Life on the Brink: Endangered Butterfly Gets a Helping Hand

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.

Poweshiek skipperling. Photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo.


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.

Dave Pavlik, a research assistant at the Haddad Lab, places a Poweshiek skipperling caterpillar into a special enclosure at John Ball Zoo. Photo by Lauren Ross.


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.

Dave Pavlik, a research assistant at the Haddad Lab, releases a captive-reared Poweshiek skipperling butterfly on a Black-eyed susan. Photo by Lauren Ross.


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.

Celebrating Migratory Birds on World Migratory Bird Day

by Zoë Goodrow

World Migratory Bird Day is on May 14th this year, where over 700 events and programs around the world will take place to educate the public on migratory birds and how to conserve them. Migration is a spectacular event – especially in Michigan. Two major flight paths, or “flyways”, run through Michigan. These paths are the route birds take between their breeding grounds up north and their overwintering grounds in the south. You can track this migration on the website birdcast.info. Nearly 400 species of birds pass through Michigan via either the Atlantic or Mississippi Flyway. Our Great Lakes habitat serves as a critical stop for migratory birds, resulting in exceptional opportunities for Michiganders to observe them. Because Michigan is such a critical stop for migratory birds, the availability of suitable habitat for them is essential for their survival. A study published in “Science in 2019 said three billion birds have been lost in Michigan since 1970. There are species of migratory birds that are important to Michigan’s biodiversity that are threatened by habitat loss and other issues that impact environmental health.

Common loon with chick. Photo by Joni Roberts

One of the first species to pass through during spring migration is the common loon. A beloved and iconic species in our state, the common loon nests in northern Michigan. Common loons return to the same nesting site each year, and each year more nesting sites are destroyed from lakeshore development, damming, or poor water quality. Their diet consists of macro invertebrates and fish, which also share the same threats. Common loons can live over 30 years – because of their longevity and their place higher up in the food chain, they are considered indicator species of water quality and environmental health. In recent years, much research has been done to understand the impact of lead, mercury, and PFAS accumulation in common loons. Efforts to conserve loon habitat and increase the number of breeding pairs in Michigan have been underway for years, and numbers have been slightly rising. There are an estimated 500-700 breeding pairs in Michigan, which is a success given the goal of the Michigan Loon Recovery Plan is to maintain at least 575 breeding pairs.

Another migratory bird that is the focus of significant conservation efforts in Michigan is the purple martin. Although the global population of purple martins is stable, the Michigan population has been steadily and steeply declining for the past six decades. Over one-third of their population has disappeared in the last 50 years. This decline is a result of a combination of factors including nesting habitat loss, competition with invasive species, decreased prey availability from insecticide use, and climate change. Conservation efforts include providing nesting boxes in purple martin habitat. Research suggests that nesting boxes (often referred to as “condos”) installed by purple martin “landlords” across the state are the only thing keeping the species alive. There are numerous outreach programs in Michigan and beyond to educate the public about purple martins and the individual actions that can be taken to protect their populations, including limiting insecticide use, creating native plant habitat, and installing nesting boxes.

Kirtland’s warbler. Photo courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The Kirtland’s warbler is an exceptional conservation success story – one that shows how collaborative work and adaptive land management can lead to the comeback of a species. In 2019, this beloved songbird was removed from the endangered species list after once being nearly extinct. Scientists worked with land managers in Michigan to conserve and expand suitable habitat for the Kirtland’s warbler by creating and maintaining young jack pines stands across the state. This practice in combination with managing brown-headed cowbirds, who parasitize Kirtland warbler nests, are what led to the thriving population of Kirtland’s warbler we have in Michigan today.

The success story of the Kirtland’s warbler, and the stories of other important migratory birds in Michigan, are testaments to the importance of habitat conservation and restoration. At the Michigan Nature Association (MNA), we work to acquire, protect, and maintain natural areas that are home to important habitat for endangered and threatened migratory birds. With the help of organizations like MNA from the local to the national level, legislators, scientific research, and generous donations – more conservation success stories are possible. This migration season, see how you can help protect these species that are important to Michigan’s biodiversity. One action Michiganders can take is, at the recommendation of the DNR, remove bird baths and feeders to mitigate the risk of HPAI (avian flu) to migratory birds.

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.”

rattlesnake

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.

Lefglen sign

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.

volunteers

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)!

monarch

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