Fall 2018 Michigan Nature Magazine

There is good news on the front to stem the decline of wildlife in Michigan – a powerful plan exists that could counter otherwise devastating trends.

As our feature story explains (p. 18), Michigan’s updated Wildlife Action Plan, facilitated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources with the help of MNA and other conservation partners, is designed to provide a strategic framework to coordinate conservation in Michigan for wildlife and their habitats.

We believe the Wildlife Action Plan is a conservation strategy for the state unlike anything we have had before. MNA is aligning our goals and actions with those of the Wildlife Action Plan across all our programs – land protection, habitat restoration, stewardship, outreach and education – to ensure we are providing as much value as we can.

We are proud to be a champion for the Wildlife Action Plan, but it will take many collaborators to fully implement it. As Amy Derosier, the Michigan DNR’s Wildlife Action Plan Coordinator, says in our Q&A (p. 33), “Ultimately, it will take many people at the table who care and are engaged” to implement the Wildlife Action Plan and address our growing wildlife crisis. We couldn’t agree more.

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Invasive Species Spotlight: Japanese Stiltgrass

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

Microstegium_viminium_specimenAt first glance, Japanese stiltgrass appears to be an innocent, pleasant-looking plant. Most wouldn’t even give the grass a single thought if they were to encounter it. In a sad reality, however, that “irreproachable” grass is quite the opposite. This invasive species chokes out the wildlife around it, and grows and spreads at an alarming rate. It decreases biodiversity and forces animals and plants alike out of their natural habitats. It is widely thought that this species is among one of the most dangerous invasives, as it has spread throughout the country very quickly in relatively little time.

The grass was introduced in Tennessee in the early 1900s through its use as a packing material. It is native to Japan, China, central Asia, and India. Since then, it has spread rapidly to the east, and has started to make its way into the Midwest.

Like other invasive plant species, Japanese stiltgrass is spread with the unintentional aid of humans and animals. The small seeds latch onto fur and clothing, or are carried by the wind. The seeds can survive for up to five years in the soil. The stiltgrass can cross and self fertilize, producing up to 1,000 seeds per individual plant. Most animals avoid eating the plant, leaving it to grow with little to no controlling factors.

The stiltgrass is most often found in shaded areas that are often subject to soil disturbances such as tilling or flooding. It is found along roadways, in floodplains, along hiking paths, as well as in damp woodlands. It’s not picky when it comes to the acidity of the soil it inhabits, though it prefers the soil to be fertile. When in direct sunlight, it doesn’t grow as quickly as it normally could. Its growth is also slowed when near stagnant bodies of water. The grass can also infiltrate residential areas, and is often found in flower beds, lawns, and parks.

JPSGrass identification is notoriously tricky, but thankfully, Japanese stiltgrass has a variety of distinct features for people to identify it by. First off, each plant can have multiple weak stems that branch near the base of the plant. The stems are smooth, and can be green, brown, or purple. The leaves are two to four inches long, and about half an inch in length. They’re pointed on both ends, and have off-centered, silver, ridges. They are widely spread out on the stem. The roots are thin, and weak. They are very easy to pull out of the ground because they do not grow very deep into the soil. Aerial rootlets are present along nodes near the base of the stem – these stilt-like features are what gives the plant its common name of “stiltgrass”. The plants grow flowers in late summer through early fall, and the flowers have a few spikes.

Japanese stiltgrass can get up to about six feet tall, though many plants tend to be between one to three feet in height. The taller plants usually prop themselves up on other plants or trees, or they lay flat against the ground. During the autumn, the tops of the plants turn purple or brown, and in the winter the thatch turns an orange color.

While keeping Japanese stiltgrass under control and preventing it from spreading further may seem like a daunting task, it is undoubtedly a necessary one for the well-being of many ecosystems. Within recent years this invasive has spread to northern Indiana, and last year it was found for the first time in Michigan, in Washtenaw County. Be sure not to get it confused with common look alikes such as Whitegrass, Nimblewill, Basketgrass, Deer tongue, Smartweed, or Crabgrass!

Eddmaps MV distribution as of July 2018

Annual Monitoring in Effect at the Hart Plant Preserve

Hart NS signBy Lauren Cvengros, MNA Intern

The Donald E. Hart Plant Preserve is located in Benzie County in the northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula by Crystal Lake. It is a cedar swamp located on the Betsie River, donated by longtime MNA Members Donald E. and Marjorie A. Hart. The sanctuary is located within 45 minutes of Traverse City and is an incredibly beautiful spot thick with trees and full of frogs, salamanders and other amphibians. This sanctuary protects nine acres of conifer swamp and 255 feet of river front.

The land is completely untouched by humans, so the natural features are allowed to flourish. Although the land is safe from human influence, there are a few invasive species including reed canary grass and wild parsnip. The work the Michigan Nature Association does to protect the plant preserve is imperative to maintain and restore the native wildlife. The swamp area in this sanctuary is a Betsie River Near NW Corner 4common dumping ground for brush clippings and trash, so MNA’s efforts in annual monitoring is crucial. If you go to visit this sanctuary, you will notice the stillness of the untouched land, left in peace for the creatures who live there to thrive. This type of environment is becoming more and more scarce and if not properly taken care of there is a threat of habitat destruction and species extinction. The monitoring efforts conducted allow places such as the Hart Plant Preserve to exist.

3rd - Colwell, Roberta - Green FrogStepping onto the sanctuary land is like entering a whole new world, kept away from the commotion of everyday life. The present species are vibrant, mostly frogs and salamanders, of whom can be seen abundantly around the sanctuary. The preserve is home to all types of plants such as birch trees, pine trees, dogwood, honeysuckle, ferns, vines, and more. The thickly wooded forest and green covered floor of the sanctuary provides a prime example of a little slice of nature you can enjoy in Benzie County.

Pulling Spotted Knapweed at Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

IMG_2038Tucked away behind an interesting little trucking company, Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary is a true sanctuary. A hidden, untouched, and thriving ecosystem where you would least expect it. In June, the Michigan Nature Association held a scheduled workday dedicated to the upkeep of this sanctuary. Five Lakes Nature Sanctuary consists of rare habitat, composed mostly of coastal plain marsh. I was told by the stewardship coordinator, Sam, that some of the plants found in the sanctuary are isolated communities that are typically found in marshes on the Atlantic coast. Thinking about the ecological reason as to how these plants managed to find a home in Michigan makes protecting these rare communities all the more important.

IMG_6617

Invasive spotted knapweed

The nature sanctuary not only contains coastal plain marsh, but also other critical habitats such as oak-pine barrens and dry sand prairies. The reason for our workday was focused on preservation of the dry sand prairies, which are susceptible to invasive species such as spotted knapweed. This invasive plant thrives in the soft, sandy soil. Spotted knapweed uses allelopathic chemicals to inhibit surrounding plant growth by exuding the chemical from its roots. For the critical habitat that the Five Lakes Nature Sanctuary protects, allowing this invasive species to spread would be detrimental to the rare marsh plant and wildflower communities.

The workday was led by West Michigan Regional Stewardship Organizer, Sam Brodley, and was attended by the two stewards of the sanctuary. What was unique about the stewards was that they were both young teenage girls. It was cool for me, as an aspiring female conservation biologist, to see young girls actively engaged in natural resource management. My mom and I arrived at the work day a little late, so we missed the group heading to the work site. Not knowing which direction they headed, we ended up going on a bit of a walk in the opposite way. While we missed some of the actual work, we were able to explore some of the sanctuary that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. The trail we were on followed the marsh area and ran deeper into the woods as opposed to the dry sand prairie that we hoped to find. Though we enjoyed the scenic detour, I eventually contacted Sam and found our way to the right place.

IMG_9602The area we were working in was an open area, with sparse trees and shrubbery. Nothing stood out to me at first as clearly invasive, as sometimes plants do when they begin to overtake an area. One of the women who attended the workday told me that once you know what spotted knapweed looked like, you’d see it everywhere. She was very correct. It took me a second to become familiar with the plant, but soon I could spot it amongst other prairie like plants. The plant has a pale green, ashy complexion, which makes it stand out against native species. We were also told to look for its compound leaves to help distinguish it from similar prairie plants. Since the soil was so loose and it had recently rained, it was easy to pull the entire plant, taproot included, from the ground. We were lucky that the knapweed had not flowered yet, so we didn’t have to worry about bagging or burning the discarded plants.

When we had felt like we had made solid progress, we made the walk back to the cars and parted ways. Attending a workday, though shortened by an unfortunate case of misdirection, was a great way to feel involved with the nature of Michigan, even in places you’d least expect it. I got a great breathe of fresh air, and now I will always know how to spot spotted knapweed!

Check out MNA’s event calendar for find a volunteer workday near you!

Protecting Wetlands

Wetland - Abby Pointer

Wetland. Photo: Abby Pointer.

By Abby Pointer, MNA Intern

We celebrated American Wetlands Month this May! Extremely productive ecosystems, wetlands can be found in all extremes, from the tropics to the tundra, on every continent except for Antarctica. A little closer to home, Michigan wetlands provide important habitat to many species of waterfowl and fish, which play a vital role in our recreation and tourism industry, as well as our economy.

A wetland is an area where water covers the soil and is present all year or for varying, yet predictable periods of time. Wetlands form for a variety of reasons, whether from a permanent body of water, precipitation, or seasonally from rain or snow. This soil, described as hydric from its saturated quality, becomes anaerobic, or without oxygen. Therefore, the bacteria that reside there cannot use oxygen to respire, and use carbon or nitrogen, giving wetlands a high concentration of these particular molecules to create a unique ecosystem.

sandhill crane - steven kahl

Sandhill Crane. Photo: Steven Kahl.

This hydrology, the water saturation of the soil, of wetlands is a major factor in determining the type of soil that develops and the organisms that the environment can support. Since wetlands are versatile ecosystems, many types of both terrestrial and aquatic organisms can live there. In Michigan wetlands, you are likely to see a landscape covered in various sedges and rushes, and in the spring little mallard broods, perched Bobolinks, as well as a booming population of sandhill cranes!

These waterfowl, among many others, find sanctuary in wetlands, as they provide habitat and food for each year’s new brood of ducklings as well as a “rest stop” for migratory birds. About one-third of the United State’s endangered species call wetlands their home, from the American crocodile to many types of orchids! Wetlands also serve an important ecological purpose, such as acting as a buffer to prevent pollution from entering the water system, stopping widespread flooding and holding those excessive flood waters, and controlling erosion along our beautiful Michigan shoreline.

tile-drainage - Matt Miller

Wetland tiling. Photo: Matt Miller.

Unfortunately, wetlands are becoming increasingly rare due to human actions. Between filling and draining to make room for land for agriculture or development, building dams or dikes, and excessive logging, these detrimental actions have given rise to programs to restore these endangered ecosystems.

Michigan is one of only two states to have a federal wetlands program and is working toward continual restoration of these lands. Methods involve preventing the aforementioned human actions as well as taking measures to remove the tiling that drains water. This special attention from MNA, MDNR, DEQ, and other conservation groups will help guarantee that we can continue to enjoy the beauty and habitat our important wetlands provide!

Estivant Pines: A Living Museum

The Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, protecting the largest remaining stand of old growth white pines in Michigan, celebrates its 45th anniversary.

By William Rapai

Time passes slowly at Estivant Pines.

Nobody knows that better than Gary Willis, a forester with the Michigan Department of Bertha and groupNatural Resources and former assistant professor at Michigan Technological University. Willis knows this place better than most people. When you see this preserve through his eyes you begin to understand that the best way to truly appreciate this place is not to consider time in hours, years, and decades but in centuries, periods and eras.

Estivant Pines is the Michigan Nature Association’s 510 acre sanctuary in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Despite its remote location—down a pothole-strewn dirt road south of Copper Harbor—it is one of the organization’s most popular sanctuaries. Every summer, thousands of people from across the United States visit, wandering two looping trails to marvel at white pine trees that stand 120 feet tall.

But there aren’t many visitors to Estivant Pines in the late winter or early spring because the road that leads to the sanctuary is usually under several feet of snow or too muddy to be drivable. However, the period after snowmelt and before trees emerge from dormancy is the best time to see and understand time’s impact by looking down—not up—and closely examining what is and isn’t here.

What is here is volcanic bedrock that dates back to the earliest period of Earth’s history and carbonized tree stumps that are the remains of a cataclysmic forest fire more than 200 years ago. What isn’t here is surprising and confounding. The plant life in the understory is healthy—lots of lichens, mosses, ferns, maples, birches, cedars, spruces, and balsams. Surprisingly, there are few young white pines even though these 240-300 year-old trees have produced millions of viable seeds during their lifetimes.

img 1198Willis gained these insights when he was a forester for the Michigan Nature Association. In the late 1990s he started working at Estivant Pines at the request of Michigan Nature Association’s founder Bertha Daubendiek. Willis was given a unique opportunity to study these ancient trees after a logger accidentally trespassed on the sanctuary and cut a number of the trees along one of the boundaries.

Daubendiek sent Willis out to write a damage report, but during the process he started to see this incident as a unique opportunity to study how these giant trees grew. As he measured the width of the stumps and correlated individual ring-widths he began to understand these trees through the prism of time.

But it’s not just the trees that are measured in time. Much of this sanctuary sits on a high ridge of volcanic bedrock that runs between Annie Creek and the Montreal River that dates back to the earliest period of Earth’s history, some 1.1 billion years ago. In fact, Willis said, other researchers at Michigan Tech have discovered the Keweenaw was once one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth.

It’s difficult to see it from the landscape level, but Willis says if you look at an aerial photo of the peninsula, you can see a series of ridges left behind from that volcanic flow. Those ridges run parallel to the shoreline and curve as the shoreline curves and narrows as it reaches the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Even though we tend to think of these trees as old, the plant community here is in its infancy, relatively speaking. Plants—trees, shrubs and grasses—established themselves only about 10,000 years ago following the withdrawal of the Wisconsin Glacier.

Tree roots - Brittany AllenMultiple glaciers over the past 2.5 million years left behind a thin layer of soil that can support plant life but generally is not deep enough to anchor a 100-foot-tall tree. To compensate for the lack of soil, most of the pines have grown roots deep into fractures and crevices in the bedrock. Some trees have been lost to windstorms but remarkably few considering that the sanctuary sits at an altitude that varies between 200 and 500 feet above lake level. That altitude leaves these trees exposed to powerful winter winds that blow across Lake Superior. In the winter, this sanctuary can get more than 275 inches of snow in a single season. The combination of heavy, wet snow and strong wind can bring even the hardiest tree down, says Donald Dickmann, professor emeritus of silviculture and physiological ecology at Michigan State University and co-author of The Forests of Michigan. Fortunately, most of the snow that blankets the Keweenaw’s rocky ridges is light and fluffy lake effect powder.

Summer brings heavy thunderstorms and gusty winds, and the trees, which tower above the hardwood canopy, are sitting ducks for lightning strikes. One of those lightning strikes more than 200 years ago might have been the spark for a fire that ravaged this area and set the stage for the Estivant Pines as we see them today.

Those carbonized tree stumps and little bits of charcoal strewn across the landscape point to a potent wildfire that swept through the area in the late 1700’s. Willis said it likely wiped out most of the white pines that had been standing on that spot perhaps for centuries. Just as the towering, mature pines today prevent the young pines from growing underneath, those earlier pines prevented any new ones from growing beneath them. It’s not that these trees are refusing to reproduce; it’s just their reproductive strategy. Barring a major fire, disease or insect threats, these pines could be here for another 300 years before they reach the end of their natural lifecycle. As that happens, the maples, birches, spruces, and balsams that make up the understory will continue to grow and mature and create a thick new canopy 50 feet or more under the tops of the pines. As those trees mature and die, fuel for a future fire will continue to build up on the forest floor, waiting for a spark.Marianne Glosenger - Estivant Pines NO WATERMARK hi res

When that fire eventually arrives, the pines’ continued existence will depend on its intensity. A moderate fire may not cause any damage because the old trees are protected by a thick layer of bark. But if the fire is intense enough the heat will fry the layer under the bark that transports water and nutrients up the trunk. That will kill the tree even if the fire does not reach the top branches. If that happens, the tree, knowing that it will soon die, will put all its energy into seed production. The year following the fire, massive amounts of seeds will cover the now-bare, ash-covered soil and thousands of new white pine trees will germinate if there is enough rain.

And the cycle will begin again.

Ancient white pine trees like the Estivant Pines once covered a good portion of Michigan. loggingIn the late 19th century, lumberjacks cut these trees to supply wood for houses, barns, and carriages needed by a fast-growing nation. At the time, it was thought that Michigan had an inexhaustible supply of white pine.

Only a few stands of virgin white escaped the lumberjack’s gluttony—this one, of course, one at Hartwick Pines State Park northeast of Grayling, and another stand on private property east of L’Anse are the three best known. But Don Dickmann of Michigan State says he has found small stands of them in other places in the Upper Peninsula. Those stands, like Estivant Pines, were spared through random chance and, more recently, the passion of local citizens who wanted to preserve these trees for what they represent.

nancy leonard - epines make a difference dayTwo people who have come to deeply appreciate the history represented by these pines are Bill and Nancy Leonard, who organize volunteers and stewards for the Michigan Nature Association in the Keweenaw Peninsula. They work closely with sanctuary stewards Ted and Alice Soldan to maintain the boardwalks and trails. Bill Leonard said that as he’s working he enjoys talking with visitors and is always amazed by how many people from faraway places around the country come to see these giants multiple times.

“It just pulls people back,” Leonard said.

Indeed it does. But those visitors? For now, it seems, they can take their time.

 

William Rapai is the author of three Michigan Notable Books including The Kirtland’s Warbler (University of Michigan Press) and Lake Invaders (Wayne State University Press). He is also the president of Grosse Pointe Audubon.

As seen in the feature story in the Winter 2018 issue of the Michigan Nature magazine.

2017 Year in Review

Celebrating 65 Years of Saving Our Natural Treasures

Cover photo - 2017 annual report

MNA’s accomplishments directly align with our founders’ vision of an organization that would connect people with nature and inspire the protection of rare, threatened and endangered species. Our conservation strategies have necessarily evolved with the times, but the spirit of MNA today continues to embrace the three pillars crucial to our success – people, land, and legacy.

First and foremost it is people who make the difference, our generous donors, volunteers, sanctuary stewards, interns and staff who are behind every single accomplishment described in this Year in Review. Our thanks go to all of you and this year’s standout volunteers who were honored at our Annual Recognition Dinner in October.

The land we care for is the backbone of our statewide impact – an incredible network of over 175 nature sanctuaries. This year, our volunteers logged thousands of hours on stewardship projects large and small to care for these special places. We worked to expand existing sanctuaries to provide more habitat for rare animals such as the Poweshiek skipperling and the eastern massasauga rattlesnake at Big Valley, and even a rare plant called the Virginia water horehound at Red Cedar River.

Finally, a profound sense of legacy that shapes MNA today and will do so long into the future. Our duty to the legacy to those who came before us is reflected in our commitment to being good stewards of the land. And our growing field trip program, School to Sanctuary Partnerships, and research and intern opportunities for college and university students link the importance of our work to the next generation of conservation caretakers, the people who will carry MNA’s work forward in the future.

Thank you to our members, donors, and volunteers for making 2017 a great success and a year to remember! If you would like to support MNA, you can become a member or make a tax-deductible contribution.