Collaboration boosts Michigan, Wisconsin elk herds

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan and Wisconsin reached individual milestones this year in efforts to maintain free-range elk.

Michigan celebrates a century since the state began herd restoration. In Wisconsin, the state will hold its first official elk hunt.

Elk are native to the Great Lakes region, but herds were lost to hunting and habitat decline in the 1800s. Today’s herds are the result of successful reintroduction, wildlife officials in both states said.

Michigan elk restoration began in 1918 when seven Rocky Mountain elk were relocated to Wolverine, north of Gaylord. The herd is now the largest in the Great Lakes region.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) maintains about 900 elk on 105,000 acres in the Pigeon River Country State Forest near Gaylord, according to Brian Mastenbrook, a wildlife field operations manager for the Michigan DNR.

Michigan introduced “elk-edition” wildlife license plates this year to celebrate the centennial. Plate sales raise about $40 million a year for wildlife and land conservation, according to the Michigan Wildlife Council.

Mastenbrook said the centennial also highlights public education and touts the success of the program.

“The reason that we like to talk about elk — and that’s what the 100-year thing is … people aren’t all aware of elk in Michigan,” he said. “And so this is part of a multifaceted effort to get people to know about elk and appreciate elk and wildlife management. That’s the big picture.”

Though the herd may seem small, Mastenbrook said its size and location are ideal. The area’s aspen provide a primary source of food, and the management area limits crop damage and collisions with vehicles. The DNR is about 90 percent successful in keeping elk within the range, Mastenbrook said.

The animals are three to four times heavier than large white-tailed deer.

“Most people are happy with elk in the Pigeon River — not many of them want elk outside,” he said. “Even the agricultural people say, ‘We like elk, we just want them to stay where they should stay. We don’t want them all over the place.’”

“Big animals tend to roam. That’s just what they do,” he said. “There are a few bands on the outskirts that once they get big enough, hunters will get to them, because our population control is hunting.”

Michigan holds yearly elk hunts. About 36,000 hunters compete for about 100 licenses in the DNR drawing.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin will hold its first elk hunting season between Oct.13 to Nov. 11 and from Dec. 13-21.

Wisconsin has more than 200 elk in the Clan Lake area in the north-central part of the state, said Kevin Wallenfang, a deer and elk ecologist for the state’s DNR. Wildlife officials expect the number to increase by 20 to 30 by the end of calving season this summer. The program’s long-term goal is 1,400 elk.

Wallenfang, who has worked with the Wisconsin DNR since the first elk were brought from Michigan in the 1990s, said collaboration between the states helped Wisconsin reach the milestone.

“I think that it is really neat that we are having our first hunt in the same year that Michigan is celebrating their 100-year anniversary of having elk in the state,” he said. Michigan was in it from the get-go, was a major partner, and we are very grateful for that.”

Wallenfang said Wisconsin overcame hurdles in having enough elk to offer hunting for state residents. For example, the state lost 20 percent of its herd during a harsh winter five years ago.

“We’ve overcome that hump and we are on to the next phase, so we are pretty excited about that,” he said.

More than 38,000 hopeful hunters have paid $10 each for a chance at four licenses, Wallenfang said. Seven dollars from each application goes to elk research and management.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is raffling a fifth hunting tag later this summer.

Eligible hunters will have to pay additional fees for a license.

Officials in both states said the extra attention on elk this year can also boost awareness beyond hunting.

“The hunt has done a lot of good for us as far as making people aware that we have an elk reintroduction in Wisconsin,” Wallenfang said. A lot of people weren’t even aware of it, despite being out there for over 20 years, so it’s done us a lot of good as far as educating the public.”

Cindy St. Germain of the Indian River, Michigan, Chamber of Commerce said she hands out maps and provides information daily to people who visit the chamber office where she works as an administrative assistant.

“It’s one of those experiences that it is nature, and you have to get out there and go, and be persistent. Local people do that, and they get to see them,” she said. “You can drive to these different locations and you can park there and watch them and they are absolutely spectacular, especially if you can catch a glimpse of the calves and the big bulls.”

There are also online elk viewing guides and maps for Michigan and Wisconsin.

The best time to see elk is during breeding season in the fall, St. Germain said. But locals also search for shed antlers during spring.

Pennsylvania and Minnesota have also reintroduced elk and hold annual hunts through an application process.

Carin Tunney writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Batman? No. Bat houses? Yes

Capital News Service

LANSING — Peter Fowler is the president of the Bat Association of Michigan State University, which hosted a workshop on the importance of bats and their impact on the ecosystem, and built “bat boxes” for the valuable but often-unappreciated — and sometimes threatened — critters.

“For the community bat houses, we wanted to build something small, easy to mount in a number of locations and relatively versatile,” Fowler said. They’re 2- to 4-foot tall black wooden boxes that can hold up to 20 bats. Fowler says building them is a meticulous process.

“We’ll be burning them using a centuries old Japanese method called ‘Shou Sugi Ban,’ which literally translated means ‘burn cedar board,’” Fowler said. “Burning the boards helps preserve them, makes them water-resistant and gives them a dark color that can maintain the heat.”

Volunteers from across the state attended the workshop.

“We were really excited about the prospect of getting more habitat restoration going in the area,” Fowler said.

Bats are losing habitats left and right, including in mid-Michigan, he said.

“Just a couple of years ago, 200 trees were removed from the former Red Cedar Golf Course (in Lansing), which were known to be home to a number of endangered Indiana bats,” Fowler said.

He says that by building bat boxes, the group is trying to educate the public on the importance of the winged creature.

“Bat houses are a great way for the community to engage in habitat restoration, and it also serves as a point of education about the important role these often-ignored animals serve our ecosystem,” Fowler said.

Alexandra Shigley, the president of the MSU Zoological Students Association that  helped put on the event, said giving bats homes will prevent the spread of disease by isolating bats and preventing them from gathering in large groups.

“In Michigan we have the white nose syndrome, and it actually wakes them up from their winter hibernation,” Shigley said. “It can spread so quickly. Researchers will go into these caves, and the bottom of these caves will just be covered in bats.”

Both groups are giving Lansing-area residents bat boxes to put up in their neighborhoods. Shigley says that if people are afraid of bats getting into their homes, bat boxes may be a solution.

“It’s important for people to know that bat boxes are a way to keep bats out of your house but give them a healthy place to live,” Shigley said.

Evan Kutz writes for Great Lakes Echo.


Conservationists toast comeback of the Kirtland’s warbler

Capital News Service

LANSING — Environmentalists are celebrating the return of the Kirtland’s warbler in the Northern Lower Peninsula.

The small yellow-breasted songbird has been on the brink of extinction since 1973. It was put on the endangered species list that same year.

The Kirtland’s warbler population has come a long way since then.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said its numbers have rebounded from a low of about 350 in 1987 to more than 4,000 new and is exceeding its population recovery goals.

Work to conserve the species was shared among government agencies and conservation groups like the 5-year-old Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance.

In 2013, biologists and conservationists recommended removing the bird from the federal list of endangered and threatened species.

And in April, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service formally proposed removing it from the list. There’s now a public comment period underway, and the agency says, “Any final action resulting from this proposed rule will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate as possible.”

“It’s an iconic bird,” said Bill Rapai, the secretary of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance. “It means a lot to conservation. It means a lot to who we are as conservationists, as wise stewards of our environment here in Michigan.”

Rapai says the alliance’s work isn’t yet done.

“We need to continue to do on the ground conservation work,” he says. “The Kirtland’s warbler requires new habitat to be created because we no longer let fire run across landscape.”

DNR director Keith Creagh called the prospective Fish & Wildlife Service action “a great day for conservation and for Michigan” and a “significant wildlife success story.”

Creagh said, “This decision recognizes over 50 years of dedication and commitment to Kirtland’s warbler conservation by many agencies, organizations, industries and individuals in our state and beyond. Together we have been able to benefit local economies while at the same time providing necessary nesting grounds for this species.”

The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance holds an annual event celebrating the bird’s conservation. This year’s event took place at Kirtland Community College in Grayling.

Naina Rao reports for Interlochen Public Radio.

Where has all the tree cover gone? Fast time passing?

Capital News Service

LANSING — A nationwide loss of tree cover includes all the Great Lakes states but Minnesota, according to a new study.

Reasons for the changes include development, storms, disease, fire, pests and property owner choices on what to do with their land. On the plus side of the equation are planting efforts, tree growth and natural regeneration, the study said.

“This trend will likely continue into the future unless forest management and/or urban development policies are altered, particularly given the threats to urban trees associated with development, climate change, insects and diseases, and fire,” the study reported.

For example, the invasive emerald ash borer has devastated tens of millions of ash in Michigan, many of them street trees that had been planted – ironically – to replace elms previously killed by Dutch elm disease, said Kevin Sayers, the state urban forestry coordinator at the Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s like a series of waves,” Sayers said, adding that the new worry is the Asian long-horned beetle. That wood-boring invader threatens maple, birch, elm, willow and other hardwood species, according to the National Invasive Species Information Center.

Michigan was the first Great Lakes state to report the emerald ash borer in 2002. It lost 0.8 percent of its urban and community tree cover between 2009 and 2014, the study said.

Even the U.S. Forest Service data showing that the percent of tree cover in urban and community areas remains steady in Minnesota isn’t statistically significant, said Brian Schwingle, a forest health specialist at the Minnesota DNR.

“It’s odd that Minnesota did gain impervious ground cover (which water can’t permeate or soak through) but we didn’t lose forest,” said Schwingle, who wasn’t involved in the federal study.

During the five-year study, urbanization and suburbanization nationwide added about 167,000 acres annually of pavement and other impervious cover, such as roads and buildings. Impervious cover can increase air temperatures, harm water quality and stream flow, increase building energy use and emit more pollution.

As folksinger Joni Mitchell would have put it:

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…
They took all the trees, and put ‘em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them.

In total, 45 states showed a net decline in urban tree cover, according to the study.

Forest Service scientists David Nowak and Eric Greenfield used aerial photographs to reach their conclusions, which appeared in the journal “Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.” They’re based at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

Minnesota’s situation may get worse as more ash die. A 2010 survey found that ash constitute about 20 percent of community trees in the state, with the proportion as high as 60 percent in some communities in western Minnesota, said DNR forestry outreach specialist Jennifer Teegarden,

“At this point there could be significant canopy loss,” Teegarden said, noting that her department has no grants to help communities remove, treat or replant infested ash.

The Forest Service study said, “A critical question related to urban forest sustainability is whether tree cover is trending upward, downward or remaining stable. By knowing the amount of and direction in which urban tree cover is moving, urban forest management plans can be developed to provide desired levels of urban tree cover and forest benefits for current and future generations.”

Michigan DNR’s Sayers, who wasn’t part of the study, said Michigan communities that participate in the Tree City USA program submit annual reports on how many trees they plant, remove and prune.

The program recognizes local governments for excellence in urban forestry management. Michigan has 115 participating communities this year.

“Every year we’re losing public trees – park trees and street trees – and those are from our best- managed communities,” Sayers said. “If that’s a barometer, it’s no surprise we’re losing trees.”

But it’s more than a matter of mere numbers.

The Forest Service’s Northern Research Station estimates the benefits from U.S. urban forests by removing air pollution, sequestering carbon, and reducing energy use and power plant emissions at $18.3 billion a year.

The study didn’t put a dollar value on other benefits, such as reduced storm water runoff and “improved social well-being,” but lead author Nowak said, “We are working on reduced storm water runoff and air temperature effects, among others. Quality of life will be a tougher one to assess as it is vague, but many of these individual effects – for example, air temperatures– affect quality of life.”

Nowak said, “If cities want to reverse that trend, they may need to do things differently. Cities could develop local tree cover goals and plans to attain those goals. Knowing rates of change in urban forests is important, but what society does with this information to help create more sustainable and healthy forests in the future is more important.”