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.

MNA Staff Begins Burn Season at Big Valley

By Mitch Lex

Photo courtesy of Eugene Lidster

On Thursday March 22, Stewardship Coordinator Andrew Bacon set out with fellow MNA Regional Stewardship Organizers Katherine Hollins and Matt Schultz to conduct the first set of controlled burns of the season. One of them was at Big Valley Nature Sanctuary. With the assistance of five volunteers, the stewardship staff was able to successfully burn 10 acres of the Big Valley sanctuary—a process that is vital to the ecological health of the prairie fen and oak upland communities found there.

The essential burn invigorates the native flora and fauna at the sanctuary by damaging the encroaching woody overgrowth, and creates additional opportunity for sun to infiltrate the understory and create future habitat. Without prescribed burns, hardwood canopies can become too dense and crowd out the essential undergrowth altering the composition of the prairie and forest floors. Invasive species such as the autumn olive and dogwood are kept in check by prescribed burns.

Photo courtesy of Eugene Lidster

Several rare insect species found at Big Valley Nature Sanctuary as well as numerous species of snake also depend on burning for the long term survival of the population. The endangered tamarack tree cricket and poweshiek skipperling both rely on the open canopy characteristics found in prairie fens at Big Valley. To protect reptiles, insects and other species that have difficulties escaping burns, MNA patrols the burn unit prior to the burn and moves individuals out of the area. Smaller units are burned in sanctuaries with fire-sensitive species to protect the overall population. Backing fire is used as much as possible in sites with more reptiles, giving them more time to take cover.

Photo courtesy of Eugene Lidster

Although prescribed burning is essential to the protection of many of MNA’s sanctuaries, it does not come without risk. The MNA staff plans out burn units several months in advance and must track the burn history of each sanctuary to ensure the areas of most concern are being treated. Following a burn, MNA monitors the results.

Starting Forest Fires: The Logic Behind Prescribed Burns

By Megan Clute

Imagine driving along the highway, watching the landscape pass you by, when all of a sudden you spot smoke billowing from the treetops. The flames weave in and out of the surrounding brush until the blackened soil is the only thing remaining. To most people, the thought of wildfires and burning forests is quite daunting. The image of trees and brush falling victim to a wall of flames does not typically carry a positive connotation; however, fires of this sort are continuously being started across the state – on purpose.

Burn at Karner Blue Sanctuary in 2008. Photo courtesy of Chris Hoving.

The logic behind this lies within the concept of prescribed/controlled burning. Prescribed burning is a technique used to manage prairie and savanna habitats. In other words, controlled fires are used to stimulate germination and refresh the understory in the designated area. They can also be used to reduce invasive species. This method has been used since the pre-agricultural era to replicate the fires that would naturally occur in the forest to regulate plant and animal life.

Prescribed burns are closely planned and implemented by specially trained individuals, including MNA staff. Local fire departments are notified prior to each burn to promote safety, ensure coordination, and complete local permitting requirements. Temperature, wind speeds, direction, and humidity are some factors that are taken into consideration when choosing to perform a burn, as the wrong combination of weather and fire can prove to be very dangerous and destructive.

Big Valley burn March 22, 2012. Photo courtesy of Eugene Lidster.

The MNA conducts prescribed burns at its sanctuaries on a regular basis to manage woody encroachment and promote native plant growth. Recently, there have been burns at Butternut Creek, Big Valley, Sand Creek Prairie, Campbell Memorial, and Lefglen nature sanctuaries. For more information on prescribed burns and how to participate in one, please contact the MNA office at (517) 655-5655.

ENDANGERED!

At MNA, our Mission is to protect special natural areas and the rare species that live there. The goals of our blog are to cover the latest environmental issues affecting these areas and provide information about the efforts of our volunteers. Our weekly “ENDANGERED!” column serves to inform you about the endangered plant and animal species found in and around these special natural areas, and how you can contribute to conservation efforts before it is too late.

Mitchell’s Satyr
By Yang Zhang

The first species featured in our “ENDANGERED!” column is the Mitchell’s satyr (pronounced say-ter), one of the world’s rarest butterflies. In Michigan, you may have the chance to spot this species, but without your help that opportunity may soon disappear.

Physical Appearance:

Mitchell’s satyr is a dark, chocolate brown, medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan that ranges from 1.5 to 1.75 inches. It has a three-part segmented body with a head, thorax and abdomen and antennae.

On the undersides of the butterfly’s rounded wings is a row of four to five orange-ringed, black circular eyespots with silvery centers. Beyond the eyespot rows on the outer part of the wing are two orange lines. The dorsal, or upper wing, is unmarked and thinly scaled. Males are slightly smaller and darker than females.

Preferred Habitat:
Mitchell’s satyr habitat is restricted to a unique type of wetland called a fen, which is a low-nutrient system that is enabled to support life with carbonate-rich ground water entering the system from seeps and springs. Fens are usually home to sedges, grasses and a wide variety of wildflowers, which makes the fen a magnet for insects including Mitchell’s satyr.

Some MNA sanctuaries, like the Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary, are carefully managed to remain a fen and provide habitat for rare species such as the Mitchell’s satyr.

Life Cycle:
An adult Mitchell’s satyr lives for only a few weeks, but it takes a year for a caterpillar to turn into a mature butterfly.

The satyr goes through three life stages. In July, females lay tiny eggs on the young leaves of low, tender plants. The eggs hatch in 7-11 days. The caterpillars, which are very small and difficult to spot, feed on tussock sedge and other fine-leafed sedges. In winter, they hibernate under the snow and emerge in spring to resume eating until they form a chrysalis. The adult butterflies emerge from a cocoon in late June, and males emerge a few days earlier than females.

List Status:
Historically, Mitchell’s satyr inhabited fens across New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and possibly Maryland. Today, the butterfly can only be found in 19 fens in southern Michigan and northern Indiana.

The greatest threat to Mitchell’s satyr is habitat loss and degradation. Most fens have been altered or drained completely for urban and agricultural development. Pesticides, fertilizer and nutrient runoff from agriculture contaminate the fen wetlands, as well. In addition, wetland alteration has led to the invasion of exotic weeds, such as glossy buckthorn, which can shade out the satyr’s food plants. It’s also believed that butterfly collectors could have contributed to the population loss of the Mitchell’s satyr. Because there are so few butterflies, the collection of even a few individuals could harm the entire population.

Protection Efforts:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) added Mitchell’s satyr to the federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants on June 25, 1991. It is illegal to harm, harass, collect or kill the butterfly without a permit from FWS.

FWS also created a recovery plan that describes actions needed to help the butterfly survive and thrive so that it can be taken off the endangered species list in the future.

Michigan and Indiana’s natural resource departments and partners have developed a Habitat Conservation Plan that provides a comprehensive framework for managing fens for Mitchell’s satyr.

The Michigan Department of Transportation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, and The Nature Conservancy are jointly preserving and improving two of the butterfly’s habitats of Michigan: the Blue Creek Fen in Berrien County and the Paw Paw Prairie Fen in Van Buren County.

How You Can Help:
MNA protects close to 30 fens, two of which are home to the Mitchell’s satyr. Fens are managed in multiple ways. One way MNA manages fens is by holding prescribed burns. A fen in decent shape requires a prescribed burn every three-to-five years. Fens with a larger presence of woody growth or invasive species may require more frequent burns every two-to-four years. MNA also manually removes invasive species from fens and protects the hydrology of the land by objecting to potential developments in the area. With the help of MNA volunteers, we strive to protect the unique habitat of the Mitchell’s satyr.

MNA volunteers are currently working to protect this and other endangered species, and you can help too. Join our efforts as a volunteer removing invasive plants in the special natural areas where this species lives. Or, become a steward and take responsibility for planning efforts to maintain a specific MNA sanctuary. To find out how to get involved, visit our website.

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, Michigan State University