Bike sharing finds a place in more Michigan cities

By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Some Michigan cities have joined a growing group of communities nationwide  turning to bike share programs.

In 2010 there were only four city-wide systems in the U.S. where residents could rent bicycles. That jumped to 55 systems with 42,000 bikes in 2016, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, an organization of 62 major cities and 10 transit agencies.

Even though it is a home to the U.S. auto industry, Michigan is also keeping up with the tide. Detroit, Ann Arbor and Port Huron have launched bike sharing systems. Others are working to make the concept feasible.

“Bike sharing is an interesting idea,” said Amy Sasamoto, the Holland Downtown Development Authority coordinator. Her city surveyed residents  in December 2016 on its website to see if a bike share program is feasible there.

Local bike shops rent bikes to tourists and the downtown area is small, so “a bike share may not be that beneficial to downtown Holland,” Sasamoto said.

Funding is also a problem. “There were some questions as to how the funding could be obtained —  the budget could not support or effectively manage the system,” she said. “The city manager wanted the program to be free, and that made financing the idea difficult as well.”

So the program is on hold as the city looks for other ways to promote biking.

That includes making the downtown safe and accessible for bicyclists.

“Recently we underwent a road reconstruction on one of our main downtown streets, and part of the reconstruction added some bike lanes, and also the shared-lane markings. We put together on a map where those bike lanes are located throughout the city,” Sasamoto said. “We have partnered with some biking groups to do family rides and things like that.”

Meanwhile in Grand Rapids in February, the city commission approved a study to test the feasibility of a bike share program. The study estimated the start-up cost at $300,000.

“Bike share is found in many cities across the United States and is typically part of a larger effort to provide as many transportation options to people as possible,” said Kristin Bennett, the transportation planning and programs supervisor for the city.

A hybrid-type bike share system was approved by the study’s steering committee. The system combines stations and hubs with a “smart” bike that can be docked at hubs/bike racks but can also dock into stations.

“It could offer the most in terms of quality and versatility, especially as a system is initially developed and expanding,” Bennett said.

The study recommended options for single rides, a monthly pass, a student pass and a lower-income pass.

“A cash option for bike share passes would certainly be included,” Bennett said. “Equitable access to a bike share system is a major goal of the study’s steering committee.”

“The most frequent concerns we heard during our public engagement wasn’t against bike share,” she said, “but rather concerns about traffic safety while bicycling and who was responsible if something happened while riding a bike share bike, such as mechanical problems, theft and other damage.”

The Grand Rapids program won’t move forward until the city commission adopts a bicycle action plan to be completed this summer, Bennett said.

It could likely take another year or so to get the system off the ground, she said. “But that is all dependent on a number of factors, including funding, system planning and lead times from equipment providers to get equipment here and installed.

Lindsey DesArmo, the chair of League of Michigan Bicyclists, said safety is a concern for people who bicycle, walk or drive, and isn’t necessarily specific to bike sharing programs.

The league is an advocacy group representing the interests of bicyclists. It has advocated for legislation for safe distances for motorists to pass bicyclists and drivers drivers’ education training to address safety concerns about non-motor transportation.

“As the state becomes more strategic about the mobility of its people, bicycle infrastructure and bike sharing programs play an integral role in providing options for people to move from point A to point B,” DesArmo said.

Making environmental laws more effective

By LAUREN CARAMAGNO
Capital News Service

LANSING — A Port Huron angler once told Ethan Shirley that a fisherman’s job is to break the law as much as possible without getting caught.

It’s a challenging attitude to overcome when enforcing environmental laws, said Shirley, a law student at Michigan State University who is researching ways to encourage people to obey conservation laws.

“The Great Lakes are too large to be regulated at all times. Therefore conservationists depend on local people to comply with rules,” he said. But “fishermen admit to not complying with fish size regulation laws.”

Shirley does his research in Brazil, but he says the concepts can be applied broadly across the world.

One solution is for scientists to better explain the need for limits on fishing and for other environmental regulations, Shirley said. Another is for those who enforce laws to build trust with the community that needs to obey them.

Police need to make themselves members of a community that is joining together and explaining rules to protect the environment, rather than implementing rules by sheer force, he said. “Many fishermen do not have a biological grasp of why laws are critical to follow.”

Taking such an approach to law enforcement could lead to more law-abiding anglers, said Shirley.

He and other researchers recently presented such ideas at the International Congress of Conservation Biology.

Successful wildlife management throughout the Great Lakes states requires a high level of compliance with environmental laws, said Shirley, a candidate for a master’s in Fisheries and WIldlife and a Juris Doctor in MSU’s College of Law. That means it’s important for people to understand them.

Julie Viollaz, a criminology researcher at MSU and colleague of Shirley, said it’s also important to demonstrate that laws have a purpose by allowing communities to be a part of the law-making process. That increases the perception of legitimacy.

“Every person in a community has a role to play in the environment to protect wildlife, and if everyone plays that role, ecosystems would be balanced and more productive,” Viollaz said.

Shirley said two things determine compliance: One is massive enforcement, which can be expensive, and the other is whether citizens believe the law is right.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrum found participatory management of natural resources is better than making laws and expecting people to follow them, Shirley said.

In a top-down system, scientists and politicians put into place rules that focus on ecological needs or human needs and do not balance the two. Participatory management minimizes conflict between ecological needs of wildlife and the human needs of natural resources.

It’s a problem if biologists can’t communicate with local people about conservation, Shirley said. It leads to distrust and becomes a reason for disobedience.

Science is undermined when the public doesn’t believe research, he said. In many cases, it’s an issue of unnecessarily injecting politics into science. That results in a lack of trust, which is seen in controversial topics such as climate change and vaccine denial.

Lack of communication has caused a rift between scientists and communities.

However, there’s a push to make such connections through National Science Foundation grants, Shirley said. The grants now have a broader impact section that requires scientists to explain how they’ll connect their research to the needs of communities.

One positive trend is when fisheries researchers work directly with fisheries regulators who in turn work with anglers, Shirley said.

Viollaz said accommodating people’s needs for conservation increases their compliance with the law. “However, sometimes it’s not necessarily about giving people what they want, but letting them be heard.”

Lauren Caramagno writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Mercury’s match? Sex hormones

By STEPHEN MAIER
Capital News Service

LANSING — Sex hormones might be the secret for lowering mercury levels in fish and maybe humans, researchers say.

States often issue consumption limits in areas with high concentrations of mercury in fish. The contaminant causes sickness in the people who eat them, and mercury poisoning is especially harmful to unborn children.

Not much is known about how contaminants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) affect fish, said Rick Rediske, senior program manager at Grand Valley State University’s Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. They harm reproduction in ways that aren’t well known.

Researchers now believe that male fish are able to shed mercury, thanks to their testosterone.

Male fish accumulate higher contaminant concentrations than females, but also eliminate mercury more efficiently, according to a study published in 2016 in a scientific journal. They probably have testosterone to thank, said Rediske, who helped write the study.

Male fish have higher resting heart rates, are more active and tend to swim faster – -they therefore eat more and take in more contaminants like PCBs and mercury, said Charles Madenjian, the study’s lead author and a research fishery biologist with the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland.

Food is the greatest source of these contaminants in fish.

When the team tested for pollutants in Great Lakes fish, they found the males’ PCB concentrations were 17 to 43 percent higher than in females,’ he said. They expected to find a similar pattern for mercury. Instead, they found similar levels in both sexes.

“We were scratching our heads to figure out: why the difference between the two contaminants?” Madenjian said.

Sea lamprey offered some clues. Lamprey males had the sort of higher mercury levels researchers had expected to find in the other fish, indicating that they weren’t able to eliminate mercury as efficiently, he said.

Lamprey, which are an invasive parasite, are an older species with more primitive sex hormones in place of testosterone, he said. Testosterone may be the missing key that allows some fish to somehow eliminate mercury.

If true, that finding could change how scientists study mercury contamination.

“We think those characteristics apply not only to almost all species of fish, but also up to birds, reptiles, all the way up to the full gamut of vertebrates,” Madenjian said.

Rediske said researchers still need to explore that possibility. In the meantime, the study’s findings could also affect how mercury advisories are issued.

The Department of Natural Resources may want to start setting those limits more conservatively, he said. Although male fish in the Great Lakes are able to expel mercury, their intake is still high enough to leave them with higher concentrations than the females.

“It’s just a confounding factor when we set the fish advisory limits,” he said. “It would just suggest that there’s more variation than what the current models are set up to look at.”

Stephen Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Push underway to designate national water trails for Flint, Shiawassee Rivers

By LIZZY LaFAVE
CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

LANSING — Three years after the Flint River starred in an international horror story where cost-cutting measures led to toxic drinking water, state lawmakers are backing an effort to give it national recognition as a water trail.

The decision is up to the National Park Service.

National Park Service designation of a national water trail means the 73-mile river will likely draw more visitors and businesses, said Rebecca Fedewa, the executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition.

Meanwhile, the Shiawassee River Water Trail Coalition has submitted a similar application for designation for that 88-mile waterway between Chesaning and Holly.

The Flint River is a principal tributary of the Shiawassee, which flows into the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.

The state House has passed a resolution supporting designation for both rivers, and a resolution is pending in the Senate Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Committee. The lead sponsors are Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, and Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso.

Resolutions are expressions of legislative sentiment but have no legal effect.

The Flint River “is home to bald eagles, ospreys, frogs, turtles, muskrats and a wide variety of fish. Used as a main method of transportation for Native Americans and early European settlers and later supporting the city of Flint as a major hub for fur-trading, lumber milling, and agriculture, the river has a rich cultural history,” the legislative resolution says.

The Huron River is a model for the Flint River group because it’s seen more visitors since its federal designation as a water trail in 2015, said Elizabeth Riggs, the deputy director of the Huron River Watershed Council.

“We are also seeing that they are coming from a wider variety of demographics,” she said. “Designation makes the route more of a destination.”

More people traveling to an area means more economic activity for local businesses, Riggs said.

Huron River visitors bring in $53.5 million each year, according to the Economic Impact of the Huron River.

“A national water trail designation can be used to promote recreation and tourism, enhancing economic benefits for communities. The program also opens opportunities to access technical assistance and funding for planning and implementing water trail projects and improving existing river water trails,” the resolutions say.

Water trails are like other park trails with multiple access points, mile markers and directions, but along a river, said Tom Cook, who heads Friends of the Shiawassee River.
He said Shiawassee River enthusiasts applied for national water trail status in hopes that it will create a sense of pride about that river, Cook said.

“The designation was a tool to bring our community together,” he said. “We hope that it brings the appropriate recognition of the work we have done and will continue do.”

The application process has brought together three service groups and 11 governmental organizations with responsibilities ranging from keeping the Shiawassee River clean to mapping out trail activities, Cook said.


The designations are in the final stages of review by the National Park Service, said Barbara Nelson-Jameson, who is the Michigan programs coordinator for the federal agency.


Fedewa said, “Getting the approval from the (state) House was definitely a surprise. To see them taking that on was very special and really reaffirms everything that we have been working on.”

Lizzy LaFavre writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Piping plovers rebound on Great Lakes shores

By STEVEN MAIER
Capital News Service

LANSING — Piping plover advocates are looking to capitalize on the bird’s record-setting success last year by expanding habitat restoration efforts.

Piping plover nests were found on the shores of all five Great Lakes last year for the first time since 1955.

The shore-dwelling bird disappeared from most of the Great Lakes in the 1980s and was listed as endangered in 1986, said Vince Cavalieri, the Great Lakes piping plover recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

At one point, up to 600 pairs nested throughout the Great Lakes. In 1990, only 12 pairs remained.

Once found on sandy beaches from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, most survivors clustered around Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan’s northwest shore.

But with the discovery of a nesting pair in Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park last year — the first to take up residence on Lake Erie for 60 years–the winds have changed. Researchers found 76 nesting pairs throughout the region in 2017.

“Finally the last two or three years we’re starting to see bigger numbers in Ontario, in Wisconsin,” Cavalieri said. “We’ve got nesting in Illinois now.”

There’s a new call to restore and protect plover habitats–and the Huron-Manistee National Forest’s Lake Michigan shoreline is one location under consideration.

A stretch of that shoreline at Ludington State Park has been an excellent spot for plovers, hosting eight nesting pairs in the past, Cavalieri said.

They’ve declined in the last four years, however, and only one pair remained last summer. Higher water levels have swallowed up stretches of the beach and  predators like the merlin, a native falcon, have attacked nests.

Advocates have focused on protecting piping plover nests, said Christie DeLoria, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes coastal program coordinator. That’s done mainly by placing wire cages over nests to keep predators out and by limiting access to nesting grounds.

Eggs are often abandoned if a nest is washed out by high waters, one of the pair dies or if they become too agitated by nearby activity. Beach-goers in Northwest Michigan often come across signs warning them of closed nesting sites.

The hope was that increasing the birds’ numbers would allow them to spread.

Two projects on the shores of Lake Michigan have successfully developed plover-friendly habitat: one at Wilderness State Park on the northern shore of the Lower Peninsula, the other on a series of eroded islands in Wisconsin’s Lower Green Bay.

DeLoria has headed the project at Wilderness State Park where plovers abandoned the shores in 2006 after invasive, fast-growing vegetation infiltrated what used to be unadulterated beachfront.

“[The plovers’] strategy is to look like the beach,” DeLoria said. “And that’s how they survive, to look like the sand and the cobble.”

Results came quickly.

Park staff started clearing brush and trees from the shore in 2014, DeLoria said. In the summer of 2015, they observed a pair nesting there. In 2016, that same pair returned to raise three chicks.

Cavalieri said measures exist to protect the birds at Ludington State Park, like expanding the area of the cage enclosures. But the beach’s popularity limits even those options, and the opportunity for habitat restoration is limited.

“It just may be that Ludington is the kind of place where we have to wait for the lake levels to go down before we see a bunch of birds come back there,” Cavalieri said.

But there may be opportunity further up the coast at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, which hasn’t hosted a nesting plover pair since 2010, said U.S. Forest Service Forest biologist Philip Huber.  It’s part of Huron-Manistee National Forest.

The beaches there are narrow–sometimes only 2 to 3 feet wide before they butt up against sandy cliffs–and high lake levels haven’t helped.

Simply put, there’s not enough room for plovers, aside from the occasional nest among the dunes.

There was talk of using heavy equipment to flatten the beaches, Huber said, but the expense, long review process and logistical issues of moving heavy machinery into a roadless area make that unlikely.

And in a rapidly shifting environment like the dunes, such efforts could be wiped away in a single season.

“We just didn’t believe it would be a good thing to be mucking around on the beach trying to make nesting habitat for the plovers,” he said, especially without guarantees of its permanence.

 

Spreading cobble along the beach and among the dunes would be more feasible and make the area more attractive to plovers, Huber said. There would still be no guarantees, but the project’s lower cost and relative ease make it easier to justify as an experiment.

Continued success requires continued maintenance — a lesson Wilderness State Park staff learned last summer.

The female didn’t return to the nest the pair had established the year before. After waiting a short time, her mate also left. Invasive spotted knapweed and sweet clover had again overtaken both the shore and hopes for another round of chicks.

DeLoria said staffers learned from that failure. They’re now trained and equipped with herbicides that should make it easier to keep the beaches clear. She said she hopes maintenance will become easier as they continue to beat back the vegetation.

Meanwhile, plover advocates are looking for the next habitat to rebuild, especially historic nesting sites that are near enough to established colonies like the Sleeping Bear population to allow the chicks to recolonize it easily.

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Add deposit to water bottles or raise landfill rates: debate is on

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan residents soon may have to pay a 10-cent deposit on plastic water bottles.

In a renewed effort to increase Michigan’s recycling rate, Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, sponsored a bill to expand the 1976 beverage containers law to include water and all beverages in metal, glass or plastic containers, except for milk products.

“We need to recycle more materials, keep things out of our landfills,” Hoadley said. “We need to recycle more so we save energy, and we need to invest in this type of recycling because it creates jobs as well.

“So it’s a win-win-win,” he said.

Efforts to expand the deposit law over the past decades have failed in the face of  opposition from grocers and retailers. Even some environmental advocates argue that other measures would provide a bigger boost to recycling in the state.

Michigan’s 15 percent recycling rate is the nation’s third-lowest, Hoadley said.

“We have an abysmal recycling rate,” he said. “But when you look at the bottle deposit bill, somewhere between 95 and 98 percent of bottles that have a deposit on them end up being returned for recycling, which is incredible.”

The bill was introduced around the same time Gov. Rick Snyder announced his new statewide initiatives for reducing waste and increasing recycling. This includes an increase to the fee to dispose waste in landfills from 36 cents/ton to $4.75/ton. This would generate $79 million annually, some earmarked for grants to local governments and nonprofits for recycling infrastructure, market development initiatives, education and outreach.

However, Snyder didn’t propose expanding the scope of the beverage deposit law.

“This is the first serious conversation we’ve had on recycling in years,” Hoadley said. “The governor’s recycling task force is finally issuing recommendations, the governor is bringing a mouthpiece to it and the governor has proposed some other solutions.”

Legislators want to show that they have solutions to propose as well, he said.

When it comes to recycling, some groups would rather see the focus placed on the governor’s initiatives rather than on an expansion of the bottle bill.

“While the bottle bill is an important part of the tools that we use to increase recycling, we’re trying to go much further beyond that,” said Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

The association represents recycling and composting interests.

“A bottle deposit law expansion bill comes up periodically, and it would capture an additional 2 percent or so of the waste, but what we’re trying to do with the governor’s initiative is get to a 30 or 45 percent recycling rate,” O’Brien said.

Other experts say it’s not an either/or situation, but rather an opportunity to combine potential solutions to create the best plan.

“While we support an expansion of the bottle deposit law, it must also be accompanied by other efforts and significant funding to assist communities into developing effective recycling options,” said Amy Trotter, deputy director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

MUCC led the successful petition drive to enact the original law.

This is not the first time an expansion of the bottle bill has been brought forward, but past proposals have generated opposition.

“Grocers have a very slim profit margin, which makes it difficult to absorb costs,” said Meegan Holland, vice president of communications and marketing for the Michigan Retailers Association.

“They would likely need new machines to take expanded bottle returns and figure out how to store additional bottles,” Holland said “It would require hiring additional personnel to sort and maintain machines that accept returnables, plus keep a sanitary environment.”

At the end of the day, Hoadley said, most people want to do the right thing for the environment.

“A clean earth does not know party lines,” he said. “Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, we can be supporting these initiatives that are working to create an individual incentive to do the right thing, create jobs and protect our environment.”

Co-sponsors of the bil are Reps. Tom Cochran, D-Mason; Bill Sowerby, D-Clinton Township; Brian Elder, D-Bay City; Erika Geiss, D-Taylor; Kristy Pagan, D-Canton; Robert Wittenberg, D-Huntington Woods, Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township; Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit; Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor; and Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit.

The bill is in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Fishery managers excited by lake trout’s not-so-picky palate

By STEVEN MAIER
Capital News Service

LANSING — Scientists may have settled a debate between anglers and fishery managers over the future of the lake trout in the Great Lakes.

With salmon hauls on the decline in recent years as their favorite food dwindles, anglers are anxious to prioritize their protection even over recently resurgent native populations like lake trout.

Salmon reigned as the undisputed king of the Great Lakes fishing industry for decades after they were introduced in the 1950s to curb the invasive alewife. It was around that time that the highly lucrative lake trout fishery took a dive as populations crashed.

Alewife populations, the salmon’s key food source, have dwindled in recent years. Now anglers are afraid that the lake trout’s comeback could hasten the salmon’s disappearance and compete for the few alewife that are left, said Jory Jonas, a fisheries research biology specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

But that’s not necessarily true. Jonas is the co-author of a new study showing that lake trout eat whatever’s available, meaning they don’t always directly compete for food with species like the Chinook salmon.

Both species mainly consumed alewife for years, Jonas said. That’s still true of most of the lake trout in Lake Michigan, where alewife populations are more stable.

Athough they’ve lost a main source of food, the lake trout’s flexible diet may make them beneficiaries after all.

“Nothing is ever truly good or bad,” she said. “It’s always a mix.”

Alewife consumption was probably harming lake trout eggs, said Austin Happel, who co-authored the diet study as a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois. He’s now an instructor at Colorado State University.

Lake trout reproduction in the Great Lakes has been handcuffed for years due to chronically low levels of thiamine, a fat-binding agent key to a healthy egg membrane, according to the study.

Fish have to consume a healthy ratio of fat and thiamine to lay viable eggs–alewife are fatty and often low in thiamine, Happel said.

The goal for lake trout is self-sufficiency, he said. That’s not the reality these days because lake trout must be stocked for populations to survive.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission seeks to protect native species like lake trout, said Marc Gaden, the commission’s communications director. But the agency is also pleased with each state’s efforts to save the salmon by growing the remaining alewife population.

“They have to take on this elephant in the room, which is that there’s not much food for the salmon to eat,” Gaden said.

Fishery managers face a balancing act. They need to support the alewife enough to meet the demand for salmon, while rooting against it–and in favor of other prey species–in the interests of the native lake trout.

The diets of lake trout differ drastically between lakes Michigan and Huron, and even between the east and west coasts of Lake Michigan.  

That kindles some hope for that balance managers need to protect both the salmon and lake trout, Jonas said.

The variation is consistent with availability – alewife in northern Lake Michigan still make up a large portion of lake trout diet, while the Lake Huron fish consume the more-abundant rainbow smelt. A booming population of round goby, another invasive, is now an important food source for lake trout in western Lake Michigan.

But Happel said the alewife’s downturn won’t necessarily solve lake trout reproduction troubles. Thiamine deficiency has been found in other Great Lakes fish that don’t eat alewife–meaning the alewife might not be the crux of that problem.

“At some point we wanted to point fingers,” he said. “We wanted to find a culprit.”

Scientists have turned the log over only to find a larger problem–the entire food web in the Great Lakes is full of fat withoutt much thiamine to offset it, Happel said.

Alewife are a large part of the problem, but Jonas said prey like rainbow smelt are also low in thiamine to a lesser extent. The good news: round goby don’t share that problem. Researchers could start seeing higher natural reproduction among lake trout in goby-rich territory like Lake Mchigan’s western shore.

Happel said the study is encouraging. If lake trout can diversify their diet–and with it, their vitamin intake–the odds look much better for reproduction.

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

New research tackles Great Lakes regional problems

By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – We’re used to troubling news about the Great Lakes basin — Asian carp, zebra mussels, habitat degradation, fluctuating water levels, algal blooms, chronic wasting disease, lead-poisoned drinking water, endangered species and other problems.

But we pay less attention to promising news with useful findings from science and public policy experts.

I learned a lot about promising news as the co-editor of a new book, Biodiversity, Conservation and Environmental Management in the Great Lakes Basin (Routledge).

Co-editor Mark Neuzil, a journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I saw a need for an in-depth look at groundbreaking research that may shape the future of the ecologically unique and economically vital Great Lakes basin.

It encompasses parts of eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces and contains an estimated 179 native fish, 75 native mammals and a rich biodiversity of plants, forests, birds, reptiles, insects and amphibians. Yet it’s also a region where millions of now-extinct passenger pigeons used to blacken the skies until overhunting and disappearing habitat wiped them out.

We enlisted the help of experts from the United States and Canada, including Michigan ones at the Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, the Gun Lake Tribe based in Shelbyville, the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station in Lansing and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Alpena.

They worked in places as diverse as Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, a northern forest that straddles the territory between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Northeast Wisconsin, the Red Cedar River near Lansing and Sudbury, Ontario.

We learned about artificial reefs and reef restoration, about the impact of dam removals on fisheries, about conflicts concerning agricultural irrigation and about how endangered freshwater turtles survive in a changing landscape.

We also learned about the legacy of toxic chemicals, citizen engagement in managing natural resources and cooperation between Native Americans and conservationists.

The research reflects the real-world interplay among geography, hydrology, climate, economics, biology, politics, culture, history and human emotion.

The book’s four closely connected themes overlap: a) habitat, conservation and restoration; b) extinction and survival, c) pollution, climate change and invasive species; and d) public policy.

The region’s environmental problems and potential solutions ignore national, state or county borders. Lessons about the invasive emerald ash borers, the movements of predators and nutrient pollution of waterways are relevant throughout the Great Lakes Basin.

However, borders have political and diplomatic significance. That reality suggests questions about which governments assume what legislative, regulatory, remedial and protective steps to safeguard the basin’s natural resources.

Those questions arise when determining who’s responsible for monitoring ballast water, repelling Asian carp, cleaning up abandoned industrial sites and promoting renewable energy.

Should it be a state or provincial legislature, a federal agency, a bi-national organization or a local government that protect wetlands, restore fish habitat, manage forests, cap pesticide use and determine which species can be hunted?

Should private industries be trusted to shoulder some of those responsibilities? What about nonprofit and community groups? What roles should scientists play?

If there’s a single overarching lesson, it’s that high-stakes environmental issues in the Great Lakes basin are complicated, making it tough to craft realistic and publicly acceptable policy

alternatives. But ongoing scientific research is essential to making credible decisions.

Wildlife cooperatives boost conservation and habitat

By AGNES BAO
Capital News Service

LANSING – According to research studies on their perception about land use, many farmers’ attitudes are still rooted in using their private land to grow crops, focusing on increasing productivity.

Fewer of them would think about taking conservation actions, the studies found.

However, what if these activities are not wildlife-friendly? What if these types of land management hurt wildlife habitat?

“There are some people who don’t have interest in wildlife. Some agriculture practices and different land use practices are not good for pheasants,” said AI Stewart, a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) upland game bird specialist.

But landowners have the right to manage their property as they choose, he said.

Anna Mitterling of Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) has worked for more than three years to broaden the perceptions of landowners and break land-use stereotypes.

Mitterling, the organization’s wildlife cooperative coordinator, promotes a comprehensive program to assist landowners in better land management and planning for future needs.  

The Michigan Wildlife Cooperative is a voluntary conservation effort supported by the DNR, the Quality Deer Management Association, Pheasants Forever and MUCC.

A wildlife cooperative gathers private landowners, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts to enhance their local wildlife and habitat. The participants share their wildlife experiences with each other, accumulate more knowledge of wildlife from activities,  improve relationships with neighbors and have a chance to use land management techniques on a bigger scale.

Currently, Michigan has 120 wildlife cooperatives, a number that has been increasing since 1991, according to the MUCC.

“The ones I work with are often larger over time, with 25 or so members, and 3,000 -12,000 acres of combined properties,” Mitterling said.

Deer cooperatives and pheasant cooperatives are two of the major types in Michigan.

Deer cooperatives focus on the quality of deer herds. Pheasant cooperatives work to create and enhance grassland habitats.

“In our deer cooperative, we have an annual buck pole, we do a youth deer pole on the weekend of the youth hunt and we work with the DNR to put a plane in the air to look for poachers,” said Harold Wolf, the president of the Southern Mecosta Whitetail Management Association.

Wolf said cooperatives are good for the people who join: He got to know his neighbors better, felt pride in improving the deer herd and shared happy experiences and memories with family and friends.

As for pheasant cooperatives, Lake Hudson Pheasant Cooperative leader David Ames said, “Most of us are hunters. We focus on creating grassland habitat pheasant can survive in.”

His cooperative is based in Lenawee County.

Despite such benefits, some landowners decide not to take part.

“The biggest challenge for us is finding private landowners that want to participate,” Ames said.

One reason for landowner concern is the size of their property. Many think their land is too small to support conservation activities, Ames said. “A small amount of land, like 20 acres, would be big enough that we can help them to do something on it,” he added.

Ames also stressed the significance and necessity of wildlife and land use education.

In terms of the land use stereotypes, Ames suggested more outreach and said that elementary education about wildlife conservation may lead to more changes in property owners’ attitudes and land use stereotypes.

Rick Lucas, a wildlife and forestry professional with the Mecosta/Osceola Lake Conservation District in Reed City, said, “The common denominator of every natural resource and conservation issue across the state is people.”

Sara Kross, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at California State University, Sacramento, researched the impact of farmers’ perceptions on their conservation activities.

She found a positive relationship between their perceptions and conservation efforts. For instance, general farmers thought perching birds and bats significantly help control insect pests, while fruit farmers view them negatively.

Accordingly, fruit farmers are less likely to try to protect perching birds and bats, Kross’ study said.

Push on to improve conservation education

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — When NASA reported 2017 to be the second-hottest year on record, the announcement was confirmation of a continuing trend: All 18 of the hottest years in modern history have occurred in the past two decades.

Yet as the globe heats up, no coordinated effort to standardize education on the conservation of natural resources in Michigan’s public schools has appeared, according to state officials and educators.

Dan Eichinger, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said he believes public schools are failing to properly educate students about conservation.

Eichinger said public education standards heavily emphasize the more rote aspects of science, while he prefers more of a focus on how humans can take better care of their environs.

“I think it’s far more important for us to prepare somebody in their compulsory education less on how many particles make up this, that or the other thing, and talk more about conservation biology and how humans have the potential to impact it,” Eichinger said.

A lack of education in these areas has led to misunderstandings, Eichinger said, using clear-cutting as an example.

Eichinger said people often have a negative reaction to the idea of chopping down large swaths of trees, when in fact, clear-cutting is an important part of a healthy regeneration process within forests.

“Being able to really talk about some of those nuances that happen when you’re talking about conservation — we miss a lot of that,” Eichinger said.

The implementation of environmental education is “hit-or-miss” across the state due to a lack of state oversight, said Kevin Frailey, the education services manager for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He also serves on the board of the Michigan Science Teachers Association.

This is unlikely to change immediately because standardized tests like the MEAP focus on other aspects of science, technology, engineering and math education and don’t leave much room for variation.

“What the state does do is they create the tests,” Frailey said. “If you’re going to have questions about environmental education on the test, then teachers are more likely to teach that to kids.

“But of course, that’s the question: How do you get environmental education types of questions on the tests?” he said.

The framework for Michigan’s current K-12 Science Standards, adopted in November 2015, do make mention of human impact on Earth’s systems. “Earth and Human Activity” is listed as one of the “core ideas” for earth and space sciences.

However, Gregg Dionne, supervisor of curriculum & instruction for the Department of Education, said local boards of education are the ones that approve curriculum, so the state does not have much say in how thoroughly this subject matter is explored.

School boards “have the authority over implementation — how much time is spent on it, how deep they go into the content, those kinds of things,” Dionne said. “They assess that locally.”

Frailey said this “fragmented” setup sometimes leaves the implementation of environmental education up to individual teachers.

Michigan residents “do think it’s taught in their schools,” Frailey said. “If it is, it’s pretty much the teacher’s choice.”

Frailey said the decision to leave that choice up to the districts reflects Michigan’s historical preference for hands-off governing by the state.

“Michigan is not a state that typically mandates much of anything at the state level — it’s more done at a local level,” Frailey said. “There’s never been a lead at the Department of Education to make environmental [education] or conservation a priority with Michigan students.”

The state’s refusal to mandate environmental education leaves it up to other organizations to push for change.

At the DNR, Frailey is responsible for coordinating educational programs, like Salmon in the Classroom, that bring students in contact with natural resources and environmental studies.

Frailey said he believes students nowadays still have more knowledge about natural resources than in the past. He attributes that in part to a growing awareness among educators of the importance of getting such information out to children.

“I would say kids in school know more about wildlife and the environment than they ever used to,” Frailey said. “I used to go into classrooms 30 years ago and ask kids about wildlife or habitats or whatever, and they would just look at you blankly.

“Nowadays, you go into schools and it seems like kids know so much more of that stuff,” he said.

Barbara Lester, curriculum director of Centreville Public Schools in St. Joseph County, said Centreville students are afforded many opportunities in and out of the classroom to learn about conservation.

Lester said field trips to the Kalamazoo Nature Center and an agricultural science class are among the many ways the district implements environmental education in the curriculum.

“We teach environmental science as part of our curriculum in almost every grade level,” Lester said. “It’s part of biology, it’s part of earth science, it’s part of the elementary curriculum. It’s infused into what we teach in science.”

Lester said she also has seen a definite improvement in students’ understanding of environmental issues in her time as an educator.

Because of that improvement, Frailey said he’s hesitant to connect climate change denial with a lack of standardized environmental education, saying climate change denial is often more of a political issue than an educational one.

“I think people know the science, but the politics sometimes don’t allow them to let the science sink through,” Frailey said.

A 2013 study from Stanford University found that 77 percent of Michiganders believe global warming is happening. The same study found 72 percent of state residents approve of increased consumption taxes on electricity and 23 percent favor increased consumption taxes on gasoline.