Endangered butterflies, climate change, and robofish: this week in environmental news

Each week, MNA gathers news stories from around Michigan and the globe related to conservation and nature. Check out some of what happened this week in environmental news:

A poweshiek skipperling butterfly. Photo by Dwayne Badgero.

A poweshiek skipperling butterfly. Photo by Dwayne Badgero.

Two Prairie Butterflies Gain Endangered Species Act Protection in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Dakotas (Center for Biological Diversity): The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced yesterday a settlement to speed protection decisions for 757 imperiled plants and animals across the country. Among these are the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly, which survives in small numbers in Michigan.

Autumn anomaly: Deepest Great Lakes’ levels rising (Detroit Free Press): The brutal winter of 2012-2013 is still impacting the Great Lakes this fall, contributing to rising water levels in Lake Superior and connected Lakes Michigan and Huron. In the fall, the Great Lakes typically have a slow decline in water levels. Lake Superior’s depths, however, rose almost a half-inch from Aug. 1 to Oct. 1, and Lakes Michigan and Huron rose almost two full inches.

How climate change is transforming winter birds (Conservation Magazine): Data analyzed from the Project FeederWatch citizen science project as well as other bird survey and climate data indicate that bird species that prefer warmer weather are advancing north. Between 1989 and 2011, the average temperature index of species present at surveyed cites crept upward, meaning warm-adapted birds became more prominent.

University spawns robofish to monitor Great Lakes (Great Lakes Echo): For about 10 years, Michigan State University engineering professor Dr. Xiaobo Tan has been working on a robotic fish that can be used to monitor water quality.

Sparing mute swans, bear cub decline and ‘fishy’ behavior: this week in environmental news

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA gathers news related to the environment from around the state and country. Here are a few highlights from what happened this week in environmental news:

 

A mute swan glides atop the water. Photo by Karen Stamper, courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

A mute swan glides atop the water. Photo by Karen Stamper, courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

Local policy revision spares non-aggressive mute swans (Great Lakes Echo): The invasive mute swan species growth in Michigan has been exponential, increasing by 10 percent each year since 2010. Currently there is legislation in place in west Michigan, authorizing the elimination of these creatures. After a recent survey found that people would prefer only the aggressive swans be killed, the Hutchins Lake Association is trying to negotiate a new plan.

Researchers look to spin grass into beef (Great Lakes Echo): The demand for grass-fed cattle is rising in Michigan. With a $460,000 federal grant, researchers from Michigan State University will explore the economic profitability of these cattle as well as environmental friendliness and encouraging consumers to eat frozen meat.

Changing fishery discard practices has cascading effect on ecosystems (Conservation Magazine): Unwanted fish are thrown over the side of sea vessels and fisheries experience up to 40 percent of discard on their trips. Fishing has cascading effects on wildlife, researchers found, because of the removal of some fish many species feed on. Research shows the resolution to this issue is “complicated.”

 

A polar bear with her two cubs. Photo by Frank Lucassec, courtesy of The Guardian.

A polar bear with her two cubs. Photo by Frank Lukasseck, courtesy of The Guardian.

Fewer polar bear cubs are being born in the Arctic islands, survey finds (The Guardian): Bear cub births in the Arctic islands of Svalbard decreased by 10 percent in 2014 alone, according to a small survey. Global warming continues to melt sea ice on which polar bears use to hunt seals. Of 29 female bears researchers tracked, only three gave birth to cubs that year, much less than the usual one-third of female bears to give birth.

Large muskies lured by the moon: study ties lunar cycle, fish behavior to angler success (Science Daily): In a recent study, a possible link between lunar activity and feeding time have encouraged fish to take the bait. Scientists analyzed the muskellunge in North America and found a correlation between lunar activity and the number of fish caught at fisheries.

 

Rare Turtles, Go Green Trikes and the Keystone Pipeline: This Week in Environmental News

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA intern

Every Friday, MNA gathers news related to the environment from around the state and country. Here are a few highlights from what happened this week in environmental news:

The blanding's turtle has been a threatened species in Ontario since 2004. Photo by Shannon Keith via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

The Blanding’s turtle has been a threatened species in Ontario since 2004. Photo by Shannon Keith via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

Turtles vs. turbines (Great Lakes Echo): The Ontario Divisional Court has ruled in favor of a wind turbine project that put groups at odds with each other. The opposing groups are for alternative energy and protecting a threatened turtle species and fragile soil. There are nine turbines and access roads planned. if the turbines go in, then the habitat will be destroyed.

National Arbor Day Tree Planting to take place on April 25 (MSU Today): This year marks the 142nd anniversary of Arbor Day. To celebrate, Michigan State University is planting a 15-foot-tall Norway spruce outside the MSU Union at noon on Friday, April 25. The tree will replace a historic Norway spruce originally planted in 1865 that was lost during a windstorm last year.

Earth Day 2014 is launch date for environmentally friendly Go Green Trikes (mlive): On Earth Day, a business launched called Go Green Trikes, which is a company looking to deliver goods and services around Lansing. The bikes, called ELF, are large, orange, three-wheeled bikes that come complete with turn signals, break lights, and are battery-powered by a large solar panel.

Views You Can Use: Keystone XL Gets Put on a Shelf (US News): The Obama administration announced Friday that it will delay making a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. The party is split on the issue, with Democrats from states with large oil economics calling for approval, but others are rejecting it for environmental reasons. The pipeline would run 1,700 miles from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

State, university officials and entrepreneurs waiting for drone industry take-off (Great Lakes Echo): The status of using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles commercially is banned by the FAA and it remains in effect until the case is ruled on again. Though it is against the rules, there are a number of companies that continue to use the drones for a variety of reasons, including photography and land management. It has been five years since officials began writing drone usage laws and they still are not finalized.

How similar are prairie restorations to native prairie remnants in southwest Michigan?

The landscape of the fen at Campbell Memorial.

The landscape of the fen at Campbell Memorial.

MNA’s mission includes studying Michigan’s natural history. While every visit to a sanctuary brings a chance of expanding your knowledge and appreciation of nature, MNA also seeks to support dedicated scientists who try to understand our world and its fascinating flora and fauna. When done in a way that is compatible with conservation, MNA encourages scientific research on sanctuaries.

This post is the second in a series of posts on research done in MNA sanctuaries. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lars Brudvig’s lab in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. She is interested in how species assemble into plant communities. To study Michigan prairie restorations, Lars and Emily teamed up with Tyler Bassett, a Ph.D. student also in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and at the Kellogg Biological Station. More information is available on Dr. Grman’s website

Of the vast areas of tallgrass prairie that once flourished in the central United States, less than 1% remains. In Michigan, scattered patches of native prairie once intermingled with savanna and woodland communities, but nearly all have been converted to cropland or development. This massive habitat loss has threatened the persistence of prairie plant and animal species. Over the past few decades, conservationists have increasingly used prairie restoration as a tool to reverse habitat loss. Prairie restoration in Michigan frequently involves adding seed of native prairie species and returning fire to former agricultural land. These restoration efforts often produce communities with an abundance of native plant species that can provide habitat for prairie insects and animals, but these restored prairies don’t replicate remnant, untilled prairies. This is partly because we still don’t completely understand the complex ecological interactions that allow ecosystems to accumulate species as they recover from a disturbance or change through time. Clearly, though, this information is essential. We must understand how to reconstruct communities in order to successfully rebuild lost prairie ecosystems.

In my current research, I aim to understand how species assemble into a community. I am a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Lars Brudvig’s lab in the Department of Plant Biology at Michigan State University. To study the assembly of plant communities in Michigan prairie restorations, Lars and I teamed up with Tyler Bassett, a Ph.D. student also in the Plant Biology Department at MSU and at the Kellogg Biological Station. In summer 2011, our research team collected data on the plant communities in five remnant prairies in southwest Michigan, including three MNA properties: the Betty and Ralph Campbell Memorial Plant Preserve at Helmer Brook, Prairie Ronde Savanna, and Sauk Indian Trail. We compared those data to 27 restored prairies throughout southwest Michigan, many on private lands.

We learned that restored prairies and remnant prairies in Michigan differ in important ways. Dominant C4 prairie bunchgrasses, such as big bluestem and indiangrass, were more abundant in restorations than in remnant prairies. We also found some prairie plant species in remnants that we never encountered in restorations, such as Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), veiny pea (Lathyrus venosus), and early goldenrod (Solidago juncea). Some of these differences may be due to the seed mixes used during restorations: none of those remnant prairie species were included in restoration seed mixes, and seed mixes often had high densities of C4 grasses. Even so, including rare prairie species in seed mixes did not guarantee that they would become part of the prairie community. Of the 65 different prairie species commonly included in seed mixes, more than 25% never established in our transects, and another 40% established less than half the time. Despite this, restored prairies had nearly as many species as the remnant prairies: we found 36 species in restorations (on average, per 10 m2 sampling area) and 41 species in remnants.

From this study, we learned that while prairie restoration can create diverse grasslands to provide habitat for many native species, restoration has not recreated the communities we see in rare prairie remnants that have never been tilled. Therefore we believe it is essential to continue to preserve the rare gems of remnant prairie habitat scattered throughout southwest Michigan.

Sand dunes, storms, and lots of fish: This week in environmental news

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA highlights recent environmental news stories from the past week. Here’s what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

A public hearing was held Monday for a request from Bro G Land Company, who wants to build a 1,200-foot driveway on Lake Michigan dunes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Michigan sand dunes development controversy rages over 1,200-foot driveway (Huffington Post): Last August, Gov. Snyder signed legislation that changed development standards for landowners on privately-owned sections of the state’s sand dunes. Since then, around 50 applications have been submitted that request permission to develop on the dunes. Monday was the first public hearing for one of these requests, a request from Bro G Land Company, who wants to build a 1,200-foot driveway to a private residence. This driveway would stretch across a critical dune habitat on Lake Michigan. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hopes to reach a decision regarding the driveway by May 13.

Fracking opponents can start gathering signatures for a 2014 ballot proposal (Detroit Free Press): Supporters of a ban on fracking in Michigan can begin collecting petition signatures after the Board of State Canvassers approved the petition language Tuesday morning. This proposal would ban using horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to access pools of natural gas and oil underground across the state. Oil and gas companies have used fracking in Michigan since the 1960s and say that the fracking is well-regulated and not harming the state’s environment. Gov. Snyder, who supports fracking, commissioned the University of Michigan to complete a study on the practice. A report on the study is supposed to be released later this year.

Storms contribute to debris in Michigan waterways (The Detroit News): A huge pile of tree limbs, brush, marsh vegetation and garbage is clogging part of the Saginaw River after the recent storms that brought flooding to Michigan. Officials are urging caution to recreational boaters and anglers, as this debris can be a water hazard for boaters when it moves into the rivers.

Once too polluted, Lansing’s Red Cedar River is once again open to anglers (Michigan Radio): For the first time since the 1960s, people will be encouraged to fish along a portion of the Red Cedar River at Michigan State University, after the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and various MSU dignitaries (including Sparty) dumped buckets of Steelhead trout into the river. Forty years ago, the Red Cedar River suffered water quality issue, primarily from non-source point runoff and agricultural drainage, but the river has been cleaned drastically since enactment of the Clean Water Act and supports a diverse fishery today. The DNR plans to continue stocking the Red Cedar River on MSU’s campus for the next five years.

Let the river run: Dam removal accelerates across Michigan (MLive): A growing number of communities across Michigan are removing obsolete dams, restoring fisheries and developing riverside parks and trails. Big Rapids built a 2.6-mile Riverwalk trail along the Muskegon River after the city removed remnants of the Big Rapids Dam in 2001, and other cities, such as Detroit and Lansing, are working to improve water quality in their long-abused rivers by developing riverfront parks and trails. Gov. Snyder’s 2013 budget included $2.5 million for dam removals or repairs, and the DNR recently announced $2.35 million in grants to support dam removals or repairs in six communities. Four of these grants will help fund dam removals in Traverse City, Lyons, Shiawassee and Vassar.

Do soil microbes help plants to adapt to their local environment?

MNA’s mission includes studying Michigan’s natural history. While every visit to a sanctuary brings a chance of expanding your knowledge and appreciation of nature, MNA also seeks to support dedicated scientists who try to understand our world and its fascinating flora and fauna. When done in a way that is compatible with conservation, MNA encourages scientific research on sanctuaries.

This post, which will be first in a series, was written by Tomomi Suwa, who is a graduate student in Dr. Jen Lau’s lab at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station. She is studying hog peanut, a wildflower native to Michigan that occurs on Palmer Memorial Nature Sanctuary in Southwest Kalamazoo County. To learn more about her research, visit tomomisuwa.com or Dr. Jen Lau’s website

Tomomi Suwa. Photo: Kate Webbink

Tomomi Suwa. Photo: Kate Webbink

Plants have developed many great ways to cope with harsh environmental stresses such as drought, heat and salinity. Because plants can’t move, one coping strategy is to produce a lot of seeds that can disperse far and hope that at least few of them will land on a suitable spot. A second strategy is to evolve traits that help plants deal with the stressful environment over time. This is called adaptation. Evolution of adaptive traits, however, may take a long time, as you can imagine. So the third strategy is to get “help” from other organisms. For example, if plants end up on a poor nutrient soil, they might be able to associate with fungi and bacteria that can facilitate finding nutrients.

My research focuses on how soil bacteria make it possible for plants to live in different habitats. Rhizobia, a type of soil bacteria, live inside the roots of some plants and act like natural fertilizer. Rhizobia can convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into ammonia, a form of nitrogen plants can use. In turn, plants can provide sugar to the rhizobia. This beneficial interaction is called mutualism. Rhizobia can help plants grow in areas where they might not live otherwise. Just like human relationships though, plants and rhizobia may not be compatible, or one of the partners may not even be available! For example, rhizobia may not survive or convert nitrogen effectively in certain environmental conditions, like in shade or areas that have high nitrogen in the soil.

flowering hog peanut

Flowering hog peanut. Photo: Tomomi Suwa

Using a native plant called the hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), I am looking at how the rhizobia in its roots can make it possible for plants to live in different habitats. Hog peanut is an annual legume species, closely related to soybean. What’s neat about hog peanut is that the plants can set seeds aboveground and belowground!

Hog peanut tends to grow in small patches in the forest and wetlands but it’s unclear why they grow in certain microhabitats. Is it because rhizobia are distributed in a patchy way, or is it because rhizobia benefit plants differently in various environmental conditions? I am currently doing field and greenhouse experiments to test this hypothesis. I started this project about two years ago and so far, I conducted some field observational studies in southwest Michigan, including at Kalamazoo Nature Center, Pierce Cedar Creek and MNA’s Palmer Memorial Nature Sanctuary. I don’t have answers to these questions yet, but I should be able to tell you more about it in a couple more years… so stay tuned!

MSU Students Make a Difference at Goose Creek Grasslands

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Eugene and Brockton hard at work at the sanctuary

Where would you expect to find a group of about 30 college and graduate students on cold, snowy Saturday morning in mid-February? If the group is Dr. Emily Grman’s restoration ecology class, you might find them at MNA’s Goose Creek Grasslands Nature Sanctuary. While some of their classmates were still lying warmly in bed, Dr. Grman’s students were wielding loppers, pruning saws, and PVC herbicide applicators against glossy buckthorn to further the restoration of the prairie fen at Goose Creek.

Restoration at Goose Creek has been a lengthy progress. In 2003, MNA’s former stewardship director Sherri Laier began efforts by removing glossy buckthorn, an invasive shrub, from along the Cement City Highway. The shrub had colonized a spoil pile from a drainage improvement project and had already aggressively invaded portions of the fen. The shrub grows rapidly, produces many berries, and both shades out native vegetation as well as preventing the accumulation of enough fuel to carry a fire.

Fire is the main process by which prairie fens were maintained in earlier times. Fires set by Native Americans would spread from surrounding uplands (usually oak savanna) into the fen, and rejuvenate the rich layer of sedges, grasses, and wildflowers that make prairie fens both picturesque as well as biologically rich. Fire also sets back shrubs, both native and non-native, which, absent periodic disturbance, will tend to expand in fens.

MNA conducted the first prescribed burn at Goose Creek in 2004, after native vegetation bounced back in the space previously occupied by glossy buckthorn. Since then, nine additional prescribed burns have been conducted, covering most of the sanctuary.

In early April of this year, two more burns are planned at Goose Creek. One of those burns will take place where the MSU students were hard at work clearing buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Students add to a pile of cut buckthorn.

Glossy buckthorn is killed by cutting the shrub near to the ground, and then applying concentrated herbicide to the stem, which is taken to the roots. This is a precise method of delivering herbicide to the plant. The cut buckthorn branches are collected in piles which can be burned either separately or during a prescribed burn.

Students were rewarded with a nice harbinger of Spring – the cry of sandhill cranes – despite the cold temperatures. Students also saw bluebirds, horned larks, and abundant praying mantis egg cases. Several students expressed interest in helping with the prescribed burns.

MNA’s regional stewardship organizer Matt Schultz would like to thank the students for helping out at Goose Creek, Dr. Grman for organizing the trip, and regular volunteers Eugene Lidster, Ken Ross, Mike Roys and Heather Smith, who helped form the students into effective restoration strike teams.

The group after a hard day's work!

MNA expects to conduct prescribed burns at Goose Creek in early April. With usual weather conditions (rain in April) the process occurrs surprising rapidly, with the most obvious evidence of a prescribed burn gone just two weeks after the burn takes place. The sanctuary is worth a visit any time, but it is especially rewarding to observe the resurgence of native vegetation from a blackened landscape.

Dr. Emily Grman is a postdoctoral associate in Lars Brudvig’s lab at MSU, interested in the restoration of Michigan prairies. In an upcoming blog post, she will write about her research comparing the plant diversity at prairie remnants (some of which included MNA sanctuaries) to prairie reconstructions.