Michigan Nature Monday: Celebrating the Holidays with Conservation in Mind

Oh, what fun it is to decorate for the holidays in December! From decking the halls to trimming the tree and hanging mistletoe, it’s a wonderful time of the year! But wait, what’s really lurking in those decorations? It could be invasive species.

Oriental bittersweet

Those red berries in your wreath may look merry and bright, but are they from invasive oriental bittersweet or multiflora rose? Decorating with plants around the holidays can bring cheer to your home, but be sure to check that the plants you are using to decorate are not invasive! Invasive plants are commonly used to make wreaths and other holiday decorations because they are bright and readily available. However, that can be harmful to the environment since berries and seeds fall off the decorations or are eaten and spread by birds and other animals. Those lost bits result in more invasive species when the seeds sprout! For a more environmentally-friendly choice, try decorating with native plants like white pine, Michigan holly, white spruce, white cedar, and more!

a row of trees at a christmas tree farm

But what about that age-old holiday tradition of getting a live Christmas tree? Be wary of Scots (also known as Scotch) pine, a beloved Christmas tree species that is invasive in Michigan. It spreads quickly and outcompetes our native tree species. Never fear because there are lots of native trees that make great Christmas trees. For a Michigan-native Christmas tree, try balsam fir, white pine, or white spruce. Still, some folks prefer the familiar non-native Christmas trees. Douglas fir, blue spruce, Norway spruce, and Fraser fir are better choices than Scotch pine because they are not considered invasive in Michigan. Whichever species you go with, consider choosing a tree grown locally. 

One great place to get a live Christmas tree is from a local Christmas tree farm. It’s an excellent way to support local small businesses, and it can also reduce the spread of invasive species. When trees are brought in from other areas, it is hard to know what else they might carry with them. Insects like the invasive spotted lanternfly or balsam woody adelgid can lay eggs or hide on Christmas trees before transport. Those are two species that are not currently in Barry County. However, one infestation of balsam wooly adelgid was identified in Kent County and spotted lanternfly has been found in Oakland County. Both of these species are more established in other states, however. These insects can then be accidentally transported to un-infested areas by buying trees sourced from other states or counties. The best way to reduce the spread of these and other invasive insects is to purchase trees and firewood locally. Lucky for us, this is easy here in Michigan since we are the nation’s third-largest producer of Christmas trees. 

So, the next time you’re buying your holiday decorations, ask where any live plants were sourced, and check that the plants you’re buying aren’t invasive here in Michigan


This message was redistributed with permission from the Barry Conservation District. Zach Whitacre is the BCK CISMA Coordinator, providing invasive species outreach and assistance to landowners in Barry, Calhoun, and Kalamazoo Counties. If you have questions or want more information on invasive species, you can reach him through the Barry Conservation District at (269) 908-4136 or zach.whitacre@macd.org 

Advertisement

Captive Rearing Strategies Could Impact Lake Sturgeon Recovery Success

by guest contributor Derek Smith

Flowing between the kitschy, Bavarian-style architecture of Frankenmuth, Michigan is the Cass River, where biologists released 104 young lake sturgeon in September 2022. Before releasing them, the biologists equipped the sturgeon with tracking and identification devices to follow the fish’s movements and survival after their release. That knowledge is critical to assess the success of sturgeon release events because there is no guarantee the sturgeon will remain where they are released.

A small lake sturgeon being held in a person's hands.
A young lake sturgeon being released into the Cass River. The fish will leave the river after its first year, but scientists are hoping that they return when they are old enough to spawn. Photo courtesy Derek Smith.

Once numerous in North American freshwaters, lake sturgeon are considered globally endangered due in part to severe overfishing in the late 1800s and early 1900s and are absent from many rivers where they historically lived, such as the Saginaw River and its tributaries, including the Cass River. According to US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Justin Chiotti, the goal of releasing captive-raised sturgeon is to “restore historic populations to self-sustaining levels.”

But sturgeon don’t hunker down in one place. After one year, many sturgeon leave their birth rivers to live in lakes, bays, and river mouths. When they reach sexual maturity between twelve and twenty-seven years later, the sturgeon return to their natal waters, which are better suited to spawning. There, fertilized eggs and larval fish take shelter from predators between the rock crevices in cobblestone substrate and thrive on the fast-flowing, oxygen-rich water.

How sturgeon navigate back to their rivers of origin is still largely unknown, but scientists think that larval sturgeon imprint to chemical signatures in their natal waters. Later in life, the sturgeon “sniff” their way back to their natal rivers to spawn by following those chemical queues.

Imprinting captive-reared sturgeon to rivers where they are now extirpated presents a challenge to conservation biologists When sturgeon are not raised in the waters in which biologists plan to restore self-sustaining populations, the re-introduced fish might not imprint to the historic habitat, potentially reducing the return rates when the fish are old enough to spawn. ,

A lake sturgeon fish hatchery in Genoa, WI. Photo courtesy Derek Smith.

Stream-side rearing facilities could be the solution to the imprinting challenge. At these facilities, biologists raise sturgeon directly in the river water where the sturgeon will be released. The Toledo Zoo has one such facility along the Maumee River, where they have been raising fish for release into the Maumee River since 2018. Similar facilities are located in Michigan, such as the Black River facility run by Michigan State University and the Big Manistee River facility run by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

According to Matt Cross, the Toledo Zoo’s Conservation Coordinator,“the idea with the stream-side facility is that the fish will pick up on the different chemical cues from the river, which they will use to return to the river to spawn.” By raising sturgeon in the waters to which they will later be released, the Zoo’s biologists are increasing the chances that the sturgeon are in the river water during the developmental stage when imprinting occurs, which Cross says is “a big question mark.”

But the stream-side facilities are costly and have water quality issues that off-site hatchery facilities optimized to grow large amounts of fish are better equipped to manage. The National Fish Hatchery in Genoa, Wisconsin is one such facility. There, U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologists rear sturgeon from eggs in Genoa well water. The facility raises hundreds to thousands of sturgeon for release into rivers each year, but there is a chance that hatchery-raised fish miss the crucial period at which imprinting occurs before they are large enough to be released. The unknown timing of when sturgeon can imprint to rivers obscures the relative effectiveness of these two rearing strategies.

Larval lake sturgeon swim around a tank filled with well water at the Genoa National Fish Hatchery. Biologists refer to the fish at this age as “free-living embryos” because they still have a yolk sac that provides all their nutrition. Photo courtesy Derek Smith.

According to Cross, “it’s a cost-benefit problem.” If sturgeon raised in well water still reliably return to the rivers where they are released, the large number of fish raised at the Genoa Hatchery could be a boon to sturgeon conservation across the Great Lakes region. On the other hand, if the hatchery-raised sturgeon wander, additional streamside facilities may prove necessary to re-introduce self-sustaining sturgeon populations to target rivers. The Cass River, for example, lacks a stream-side rearing facility and may potentially benefit from one.

To better assess the costs and benefits of each rearing strategy, biologists at the Toledo Zoo, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Ohio Division of Wildlife, Michigan State University, and the University of Toledo will test whether the two rearing-strategies impact how sturgeon return to rivers. In the summer of 2022, the biologists collected eggs and sperm from the same spawning adults in the St. Clair River, where healthy, self-sustaining populations exist today. Fertilized eggs were created by mixing sperm and egg, then half of the eggs were raised at the Genoa Hatchery while the other half were raised at the Toledo Zoo’s stream-side facility.

Once the fish were fingerling size, the biologists equipped them with PIT tags. The tags are similar to the microchips implanted into pet dogs and cats and encode an identification number linked to information about where an individual fish was released and in which facility it was raised. Whenever a released sturgeon is recaptured, scanning its PIT tag will allow biologists to identify how many fish from each rearing facility returned to the Maumee River to spawn

Both institutions have partnered to release sturgeon into the Maumee River in this manner since 2018, so the oldest fish released in this program are only 4 years old. The team must wait until the first of the released sturgeon mature eight to twenty-three years from now before they get their answers.

Michigan Nature Monday: Poweshiek skipperling

One of the rarest butterflies, the Poweshiek skipperling, is truly on the brink of extinction. Once abundant in the tall prairie grasslands and the prairie fens of several states and provinces in the upper Midwest, the tiny butterfly is now found only in a handful of sites in Manitoba and northern Oakland County, including an MNA nature sanctuary. Loss of habitat and other factors contributed to a decades-long—and now a relatively recent and rapid—population decline that has scientists scratching their heads and worried about what their disappearance may mean for other pollinators.

The globally endangered Poweshiek is now so rare that only 100 individual butterflies were counted in a 2021 census. Recovery plans—aided by an international partnership that includes MNA—call for captive breeding efforts to headstart individuals and increase survival to adulthood in order to build a reserve population that can be reintroduced to the wild. The Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan State University’s Haddad Lab, and the Michigan Nature Association are specifically collaborating within the Poweshiek Skipperling International Partnership to annually produce more individuals for wild releases in 2022 and beyond in what is known as ex situ or “offsite” conservation.

Poweshiek skipperling photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo

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. We look forward to continuing participation in this partnership effort to increase the Poweshiek skipperling population in the wild in the coming years.

Learn more about our conservation work and how you can contribute at michigannature.org.

Michigan’s Winter Wonders: Green Frog

Winter weather has arrived in most parts of Michigan by now, bringing dread for some, and excitement for others. But have you ever wondered what’s happening under the snow? Many of Michigan’s reptiles and amphibians search for tunnels or other underground cavities to wait out the cold winter temperatures. Still others might remain underwater, remarkably surviving the long winter months with little to no oxygen!

Such is the case with the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans), one of Michigan’s most abundant frog species. These semi-aquatic amphibians spend their winters hibernating at the bottom of permanent pools and rivers, “breathing” in oxygen through their skin, occasionally nestled among piles of leaf litter that give off some amount of heat as they decompose, and sometimes can be seen swimming before the water has frozen over, or through clear ice. *A common misconception of hibernating animals is that they spend the entire time ‘sleeping’, when in fact hibernation is rather a period of reduced activity.

a green frog sits on a rock in the water
A green frog rests on a rock at MNA’s Joan Rodman Memorial Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Jodi Louth.

So, why spend the winter underwater rather than on land? Other frogs in Michigan like the wood frog, spring peeper, as well as toads, hibernate in tunnels and under leaf piles. These frogs are able to survive the freezing temperatures because they produce excess glucose which helps prevent freezing of the cells in their bodies, acting as a sort of antifreeze. Green frogs on the other hand, are not able to function in this way, and so they must stay in above-freezing temperatures through the winter.

Adequate winter habitat for these species is a critical part of ensuring their survival to the next season, and threats to that habitat exist – even as the snow flies! For many of us, fall is a time for “cleaning up”, for raking up all the leaves that have fallen (and jumping in the pile), then bagging them up and shipping them off to a community dump site. But this practice robs our yards and natural areas of needed habitat, not only for the insects that overwinter in leaf piles like caterpillars and firefly larvae, but also for the many reptiles and amphibians that call our state home. The leaves provide a “blanket” between the ground and the snow, they provide heat as they decompose in place which also returns essential nutrients to the soil.

There are so many benefits for Michigan nature from leaving the leaves, so skip the fall “cleanup” and enjoy reap the rewards come springtime. Learn more about Michigan’s many reptiles and amphibians, and their conservation needs, with Herpetological Resource & Management at herprman.com, and learn more about the benefits of leaving leaves, visit healthyyards.org or leaveleavesalone.org