Ten Years After Major Wildfire, Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Sees Remarkable Recovery

On June 15, 2012 after burning more than 21,000 acres including part of MNA’s Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary in Luce County, the Duck Lake Fire was officially contained. Now, 10 years later, we are taking a look at what has changed at this sanctuary as a result of the fire.

The sanctuary derives its name from the surrounding area known as the Swamp Lakes which is of significant importance as a large block of wildlife habitat. This area is known to be frequented by moose, gray wolf, pine marten, and numerous other species of wildlife requiring a landscape intermingled with forests and wetlands.

The forest here is dominated by Jack and Red Pines which, once mature, create a dormant understory of easily burning materials—a critical part of the Jack Pine life cycle as their cones will not release seeds except under the extreme heat of fire.

But the Jack Pine isn’t the only benefactor of wildfire. As William Rapai wrote in the July/August issue of Jack Pine Warbler, “Only days after the fire was brought under control, bark beetles moved in to eat the damaged trees. And where there are insects, there are insect-eating birds—including the Black-backed Woodpecker, a species of special concern in Michigan… That woodpecker species is associated with burned areas because one of its primary foods—the bark beetle—attacks trees damaged by fire.”

Water levels in many of the affected areas were very low for the season as seen in this photo from the Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary taken one month after the fire. MNA Archives.

Other species that were observed returning to or newly entering the area shortly after the fire were white-tailed deer, black bear, snowshoe hare, and gray wolf.

Beaver are common to the area, and have been able to expand their territory without human intervention in the years since the fire. At Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge, beaver activity has restored the wetlands and allowed much regrowth to occur.

Possibly the most significant result of the fire is the potential for thousands of acres of new habitat for the Kirtland’s Warbler, which prefer nesting in young (5-20 years old) Jack Pine forests. These formerly endangered neotropical migrants have experienced population recovery after many years of habitat management efforts in the northern Lower Peninsula. While MNA does not have record of Kirtland’s Warbler at the Swamp Lake Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary, the existence of young Jack Pines in the nearby forest gives hope for future populations.

Not all areas are expected to see the same recovery. Fire suppression efforts resulted in a significant amount of leaf litter and dead wood accumulating in the path of the fire, allowing the fire to burn much hotter and longer (nearly a month) than the soil is able to tolerate. “In some places, the Duck Lake Fire destroyed all the organic matter and microorganisms for some depth,” wrote William Rapai, “Particularly damaging will be the loss of the mycorrhizal fungus that is critical in the lifecycle of many species. The fungus has a symbiotic relationship with plants, helping them to absorb nurtients.”

Live at Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge Nature Sanctuary is abundant as seen in this photo taken from the same location as the photo above, in June 2022. Many beaver inhabit the area, as indicated by the beaver lodge at center. Photo by Andrew Bacon.

A month after the fire, early indications were that the natural communities within Swamp Lakes Moose Refuge would recover without restoration efforts. Given the sanctuary’s wetland composition, the fire has proved beneficial, thinning out the canopy and allowing other plants like bracken fern, blueberry, and leatherleaf to regenerate. MNA will continue to monitor nature’s recovery from the fire and the landscape changes through the years.

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Species Spotlight: Kirtland’s Warbler

By Ally Brown, MNA Intern

In some instances, the occurrence of a wildfire can mean devastation for species with restricted ranges and population; however, for one of Michigan’s rarest warblers, fires are crucial for building its niche habitat and sustaining the population. The Kirtland’s warbler is a member of the Parulidae or New World warbler family which measures about six inches in length and is distinguishable by the striking yellow plumage on its throat and breast and split white eye rings. As is the case with many of Michigan’s bird species, the Kirtland’s warbler nests in parts of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas during the summer months and makes the long journey to the south for the winter months – in this case a 1400 mile trip to the Bahamas. While it may seem as though this long-distance flight would be the toughest part of life as a Kirtland’s warbler, the largest challenge this population faces comes from its time up north.

KWbyRonAusting

Photo: Ron Austing

Although not immediately obvious by the forested landscapes known today, Michigan’s history is one of expansive barrens and frequent fires. Many grassland and barren species adapted to this cycle of burnings, one of which is the fire dependent jack pine tree. Heat is necessary to the lifecycle of the jack pine, as it promotes the tree’s cones to fully open and successfully germinate. With the suppression of fire, young stands of jack pine become less and less common and old stands grow dense and tall, losing their lower branches due to lack of sunlight. The degradation and succession of the jack pine ecosystem reasonably follows this lack of fire, but what was not suspected was the subsequent decline in the Kirtland warbler population.

According to the DNR, Kirtland’s warblers nest in young jack pines on branches that essentially touch the ground, where they can hide their nests among dense thickets of pine and grasses. In order for these conditions to occur, the pines must be young and small so that sunlight can reach the ground and keep the lower branches of the trees alive. This also requires the occurrence of frequent fires to remove older trees in exchange for the germination of their cones. Without these fires, the selective female warblers will refuse to nest and, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, only single male warblers will continue to live in the old, successional stands. Another major benefit of hiding nests in the lower branches of young jack pines is protection from the parasitic brown headed cowbird, which will remove warbler eggs from the nest and replace them with eggs of its own.

Today, with the importance of fire and the jack pine to Kirtland’s warbler populations known, effort is being placed to conserve this habitat and the warbler population. Several of MNA’s sanctuaries house populations of jack pine, including Redwyn’s Dunes Nature Sanctuary, and today birders can view this rare bird through tours given by the Kirtland’s Warbler Recovery Team. According to the DNR, the best way to support this endangered species is to educate yourself and those around you through research or attending birding tours, as well as to donate to local organizations, like the Michigan Nature Association, dedicated to protecting and rebuilding the warbler population.

Bald eagles, decreasing lake levels and an illegal fire: this week in environmental news

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

A bald eagle. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A bald eagle. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bald eagles: A conservation success story (Mother Nature Network): Bald eagles in the United States are making a recovery. A pesticide called Kepone nearly wiped out the species in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, the bald eagle has slowly been making a recovery, and was taken off the endangered list in 2007. Invasive species and other pesticides still threaten the bald eagle, but restoration efforts are ongoing. Bald eagles reside all across the United States, but are thriving the most along the James River in Virginia.

Great Lakes panel still waiting for legislative action on lake levels (Journal Sentinel): The Great Lakes Commission is still waiting on a request passed in 2007 to have the U.S. and Canadian governments figure out how to slow down the water flow in St. Clair River, which is heavily dredged. This would raise water levels on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The water levels of these lakes today is almost two feet lower than they would be if not for human interaction in St. Clair River. Some officials suggest an adjustable system that would allow the water flow to open or slow down on the river.

USFS: Hunter caused huge wildfire near Yosemite (Detroit Free Press): An illegal fire set by a hunter in Yosemite National Park is what caused the massive wildfire that covered 371 square miles and cost $81 million to contain. The hunter has not yet been arrested, as investigations are still going on. The U.S. Forest Service had banned fires in Yosemite National Park outside of controlled camping areas because of the high risk of wildfire. Officials say the wildfire is now 80 percent contained, having destroyed 111 structures since it started.

Climate change may speed up forests’ life cycles (Science Daily): A study conducted by a Duke University team suggests that in response to global warming, the life cycles of tree species are speeding up. One professor at Duke University, James S. Clark, said because of climate change, there are longer growing seasons for the trees and hotter temperatures. Studies conducted on 65 tree species in the 31 eastern states of the U.S. suggest that there is a higher rate of turnover in warmer climates. There are more young trees. Scientists believe eventually trees will migrate to cooler climates by seed dispersal.

Pollution in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee swells to near-disaster levels (Mother Nature Network): Lake Okeechobee in south Florida is one of the largest lakes in the United States, and is also one of the shallowest. At nine feet deep on average, the lake is potentially an environmental disaster because of its rising water level. Heavy downpour has caused the lake to rise to 15.5 feet, which some fear is too high. Already, the inflated lake has sent polluted runoff into nearby water systems. The polluted runoff is assisting the growth of toxic algae, which can kill many freshwater organisms. The pollution in the lake is also hurting tourism to the area and real estate prices.

Snapping turtles, wildfire smoke and Michigan recycling rates: this week in environmental news

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

Snapping turtle. Photo from MNA archives

Snapping turtle. Photo from MNA archives

Snapping turtles finding refuge in urban areas while habitats are being polluted (Science Daily): Snapping turtles’ habitats are being destroyed by pollution and land development, which is causing them to move into urban areas. Many people are hesitant to encounter a snapping turtle. Bill Peterman, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Missouri, assures that the animal will only bite when provoked. Peterman also suggest that the way to get snapping turtles back to their habitat is for people to use fewer chemicals that eventually end up in waterways. Using fewer chemicals would also benefit the habitat as a whole as it would restore the snapping turtles to their rightful place, which would put the ecosystem back in balance.

New insights on wildfire smoke could improve climate change models (Michigan Tech News): Michigan Technological University researchers have discovered components of smoke that can impact climate change. Previously, components of smoke had been missing from climate change models. The researchers are unsure whether these components warm or cool the earth. However, they should be considered in more models of climate change to determine just what impact smoke components have on climate change.

Michigan’s recycling rate is lowest in Great Lakes region (Great Lakes Echo): Michigan’s recycling rate is 10 percent lower than the regional average. Governor Rick Snyder said in 2012 that increasing recycling is one of his top priorities. Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, believes part of the problem is that people in Michigan have limited access to recycling sites and find it inconvenient. She also said Michigan needs a significant culture shift to start participating in more recycling programs.

Otters aid seagrass recovery (Conservation Magazine): The harmful effects of fertilizer pollution on seagrass are offset by otters. Runoff from farms enters the water and damages seagrass, which is important to the marine ecosystem. Otters contribute to the recovery of seagrass by feeding on crabs. In turn, not as many crabs feed on sea slugs. The abundance of sea slugs graze on algae, which helps the seagrass grow.

Great Lakes Week 2013 (Great Lakes Now): Great Lakes Week will run from September 9-12. All organizations that govern the Great Lakes will meet in Milwaukee to discuss key topics including who will be able to draw water from the Great Lakes, threatening algae bloom and record low water levels. Also, the overall health of the lakes will be assessed and new plans for the Great Lakes will be set. Some sessions will be broadcast on public television and streamed online.