Making an Impact as an MNA Intern

by Emma Kull, MNA Communications Intern

Like many who now work in the field of conservation, I grew up with a special affinity to animals. Of course, I loved the ones that lived in my home. We would always compare our house to a zoo–and by ‘we’, I mean my dad, who was constantly attempting to be the voice of reason whenever my sister and I would point at a new creature in a pet store and yell ‘that one!’. I loved all animals, though, not just the ones who relied on me to take care of them. I loved the deer that would occasionally stroll beyond the nearby park boundaries and wander into our front yard. I loved the moles that our neighbors would spend hours trying to get off their property. I loved the chipmunks that would find their way into our attic and drive everyone mad, the birds that would sing to us in the morning, and the squirrels that ran up and down our fences all afternoon. I wasn’t sure how to help them, but I desperately wanted to do something. Naturally, when it came time for me to choose a field of study in college, that admiration and appreciation of animals played a large role in my decision.

Emma Kull at a natural area in Michigan. Photo courtesy Emma Kull.

Now a graduate of Michigan State University, I have more than a love for animals, but an understanding of them as well. This is key to doing any conservation work, and a lesson that I continue to learn everyday in the work that I do both at Howell Nature Center, and at the Michigan Nature Association.

At Howell Nature Center, I work directly with injured, impaired, and sick wildlife. The reality of working with wildlife is that it is hard. There are hundreds of animals that can’t be saved, and that is a call that someone has to make nearly every day. Sometimes even more difficult, is the ones that can be saved – these are the ones that you have to let go. Protecting wildlife is not about caretaking them. The best case scenario when an injured animal comes in is that they are released back into the wild. The part of you that loves animals wants to keep them safe in your care forever, but the part of you that understands animals knows they need to be wild.

Photo courtesy Emma Kull.

As an intern at MNA, I get to experience a whole other side of conservation work. This often looks like the ‘bigger picture’. In order to protect biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems, we must work to conserve habitats and species populations, not just individual animals. I’ve found the experience I’ve gained already at MNA to be invaluable as a tool for promoting conservation efforts. Though it is very different from the work I do at Howell Nature Center, it is closely related in that it promotes the true needs of the environment and wildlife. Once again, this comes with a true understanding of animals and not just an innate admiration.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to receive an opportunity to work at the Detroit Zoo over the summer. I am inspired by all of the important and groundbreaking work the DZS is doing for the welfare of their animals and the conservation of species in the wild. If you’re a frequent visitor of the Detroit Zoo, you might not see every animal every time. This is because the Detroit Zoo is a leading zoo in captive animal welfare and designs their exhibits with an emphasis on the individual animal’s wellbeing. Though guest experience is also extremely important, it is never allowed to interfere with the zoo’s important mission of ‘Saving and Celebrating Wildlife’. Thus, instead of keeping resident animals in smaller habitats with fewer shelters to make them more visible to guests, the Detroit Zoo teaches guests that their animals are more than just a sight to see. They focus on educating the public on important conservation issues, and they bring together people and animals through animal ambassador programs that are safe for the animals and provide guests with a more close-up picture. I’m proud to have a zoo in our community that is leading the way in these important issues, and I am excited to contribute to those efforts.

When you care about animals the way I do, it is such a rewarding experience to work to protect them, even if it’s not quite how you imagined it being as a kid. It can be more challenging than expected and often much less hands on. It can even be upsetting or heartbreaking. However, it is truly worth it for the change that you’ll make, the amazing people that you’ll meet, and all the creatures that you’ll help.

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In the fall of 2021, Emma Kull began a graduate program at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School in the Environment and Sustainability program. We thank Emma for her contributions to MNA’s work and wish her the best in her endeavors. You can make a difference too as a Communications Intern with the Michigan Nature Association. Visit michigannature.org to learn more about how to apply.

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.

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.

Invasive Profile: Dame’s Rocket

By Ally Brown, MNA Intern

One problem with identifying invasive species is that, many times, they appear almost as beautiful as the native species they live among. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has been an established invasive in North America for many years, yet without knowing the story behind this species it appears to be just another of Michigan’s many gorgeous flowering plants. This same story follows for another species in the Brassicaceae family which has been spreading throughout Michigan without the same spotlight as garlic mustard.

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Dame’s rocket. Photo: Gary Fewless.

With delicate violet flowers atop a slender green stalk, nothing about this flowering plant seems out of the ordinary for a wildflower native to Michigan; this assumption, however, is sadly misinformed. Dame’s rocket is one of the many common names for Hesperis matronalis, a close relative to the widely known invasive garlic mustard. This relation can be determined visually through examination of the petals and the similarity in shape between the leaves of the two species. An additional similarity Dame’s rocket has to garlic mustard is its two year life cycle –  the first year plant exists as a rosette low to the ground and without flowers, while the second year plant is the more recognizable image shown to the left. An important distinction to make when identifying Dame’s rocket is that it has four petals per flower head. Native phlox species appear similar in structure and flower color yet have five petals per flower head.

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Garlic mustard. Photo: K. Chayka

A plant being nonnative is not enough reason to label it as necessary to remove. For a plant or animal to be labeled as invasive it must present some danger to the health of native species or ecosystems. The abundant seed production and allelopathic nature of Dame’s rocket are a few of the characteristics which qualify it as an invasive species. Similar to other members of the mustard family, a single second year plant can produce dozens of seed pods, each containing many more individual seeds. When released from the confinement of a garden, these seedlings have the potential to overwhelm native plants, thereby altering the composition of native environments. Another characteristic of Dame’s rocket that threatens native species is that it is allelopathic, meaning it has the ability to produce chemicals which stunt the growth of surrounding plants, potentially killing them. With the potential for overwhelming native populations (especially when it is found growing alongside garlic mustard) it is extremely important that Dame’s rocket is reduced in popularity as a yard plant and any that has escaped into surrounding areas is carefully removed.

The process of removing Dame’s rocket can be difficult, as it has a characteristic taproot that extends deep into the soil and makes it hard to pull by hand. One method for effectively removing small stands of this plant is to wait until a light rain has moistened the soil so that careful hand pulling can remove the entirety of the plant and its taproot. The plants should then be placed in a garbage bag that is tightly tied in order to prevent any sort of re-sprouting or further spread. For stands too large for removal of the complete plant, another method of control is to pull the seed pods off the plants and seal those in a plastic bag. This method of invasive species control has been utilized by MNA volunteers and interns at the Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary in southwest Michigan. Removal of garlic mustard seed pods has reduced the spread of invasive plants and protected the variety of wildflowers, lichen, and trees which reside in the area.

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Dowagiac Woods Workday. Photo: Jeremy Emmi

Though each part of nature holds value and beauty, when an organism is brought outside of its natural habitat into a new environment it has the potential to disrupt the equilibrium of those already there. For this reason it is important that invasive species such as Dame’s rocket are discussed and prevented from spreading through stewardship work by organizations like the Michigan Nature Association, as well as sharing knowledge about this and other invasive species to allow the beauty of native ecosystems of Michigan to be conserved.