Hydrophones can hear fish spawning

Capital News Service

LANSING — What does a hurricane sound like from underwater?

Researchers may soon find out after recovering listening devices they had planted off the coast of Puerto Rico in a test that could lead to year-round underwater monitoring of the Great Lakes.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers in the agency’s Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor secured $60,000 to monitor reefs off the southern coast of Puerto Rico, in part to learn more about how they might be used in the Great Lakes.

They placed three hydrophones in the water at different depths and left them recording for a full year.

Then the hurricanes hit.

The devices missed the brunt of Hurricane Irma, which skirted the north side of the island, but were hit hard by Maria.

“We were worried we were going to lose the hydrophones,” said Felix Martinez, a program manager for NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in Ann Arbor.

They were dislodged, but researchers recovered them. Then they were beset with delays in finding out what they heard. With the island’s power grid crippled, the data couldn’t be sent to Purdue University for analysis, Martinez said. When one of the university’s graduate students flew from Puerto Rico to North Carolina, he brought hard drives containing a year’s worth of recordings from all three hydrophones–an enormous amount of data.

The data still has to be copied before it’s shipped to Purdue for analysis.

It’s exciting enough to hear what two hurricanes sound like passing over the reef, Martinez said. But this project is groundbreaking because it’s the first to record continuously underwater for a year – similar to what he envisions could happen in the Great Lakes.

“There’s a lot of questions that can be asked just using sound,” Martinez said.

Some studies use them to listen in on fish spawning.

Recording sound could help scientists monitor fish populations, identify where they spawn and determine how human-generated noise affects them, Martinez said. The recordings could allow scientists to count the fish that join in at the spawning ground, he said.

Hydrophones are a good way to monitor fish and marine mammal populations without disturbing them, said Dennis Higgs, head of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Windsor.

The  Canadian government is expanding hydrophone programs to assess the effects of human-generated noise, especially the noise caused by shipping traffic.

Hydrophones will probably be used to monitor the environmental impacts of the upcoming construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will span the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, said Higgs.

“How noisy are the Great Lakes?” Higgs said. “We don’t even know the answer to that basic question.”

Hydrophone recording is more widespread in saltwater reefs, partially because they’re noisier, populated by loud species like snapping shrimp and parrot fish. Freshwater recording is just starting to catch up, Higgs said.

The devices could monitor through the winter, long past the time when the ice cuts off access for divers, Martinez said. And even if it were possible, continuous monitoring by divers would cost millions of dollars each year.

Problems must be worked out, he said. How would researchers sift through so much data, for example? How do they interpret a noise they’ve never heard before?

Researchers need to begin to collect sound libraries to help with identification. And more tests – like the one in Puerto Rico – have to run before scientists can figure out what’s practical.

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.


Researchers seek fish guts and the money to study them

Capital News Service

LANSING — Stomachs of more than 1,000 fish from lakes Huron and Michigan are in a freezer at Michigan State University awaiting dissection as part of a study critical to managing gamefish.

But a lack of funding has put on ice the project that’s important for gauging the health of predator-prey relationships in an ever-evolving ecosystem.

Now fisheries’ scientists are asking Great Lakes residents to contribute to a campaign to raise the $8,500 needed to pay MSU students to analyze what’s in the stomachs of those fish.

“It really is an important study, and an important time to do this,” said Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator Daniel O’Keefe, who worked with anglers to accumulate the stomach collection. “Hopefully a couple of years from now we’ll have lots of cool answers on what we found.”

The donations will help hire students to provide data to the public and resource management agencies. At the same time, the students will gain experience for careers in fisheries and fisheries management.

Katie Kierczynski, an MSU fisheries and wildlife graduate student, has already processed Lake Huron fish stomachs with the occasional help of lab assistants. She plans to finish before spring, when Lake Michigan’s samples are scheduled for processing. That’s a big task for a small team.

The work is challenging. Digested fish lose their skin first, making it unlikely to identify them from skin pigments. They must instead be identified by their bone structure, Kierczynski said.

“It’s easier to do the ones that are not digested as much,” she said. “You’ll get some that are four to five vertebra and some mush.”

She cuts the stomachs in half to identify a Great Lakes predator’s meal plan. That can include terrestrial insects like moths and beetles—but consists largely of other fish. Walleye can eat fish because of their larger stomachs.

Kierczynski is also examining lake trout with even larger stomachs.

O’Keefe had done similar analysis for his master’s degree.

“I can tell you, it’s a pretty cool job and it’s really fun. Sounds kind of gross, but it’s pretty interesting to see what they eat,” he said. “It’ll be a good experience for whichever students wind up doing this.”

O’Keefe spearheads many citizen science programs.

The diet study is a great way for anglers to contribute to knowledge of the Great Lakes, he said. He helped create a video that demonstrates how to cut out the stomachs, zip them into a labeled plastic bag and drop them off at a local Department of Natural Resources cleaning station freezer.

Evan Kutz writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Saginaw Bay perch populations up against a walleye

Capital News Service

LANSING — Lake Huron walleye aren’t picky when it comes to food. And perch are on the menu.

The lake’s food web has changed dramatically in the past 15 years, paving the way for a walleye comeback just a few decades after their near-collapse. The walleyes’ adaptive taste has played a big role in their re-emergence as one of the top predators in the lake, according to a recent study in the journal “Ecology of Freshwater Fish.”

But wildlife managers worry that the walleyes’ good fortune threatens perch, another important sport and commercial fishery in Saginaw Bay.

“One of the side effects of walleye recovery is that they have been feeding heavily on young yellow perch,” said Dave Fielder, a fisheries research biologist with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

In response to the walleye boom, the department revised catch limits in the bay in late 2015, Fielder said. Walleye limits went from five to eight fish per day, while the minimum size was lowered from 15 to 13 inches. The shift is consistent with the department’s changing approach to a walleye fishery that has now stabilized. The hope is that it will also benefit perch.

The bay’s perch population is stable, but the walleye have created a bottleneck, he said. Young perch are common, but few survive into adulthood.

Perch make up a large part of walleye meals, although that fluctuates by season. Previous surveys show walleye almost exclusively eat perch in the fall, said Tomas Höök, associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University and one of the study’s co-authors.

“You can’t have an infinite number of walleye and an infinite number of perch, right?” Höök said. “They interact.”

Scientists believe the shift in perch and walleye numbers was caused by the collapse of alewives, an invasive species that proved to be the last block to the food web’s Jenga tower.

“A lot of things changed when the alewife basically disappeared in 2003,” said Steven Pothoven, a fishery biologist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor and another co-author of the study.

No study has proven that the alewife collapse caused the walleye resurgence, but the timeline adds up too perfectly for scientists to see it as coincidence.

The alewife, one on a list of invasives from the Atlantic Ocean that traveled by canal to the Great Lakes, had integrated itself in Lake Huron in the mid-1900s and became an important food source for walleye.

But scientists now say the alewife may have also hindered walleye reproduction by feeding on their young.

Walleye populations in Lake Huron and especially in Saginaw Bay were almost all from raised stock, Höök said.

Researchers now recognize that the alewife were serving as food for more fish than was thought, Höök said. The Atlantic Ocean natives were also living in what was close to the coldest habitat they could survive in. The aggressively cold winter of 2002 was enough of a punch to the population in Lake Huron to put them down entirely.

In the aftermath, some predators have adjusted and some have not.

Walleyes aren’t picky. They seized the opportunity and went after more perch — and other fish, like round goby and rainbow smelt — to fill the void in their diet.

Pothoven said it’s not all bad news for perch. Their numbers have increased but fewer are surviving into adulthood.

Fishery managers say they hope to help both perch and walleye while stabilizing the bay’s food web by reintroducing another species.

Cisco, or lake herring, disappeared from much of the Great Lakes region in the mid-1900s after overfishing and habitat destruction decimated their population. Höök said there’s some evidence that they laid eggs and raised their young in the bay.

The cisco could act as a kind of buffer for perch, Höök said. They lack the uncomfortable back spines of the perch and give a larger energy boost than goby.

DNR’s Fielder said his department is embarking on a 10-year cautiously optimistic initiative to rear and stock cisco in outer Saginaw Bay.

“It’s an experiment,” he said. “But cisco have been successfully reintroduced in other areas.”

Höök said the walleye collapse in Saginaw Bay was unwittingly aided by housing developers.

Their clear-cutting along the shore left the soil exposed and susceptible to erosion. Rain washed that soil into the water, eventually covering the reefs where the walleye used to spawn.

With the historic spawning reefs covered, researchers are looking to make new ones.

They just need to figure out if it’s possible, Fielder said. The goal is to restore one acre of reef. The effectiveness of that acre would decide the fate of the larger project.

If approved, teams would dump rock from barges into the bay to form the new reef, Höök said.

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Dead cow ‘subsidy’ may bring more wolf-human conflicts

Capital News Service

LANSING — Unburied cow carcasses can lead to conflict between wolves and people, according to a recent study.

The study of wolves in the Upper Peninsula found that nearly a quarter of the diet of wolves consists of cattle in areas near dairy and beef farms.

It’s not that wolves prey on livestock, said Tyler Petroelje, a doctoral candidate at Mississippi State University who led the study. Instead, it’s a result of wolves eating at dumps where farmers put dead livestock.

Experts call that an unintentional wildlife food subsidy.

The practice is illegal in Michigan, according to the 1982 law, Bodies of Dead Animals. That law requires burying animal carcasses at least 2 feet deep within 24 hours of an animal’s death.

Many livestock producers don’t know about the rule. Plus, the rendering process to properly dispose of carcasses is expensive, so they leave dead cows unburied, Petroelje said.

Farmers leave them on top of the ground where predators such as wolves scavenge for an easy meal.

Petroelje discovered that wolves were feeding at these sites after using GPS collars to track them as part of a larger study examining how predators impact fawn survival.

The research team investigated sites with a large number of location clusters from the GPS collared wolves. Occasionally these locations were carcass dumps on farms.

They discovered that carcass dumps directly changed the wolves’ behavior. Wolves that eat at them are less active and don’t travel as far, he said.

They also found that wolves preyed less on deer when supplementing their diet with livestock.

That’s a problem if wolves get used to eating the carcasses and start attacking livestock, Petroelje said. The wolves remain in smaller areas because they don’t need to hunt as intensely. That means more of them can be sustained.

This may seem like a win for wolf population recovery in Michigan, but there are negative consequences, experts say.

If wolves shrink their range, that creates room for other predator species, like coyotes, said Dean Beyer, a wildlife researcher with the Department of Natural Resources.

Petroelje said this increased predator presence can put pressure on prey species such as white-tailed deer.

And it could mean that wolves come in closer contact with people. This can lead to wolf “removal” by mandatory harvest or by landowners who feel threatened.

“If we want to minimize human-wildlife conflict, these carcass dumps are a good thing to think about,” Petroelje said.

  The solution? Petroelje suggests simply explaining the importance of proper carcass disposal.

Most farmers he met during the study were curious about what the wolves were doing on their property. In one instance a farmer buried a carcass after learning of the concerns about them, Petroelje said.

“It’s just education. They aren’t trying to violate the law,” said Jim Bowes, the deputy director of the animal industry division of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The department reminded livestock owners of the disposal regulations for carcasses in a Michigan State University Extension newsletter.

That was after receiving an unusually high number of claims from farmers that wolves had preyed on their livestock. The department also heard some people were hunting over livestock remains, using them as bait, Bowes said.

No one is examining livestock owners’ properties for carcass pits, he said. If local law enforcers receive complaints of large predation on livestock, someone may look at the farmer’s disposal practices and educate them about best practices.

Carcass dumps aren’t the only way humans can impact wildlife behavior. Other food subsidies such as bird feeders or food waste in trash and landfills can affect feeding habits.

Petroelje said food subsidies are any food from humans that is accessible to wildlife, either intentionally or unintentionally.

And Beyer said, “Overall, this research is just alerting us that as we continue to alter landscapes through human activities, it might roll into how it affects the ecosystem overall.”

Lucy Schroeder writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Black tern numbers plummet, invasives largely to blame

Capital News Service

LANSING — The once-abundant black tern is far less abundant in Great Lakes wetlands, a victim of habitat loss and invasive plant species. And there’s a high risk that more colonies will be abandoned, according to a new study.

Since 1991, the number of active black tern colonies has plummeted nearly 90 percent, the study found. Major factors included changes in vegetation from invasive plants at breeding sites and land development near colonies.

“Decline of black terns in the Great Lakes region has been severe, and preventing abandonment of remaining colonies is an important stop-gap measure for maintaining the bird’s presence until the causes of its decline are better understood,” study authors Katherine Wyman and Francesca Cuthbert of the University of Minnesota wrote.

“Many scientists view continuing wetland habitat loss and degradation as a major barrier to black tern conservation in North America,” they said in a new article published in the journal Wetlands Ecology and Management. And fewer breeding sites increases the birds’ vulnerability to natural disasters.

Terns aren’t the only beneficiaries of coastal wetlands preservation and restoration.

Cuthbert said fish nurseries benefit, as do other birds such as the least bittern — a threatened species in Michigan — Virginia rail, pied-billed grebe and marsh wren. All those species need water they can walk, swim or forage in.

In Michigan, black terns are “not doing well,” and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has listed them as a species of “special concern,” said Rachelle Roake, the Michigan Audubon Society’s conservation science coordinator.

Bird survey data show generally a 3-to-8 percent annual decline since the 1960s, Roake said. She cautions that survey data is more difficult to collect for waterbirds like the terns.

Terns, which feed on fish and insects, generally nest in deep-water wetlands colonies with two to 50 breeding pairs. Their nests are built on floating layers of plants that are hard for scientists and predators to reach.

“They have lost a lot of habitat. They’re also very specific in the type of wetlands habitat they like, a mixed mosaic of open water and emergent vegetation, which can be somewhat hard to find nowadays,” Roake said.

Consider the Upper Peninsula, where 50 to 100 pairs of black terns used to nest each summer at Ogontz Bay near Escanaba. In 2016, that number dropped to 15 nests — and to none in summer 2017, said Caleb Putnam, the Michigan bird conservation coordinator for the DNR and Audubon Great Lakes.

Fluctuating water levels may be responsible for determining the extent of aquatic vegetation such as the marsh bulrushes that form nesting platforms for terns, Putnam said.

Terns are flexible and find alternative nesting spots “but we don’t know where the birds went,” even after an airplane survey of Big Bay de Noc and Little Bay de Noc, he said.

As for villains, the new study identified invasive wetland plants that grow at high density, such as phragmites and reed canary grass. They grow so thickly that they leave no natural gaps to provide protected nesting sites and access to open water where terns can forage for food.

Cuthbert said coastal wetlands are important for biodiversity. “When they fill in, that habitat is lost. Throughout the Great Lakes, a lot of coastal wetlands are being lost to invasive species.”

In addition, the study found that the proportion of developed land within 550 yards of colony sites related to high rates of colony abandonment, while those surrounded by agricultural land are more likely to survive.

Researchers looked at data about 78 black tern colonies on the U.S. Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair and their connecting waterways. They included sites near Sault Ste. Marie, Manistee, Cedarville, Whitefish Point, Pointe Mouillee Marsh and Sebewaing.

“Colonies on Lake Michigan and Lake St. Clair were more likely to be abandoned than colonies on Lake Huron, including St. Marys River, or Lake Ontario,” according to the study.

For example, the study said the St. Clair River Flats, a delta that’s home to an estimated 145 to 400 pairs of terns, faces intense pressure from development, and future development may increase the risk of colony abandonment. The delta, the largest in the Great Lakes system, is at the mouth of the St. Clair River in Lake St. Clair and sprawls across the Michigan-Ontario border.

Putnam said terns do well there because of extensive floating mats formed by the prior year’s dead bulrush stems.

Despite the terns’ troubling population decline, Wyman and Cuthbert reject suggestions that it’s hopeless to spend money to maintain active colonies.

To the contrary, they say the probability of abandonment can be reduced if conservationists and land managers focus on restoring wetlands by managing vegetation and eradicating invasive plants. Their study also called for minimizing development activities near the colonies.

As for the future of already-abandoned colonies, Audubon’s Putnam said, “My guess is, if you can promote enough openings and promote formation of mats, there’s a chance you can recruit them to come back.”

A monitoring project planned for next summer will experiment with clearing three areas in a DNR-owned cattail marsh in Saginaw Bay’s Wigwam Bay State Wildlife Area, he said.

Federal ballast water rules would replace state’s, if bill passes

Capital News Service

LANSING — MIchigan’s ballast water regulations are deterring oceangoing vessels from entering Michigan ports to pick up exports.

Rep. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, has introduced a bill that he says will bring those ships back to the state. The bill has passed the House and is headed for the Senate.

“Michigan’s ballast water regulations are the most stringent,” he said. “The regulations drove the state’s export business to neighboring states.”

His bill would get rid of the current ballast water discharge requirements for oceangoing vessels and adopt the federal regulations.

Ballast water is water in a ship that is taken in and let out, depending on the weight of the ship’s cargo, increasing the ship’s stability.

Ballast water has been blamed for the introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes. Some environmentalists worry that easing the standards will bring more invasive species.

The regulations have deterred oceangoing vessels from entering Michigan ports to pick up exports like grain, said Jim Weakley, the president of the Lake Carriers’ Association.

Instead, these vessels pick up Michigan grain in cities like Toledo and Windsor, he said.

As a result, grain is transported by truck or train out of the state and loaded on the ships in other ports.

“They basically stopped calling on Michigan,” Weakley said. “The grain is trucked to these other ports and loaded on to those same ships that would have gone to Michigan ports if not for Michigan laws.”

This impacts revenue for Michigan farmers, he said. Farmers pay more to send their grain to ports out of state, but they cannot charge more for it because the buyer would then simply buy it from someone else.

“When that happens, the additional cost of trucking the grain out of Michigan simply cuts into the profit the farmer receives,” he said. “The farmer has to pay for double handling.”

Moving Michigan’s exports out of the state by truck or rail also creates more air pollution, Weakley said. Because a ship can carry more cargo than a truck or train, more trucks and trains are needed to transport the cargo to another port. One ship can carry the cargo of multiple trucks or trains while consuming less fuel and emitting less exhaust.

Michigan’s regulations were created in 2005 because the Legislature felt the federal standards did not do enough to protect the Great Lakes. Oceangoing vessels are prohibited from discharging ballast water in Michigan waters without a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality. The permit allows four types of ballast water treatment, and every oceangoing vessel has to use one of the four approved treatments.

Since then, the U.S. Coast Guard has updated its standards for ballast water. Oceangoing vessels have several options for ballast water management. The regulations set a performance standard for discharged water and allow for more treatment options than those allowed by Michigan law, Weakley said.

Changing to those standards would put the states and Canadian provinces in the Great Lakes region on a level playing field, Lauwers said.

“This bill simply says Michigan is going to use the Coast Guard federal standards as the requirement for seeking a permit to be able to discharge ballast water in the state,” he said.

Some environmental groups  are concerned that changing the state’s standards will open the door for invasive species.

“We think it’s really sending the wrong message,” said James Clift, the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “We think that the Michigan standards are where everyone should be.”

This bill would give the power to protect the Great Lakes to the federal government at a time when the federal protections for natural resources are being cut back, Clift said.

If Michigan’s regulations were to fall in line with federal regulations, Weakley said he believes oceangoing vessels would return to Michigan ports.

“It’s always a risk when business goes away to try and get it to come back,” he said. “You have to give them an incentive to come back. I do think they’ll come back; whether it’ll be the same volume, I don’t know.”

Lauwers said his bill is meant to bring the export business back to Michigan.

“Everyone else has continued shipping all along,” he said. “By making it clear in the legislation that we are adopting the federal standards, we’re telling the world Michigan ports are open for export.”

Imagine a Great Lakes weather forecast that’s always right

Capital News Service

LANSING — If you live in the Great Lakes region, you know that feeling when unexpected weather rolls in, especially in the winter.

Why can’t they get the forecast right?

You probably recall a meteorologist telling you that there would be only 2 to 4 inches of snow and when the 12 to 14 inches came, they were blamed on the deceptively friendly-sounding “lake-effect” snow.

That uncertainty could be a thing of the past, said Lindsay Fitzpatrick, an atmospheric data analyst with the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research in Ann Arbor.

She and her team are looking for ways to more accurately predict that lake-effect snow and give more advanced warning of it before it hits. Lake-effect snow strikes many areas of the Great Lakes region, but it hits northern and western Michigan and western New York the hardest.

Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the researchers have been developing a network of weather measuring stations called flux towers.

Each tower has instruments that measure temperature, wind speed, wind direction, solar radiation and other meteorological variables. They also measure heat flux — the amount of energy transferred to and from a surface. That is useful in measuring evaporation. And that’s important because the greater the evaporation from the lake, the more water goes into the air.

And the more water in the air, the more likely it is to fall as snow.

The instruments are on top of five offshore lighthouses–two on Lake Superior and one each on lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie. There are none yet on Lake Ontario.

“Without their observations, we would have no way to gauge how well current models are actually working,” Fitzpatrick said. “With more measurements, we can fine-tune current models to create more accurate predictions of lake-effect snow and ideally down the line, all weather that impacts the Great Lakes.”

The trouble is that there aren’t enough towers to fine tune the models. Fitzpatrick figures two to three towers on each lake would give meteorologists the lake-wide measurements that they need.

But the towers are expensive to purchase, set up and maintain, she said. Each costs roughly $70,000 to $80,000.

Weather experts say the investment is worth it to develop computer models needed to better predict lake-effect snow.

“As we begin to incorporate these new observations to our current models, we will be much better prepared.” said Jeff Andresen, the state climatologist at Michigan State University. “The towers provide single site observations, but these observations allow us to have a greater understanding of the entire lake since they should represent the entire lake climate.”

It is difficult to predict lake-effect snow because the models haven’t captured finely enough the elements that cause it, he said. Even so, understanding them has improved with the towers that exist now.

“The flux towers are very important because they quantify the fluxes of energy and water taking place between the lakes and the atmosphere above something we really couldn’t do very well until the towers went up,” he said.

The U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission funded a project to build the first flux towers in 2008. The others were supported by subsequent projects and grants.

“These towers require constant monitoring, which requires bigger teams, and if we want to be able to rely on these towers for predictions, we need to have more on every lake,” Fitzpatrick said.

Her team recently published a study in an American Meteorological Society journal about the turbulent heat fluxes in Buffalo during a lake-effect snow event. They said they hope the study will help others see the importance of these towers.

The study measured latent heat fluxes, or the amount of energy (or heat) needed for evaporation. That helped the researchers estimate the amount of evaporation at the lake’s surface and to study whether such measurements help forecast lake-effect snow.

The study shows that models now do a poor job of simulating latent heat flux, Fitzpatrick said. Better models created from more flux tower measurements can better predict snow, location and intensity.

And they may also give a glimpse of what’s ahead as the climate’s air and water temperatures rise, Andresen said.

“Collectively, they should help better determine what lake-effect precipitation patterns might be like in the distant future.”

Jacqueline Kelly writes for Great Lakes Echo.

New ways with wood open up building opportunities

Capital News Service

LANSING — Steel and concrete would be the classic choices for building a large new laboratory planned at Michigan State University.

But experts in the university’s forestry department are asking, “Why not wood?”

They’re not the only ones with that question as builders nationwide push to build high rises, college laboratories and other large buildings with a construction material typically seen in houses. It’s a trend that could bring new markets for Michigan trees, fight climate change and produce new jobs, experts say.

“We have a tremendous amount of resources here,” said Jon Fosgitt, a member of the Forest Stewards Guild in Michigan. “The challenge is understanding the construction style, but also creating the infrastructure here in the state. We’ve got the resources here and that’s a Michigan-made story.”

Building with wood isn’t new. But a hot new construction technique called cross-laminated timber—CLT, for short—makes it possible to build large buildings out of wood. It’s constructed by bonding several layers of wood panels in alternating directions. The result is a material strong enough to build skyscrapers.

It’s fire resistant as well, said David Neumann, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forest marketing specialist. “It has the same strength as concrete, when designed properly.”

Michigan has the trees. But there’s more to it than that to put them to work.

“Here’s the challenge with cross-laminated timber- there’s only two plants in the U.S. that construct it and they are both on the western side of the country,” Fosgitt said. It doesn’t make sense to construct the materials, then ship them across the country when we have all of those resources right here, he said.

One solution is to build a plant here, but even as interest in using cross laminated timber construction grows, it’ll take time for the industry to grow with it.

“I think it’s been taken up quite quickly, considering that there wasn’t even manufacturing in the US recently,” said Jennifer Cover, the president of WoodWorks. “We’re actually seeing it take off at an exponential rate. It’s quite incredible.”

WoodWorks is a nonprofit organization funded by the wood industry and  offers free education and design assistance related to non-residential and multi-family wood buildings.

Even so, the only large construction project considering the use of cross-laminated timber in the state is on Michigan State’s campus.

While the technique is recognized by the 2015 International Building Code, a model that addresses safety and health concerns of buildings, it’s still not the industry standard.

Fosgitt does anticipates a stronger emphasis on training people to build with wood, especially in Michigan.

In fact, one of the strongest drivers for more wood buildings is an environmental one. Wood products store atmospheric carbon, a greenhouse gas that warms the planet. Concrete and steel do not. According to the Journal of Sustainable Forestry, substituting wood could prevent 14 to 31 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the atmosphere.

“Obviously the environmental benefits are good because climate change is real,” Fosgitt said. “This is part of a natural solution to climate change.”

Fears of a fire hazard may make wood a less popular choice. But cross-laminated timber doesn’t burn like normal wood because it’s so dense. It also has a faster installation process than concrete or steel, Cover said.

It’s particularly popular on the West Coast due to its flexibility and ability to withstand earthquakes, Fosgitt said. The first all-wood high rise was approved in Portland, Oregon, last June.

While Michigan has no structures built from cross-laminated timber, it does have the Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, the largest wooden dome in the world. Construction started in 1989 and used large laminated beams, said the university’s associate athletic director, Carl Bammert. It opened in 1991.

The DNR has teamed up with WoodWorks to help train more Michigan builders and architects.

The organization also offers assistance on other wood-building techniques that have been around for longer, like timber that’s put together with nails and glue.

It hosted training sessions for architects and engineers in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor in September. The next step is to get more cros- laminated timber for Michigan builders to work with.

“In the long run, what we’d like to get is a facility to make some of these products out of Michigan wood,” said Richard Bowman, the director of government relations at the Nature Conservancy in Michigan.

Fosquitt said that iIf the mass timber industry were to make its way to Michigan, it would put more pressure on the forest resource. But, because Michigan harvests only a fraction of its annual growth, the industry can be managed sustainably.

“And when a building is made from natural products, it smells great too.”

Meanwhile, the newest wall covered by ivy at MSU may not necessarily be brick or concrete.

“MSU has been considering using CLT and other engineered wood products for the new building that is planned,” Richard Kobe, the chair of the university’s forestry department, wrote in an email.

Kestrels thrive in cherry orchards, and return favor

Capital News Service

LANSING — New homes may help save a declining bird species and, at the same time, protect economically vital cherry crops from orchard-damaging enemies.

That’s the conclusion of scientists who placed nest boxes in Leelanau County cherry orchards in an effort to support more breeding populations of the American kestrel.

The kestrel — or sparrowhawk — is the smallest, most colorful and most common falcon in North America but faces “significant and widespread population declines,” according to the researchers. They describe it as “a species of conservation concern.”

The population of kestrels is declining about 1 percent a year nationally and in Michigan, said Rachelle Roake, the conservation science coordinator for the Michigan Audubon Society.

“They’re not doing that great,” although they’re not listed as a threatened or endangered species, Roake said.

Major factors in that decline include development that removes natural nesting cavities and snags, as well as climate change-related habitat loss on migration routes and in wintering grounds, according to researchers Catherine Lindell and Megan Shave of Michigan State University’s Department of Integrative Biology. They published their nest box findings in two new studies.

The shrinking number of kestrels is bad news for Michigan tart and sweet cherry growers whose crops are vulnerable to the grasshoppers, meadow voles and robins that kestrels like to chow down on. They also scare away robins, cedar waxwings and other fruit-loving birds, Lindell said.

Other crops, including apples, benefit as well from the presence of kestrels, she said. For example, voles eat the bark of young cherry and other fruit trees, killing them.

Nikki Rothwell, coordinator of MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Station near Traverse City, said it’s tough for cherry and grape growers to keep fruit-eating birds out. They’ve tried a variety of measures including balloons, sprays, nets and squawk boxes, all of which have major weaknesses.

The nest box project was “pretty neat” research,” Rothwell said. “It offers growers something they can do, something proactive.”

Lindell said sweet cherries are kestrels’ prime beneficiaries because they ripen at the same time as kestrels are nesting. Kestrels in Northern Michigan later migrate, usually to the southern United States.

Cherries are big business in Michigan, which leads the country in producing Montmorency tart cherries and ranks 4th in sweet cherry production, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Overall, the state accounts for 70-75 percent of Montmorency tart cherries and 20 percent of sweet cherries production nationally.

As for filling the birds’ menu, the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology says, “Hunting for insects and other small prey in open territory, kestrels perch on wires or poles, or hover facing into the wind, flapping and adjusting their long tails to stay in place.”

The MSU scientists installed 23 nest boxes in 2012-2015 next to or within cherry orchards on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. Many were placed near the pastures, open fields and row crops where kestrels like to hunt.

The entrances faded southeastward to encourage kestrel occupancy and the survival of hatchlings.

The researchers monitored the boxes with pole-mounted cameras and opened the boxes to count eggs, hatchlings and fledglings.

Lindell said a similar nest box study is underway at blueberry farms in Western Michigan.

In Leelanau County, kestrels laid eggs in all 23 boxes and had “consistently high reproductive rates, indicating that the orchards and surrounding areas provide suitable habitat for successful kestrel breeding and fledgling production,” one of their new studies said.

“The results suggest that orchard nest boxes have the potential to sustain or increase the breeding kestrel population in the region while increasing kestrel predation of crop-damaging prey in and around cherry orchards,” the study in the Journal of Raptor Research said.

Their other study, published in the journal PLOS One, said, “Our results could encourage additional farmers to install and maintain nest boxes in fruit-growing regions where agricultural practices create open hunting habitat for kestrels.”

There were a few failures as well. Eggs in several boxes were abandoned because of competition from European starlings or another reason, and nestlings in a fourth box were killed by unknown assailants in a nighttime attack.

Meanwhile, cherry growers face other problems that kestrels can’t solve, according to Rothwell. For example, deer browse on trees, and bucks can kill trees by rubbing up against them. A fungal pathogen called cherry leaf spot can be devastating as well.

New tool against pollution is ancient: tree canopies

Capital News Service

LANSING — Trees may be the answer for Michigan communities looking to reduce pollution from stormwater runoff.

For one thing, their leafy canopies work like an umbrella over the pavement, keeping rainwater from flowing across the ground and into larger bodies of water.

“Trees can reduce stormwater runoff in multiple ways,” said Heather Smith, Grand Traverse Baykeeper at the Watershed Center, Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City.

“Trees can capture rainfall in their canopies, which can later evaporate back into the atmosphere. The roots can help promote infiltration of stormwater and the roots can also trap sediments, nutrients and other pollutants.”

The Watershed Center is working to increase the tree canopy in five communities, including Elk Rapids, Bellaire, Kingsley, Northport and Kalkaska.

Other cities are also looking for help from this leafy strategy, including Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.

Grand Rapids has set a canopy cover goal of 40 percent, and the city is currently near 34 percent, according to Audrey Hughey, a geographic information systems specialist or Friends of Grand Rapids Parks.

Just one sugar maple tree in Ann Arbor can capture 1,763 gallons of stormwater runoff in a year, according to the city’s website.

Stormwater runoff– rainwater that falls on impervious surfaces such as parking lots, rooftops and roads — is not soaked into the ground. Instead, it flows across the ground and ends up in lakes and other bodies of water.

“When it goes over impervious surfaces like roadways and rooftops, it’s going to pick up different pollutants that may not necessarily be visible to the eye but that are invariably there,” said Jennifer Buchanan, watershed projects director at the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey. “It’s coming from all kinds of different surfaces in the landscape.”

Both Buchanan and Smith said a changing climate is increasing the number and severity of rainstorms, resulting in larger amounts of stormwater runoff.

“The volume of water and the rate of runoff is an issue because it’s these big rushes of stormwater that are entering into lakes and streams,” Buchanan said. “We can’t do much about the weather, but what we can do is try to get the stormwater to soak into the ground as locally as possible.”

Smith said stormwater runoff is one of the leading causes of stormwater pollution.

“I think we’ve been thinking more about trees and other vegetation in managing stormwater in the last few decades as we realize that we can’t just pipe untreated water into the nearest lake or stream,” she said. “We need to start treating stormwater, using natural processes.”

As an area becomes more urban, the problem of stormwater runoff increases.

“As development increases, and the amount of impervious surfaces we have increases, the more stormwater becomes a problem,” said Tom Zimnicki, the agriculture policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

Tree canopies can  slow down rainwater and allow it to soak into the ground. Trees also hold a lot of rainwater in their leaves and bark, reducing the amount of water that reaches the ground.

“The best plants are deep-rooting plants,” said Buchanan. “Those deep roots help form channels in the soil, so they form little conduits for the stormwater to travel down into the soil. And the more root surface you have, the more nutrients that potentially can be removed.”

Smith said the positive impacts of tree canopies can be immediate and continue to increase as  trees mature.

Smith said all regions can benefit from maintaining a healthy tree canopy to help manage stormwater.

“We are encouraging individuals and communities to plant and retain a tree canopy,” she said. “We are working with our local municipalities to initiate tree planting campaigns and develop and amend ordinances that favor retaining trees or planting new trees.”

Some cities, like Petoskey, are focusing on other stormwater management practices, such as rain gardens.

With these various techniques, Hughey said she is optimistic progress will be made in reducing pollution from stormwater runoff.

“With combined efforts of increased trees, rain gardens and other runoff diversion efforts, hopefully we will see significant improvements in coming years,” said Hughey.

Buchanan said stormwater management is the responsibility of both citizens and local governments.

“I think the more we can do as citizens as far as personal properties having the trees using more of those kinds of techniques is important, she said “I think it really has to be a combination of efforts between individuals and governments.”

In Grand Rapids, residents work with the city to improve the tree canopies.

“Friends of Grand Rapids Parks has over 90 certified citizen foresters that are in the city and trained to look at the canopy and promote trees in their neighborhoods,” said Hughey. “We realize as a city and an organization that climate change will affect us in the future and we are doing our best now to plan and plant for a more sustainable and resilient city. “