forever, for everyone.

Dangerous Migration: One of Nature’s Most Impressive Migration Phenomena is at Risk

By William Rapai

 

*The following story appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Michigan Nature Magazine

monarch - Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

Many flowers—especially native plants—are terrific sources of nectar for monarch butterflies. Photo by Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

It’s September at the Michigan Nature Association’s Goose Creek Grassland Sanctuary.

Even though asters and goldenrod are in bloom, most plants that grow here—including the three species of milkweed—are in decline. 

Hanging from the underside of a leaf, a Monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, with an urge to do only one thing: fly to Mexico.

Five generations of Monarchs have hatched already during this calendar year, but this individual is different. Always synchronized to the lifecycle of the milkweed, this Monarch inherently understands that fall is approaching and it must go. 

FWS_Monarch_Migration_Map_5.24.17

Monarch butterflies are not able to survive the cold winters of most of the United States so they migrate south and west each fall to escape the cold weather. They travel much farther than all other tropical butterflies, up to 2,000 miles. They are the only butterflies to make such a long, two-way migration each year. Map courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

There are no roadmaps or guideposts for the Monarch and there will be no adults that have made the journey before to show the way. There is only an inner drive that guides the butterfly on a 2,000-mile journey south and west, across the corn belt, the hot, dry plains of Oklahoma and Texas, across the Rio Grande, and over the mountains of Mexico to a place it has never been before—the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve west of Mexico City—where it will spend the winter in hibernation.  

There are Monarchs all across the United States and the southern tier of Canada and biologists split them into two populations. The western population winters in southern California and spreads out across the west coast and the Great Basin in the summer. But the eastern population—those butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains—return to Mexico in the fall in one of the most astonishing natural phenomena on this planet. Other butterflies migrate—both north in the spring and south in the fall—but the Monarch’s journey is unique because of the distance and the entire population somehow finds its way to one location in the mountains of Mexico after being spread out across half of North America. 

 

Reason for Alarm

This eastern migratory population is in jeopardy, however. The Monarch’s population is in trouble, caught in the crossfire of changing land use and habitat loss, drought in the southern plains, dangerous pesticides, and extreme storms. In the early 1990s, the eastern population of the Monarch was estimated at more than 500 million individuals. By 2014, that number had fallen to about 34 million. The population has rebounded somewhat since then—to an estimated 56 million in 2015, according to Chip Taylor, the director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

Even though the numbers have perked up, there is still much reason for concern. A 2016 study of this population by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego and the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that it could go extinct sometime in the next two decades. In fact, the eastern Monarch population decline has become such a concern that in 2014 President Barack Obama issued an executive order to create the National Pollinator Task Force to develop an action plan to save declining populations of honeybees and restore the eastern Monarchs to about 225 million. 

The Monarch’s population crash has increased the importance of sanctuaries like the Goose Creek Grasslands. This 70-acre sanctuary is just a postage stamp on a landscape dominated by agriculture, but it has everything a Monarch needs: flowering plants that provide nectar and plentiful milkweed, which is the only food source for Monarch larvae. This place also has sanctuary manager Rachel Maranto and many generous volunteers who work hard to remove glossy buckthorn, an invasive plant that would grow property line-to-property line and quickly dominate the entire landscape if not controlled. 

The on-the-ground work at the Goose Creek Grasslands is representative of the commitment the Michigan Nature Association has made to the Monarch. MNA has been working with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other government agencies, non-profits, and citizens to promote the health of the Monarch by promoting the planting of additional nectar plants and milkweeds.

Nectar gardens are particularly important for the Monarch’s fall migratory generation. Weight gained by those butterflies during migration will have to sustain them because they won’t eat anything until they come out of hibernation in March, says Cora Lund Preston, a communications specialist with the Monarch Joint Venture, a Minnesota-based partnership of more than 60 organizations.

There’s one more thing unique to this fall migratory generation: for their entire migration and hibernation, they are locked in a juvenile state called “diapause,” which makes them unable to breed. Always synchronized to the milkweed, they only become adults and breed after they emerge from hibernation in March as milkweed plants sprout in Mexico and Texas. 

But all that is months ahead for this Monarch. It’s a sunny September day, and the Monarch is torn whether to leave Goose Creek. Michigan is a pretty good place for a Monarch in any generation, says Stephen Malcolm, a professor of chemical biology at Western Michigan University. The landscapes of states to the south and southwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa—are a vast monoculture of corn and soybeans that provide very little in the way of food or places to breed.  Michigan’s less agriculturally intense and more complex environmental matrix is good for Monarchs because it provides more places for milkweed and nectar plants to grow. In addition, the moderating impact of the Great Lakes limits temperature extremes. 

monarchs at Fred Dye by Adrienne Bozic

Monarch butterflies at MNA’s Fred Dye Nature Sanctuary in Mackinac County. Photo by Adrienne Bozic.

Despite those luxuries, migratory restlessness is too much to overcome and this Monarch lifts off from a goldenrod, to start a perilous journey. This trip would be dangerous for any animal let alone one that weighs only about a half a gram—a hundred times as heavy as a grain of sand. There are predators and the risk of being struck by a speeding vehicle or being caught in an early frost. 

 

Near Impossible Challenge

Like other Monarchs traveling across the Midwest, this butterfly’s first challenge is finding food on a vast landscape of corn and soybeans. Often there are flowering plants growing along rural roads—New England aster, stiff goldenrod, black-eyed Susan—but there’s also danger here. If the plants are near an agricultural field there’s a chance they have been contaminated with neonicotinoids or some other insecticide. 

Neonicotinoids are considered harmless to humans in small amounts, but to insects like butterflies and honeybees they are deadly. The pesticide is systemic, which means it reaches into all parts of the plant and kills any insect that comes in contact with any portion of the plant. Many of the corn and soybean seeds planted across the Midwest are treated with neonicotinoids, and the insecticide is absorbed as the plant germinates and grows. Other neonicotinoids are sprayed on plants or are included in irrigation water, which unfortunately allows them to spread to nearby non-agricultural plants. For a pollinator like a honeybee, even a minute amount is lethal.

For the Monarch, however, the impact of neonicontinoids will be fully felt when a new generation arrives back in the Midwest the following spring. A 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that even if milkweeds are not treated directly, they can contain neonicotinoid compounds in levels high enough to be fatal to Monarch caterpillars if they grow near treated agriculture. (You may very well have a neonicotinoid compound in your house even if you pride yourself on not using pesticides on your garden. Have a dog or cat? If it wears a flea or tick collar, it likely has a neonicotinoid as an active ingredient.)

California monarch - Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

Mountains west of Mexico City are the winter refuge for most of the monarch butterflies in North America. Photo by Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture.

As the Monarch approaches the Rio Grande, it and other migrating Monarchs from across the eastern United States funnel into a narrow corridor that parallels the Gulf of Mexico. There are two dangers here: drought and tropical storms. A four-year drought in this area earlier this decade took a severe toll, as Monarchs were unable to find food as they traveled through the area. In 2011 alone, 97% of Texas was in drought with 88% of the state experiencing severe drought. 

Mexico - monarchs on trees - Wendy Caldwell

After migrating from the United States and Canada, monarch butterflies spend the winter in oyamel firs at a few mountain forests in Mexico. Photo by Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture.

That drought also had an impact for three straight springs: Monarchs emerging from hibernation in March went north expecting to find young milkweed plants growing so they could breed and lay eggs and for three straight years there were almost none. A wet spring in Texas in 2015 gave the migrants a bumper crop of milkweed, and the Monarch population responded accordingly. 

And then there is the danger of running headlong into a tropical storm entering Texas or northern Mexico from the Gulf of Mexico. Biologists say it’s common for Monarchs to survive the heavy rains and high winds by burying themselves in leaf litter, hiding under rocks, or taking shelter in a hollow part of a tree. 

Ten weeks after it left Goose Creek, this Monarch has made it safely to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in central Mexico. Technically this reserve is a tropical resort—only about 19 degrees north of the Equator—but at nearly two miles above sea level, the area has a unique microclimate and winter temperatures range between 32 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The butterflies cluster together on the branches of evergreen trees to keep warm.

But this clustering—the entire population in less than 50,000 acres—makes the Monarchs vulnerable. A storm in early March 2016 brought cold temperatures and high winds that knocked down about 133 acres of trees and killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies. 

 

A Cycle Worth Saving

In March, the sun climbs higher overhead, the thin mountain air begins to warm and millions of Monarchs emerge from hibernation and search for food. No longer in diapause, they now also search for mates and milkweed plants to lay their eggs and continue the butterfly’s lifecycle. 

There will be as many as five generations during the year as the Monarch again spreads out across eastern North America, reaching Michigan and the Goose Creek Sanctuary in early May. 

And on a late summer day, with the milkweed in decline at a sanctuary in southern Michigan, a Monarch will emerge from its chrysalis, with an urge to do only one thing. 

monarch on a goldenrod - Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

A monarch butterfly rests on goldenrod before continuing toward its migration destination. Photo by Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture. 

William Rapai is the author of two Michigan Notable Books: The Kirtland’s Warbler (University of Michigan Press) and Lake Invaders (Wayne State University Press). He is also the president of Grosse Pointe Audubon and has a milkweed/pollinator garden in his front yard.