Survey: dune supporters include stormwatchers, ecologists, campers, economists

BY JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — It’s not just their beauty that people love about dunes. Some value Michigan’s sandy knolls for storm-watching.

“It was a really popular activity that we didn’t have on our radar,” said Brad Garmon, director of conservation at the Michigan Environmental Council. “Some parks, specifically in Southwest Michigan, had a pretty high percentage of people rank storm-watching as the primary purpose of their visit to the dunes.”

Those storm clouds and lightning bolts are among many reasons why Michigan’s residents value the state’s dunes, a new survey is telling researchers.

“About 93 percent of people that took the survey valued dunes for their scenic value,” Garmon said. “I think that’s not surprising if you think about Sleeping Bear and some of these high-profile dunes, but that’s still a really high number.”

As one of the first of its kind, the online “How You Dune” survey administered by Michigan State University  pinpointed where and how people spend time when they visit dunes. Popular uses included beach-going and camping.

More than 89 percent of the respondents valued protection of dunes, while 80 percent valued them as a unique ecosystem.

“The idea of generational importance that ‘the dunes I enjoy today I want my kids and grandkids to have the opportunity to have and see and experience these dunes too,’ was really significant,” Garmon said.

Found mostly on the state’s west coast, the 275,000 acres of Michigan dunes comprise the world’s largest freshwater dune system. They house an ecosystem of animals and vegetation distinct to the region.

Many of these organisms rely on how the dunes migrate, a nuisance to many homeowners.

“From a coastal homeowner’s perspective, you’re always trying to keep the dunes in place,” said Shaun Howard, a Nature Conservancy project manager. “You’ve got your home and you’re worried about erosion. But they are dynamic and they are supposed to move.

“Dunes are really important as a component of the ecosystem food-chain because they have these really specific plants which have really specific insects that feed on them which in turn feed birds and other wildlife,” Howard said.

Some species, like the federally endangered Pitcher’s thistle, indicate the health of the dunes.

The plant needs the dunes to scour its seeds so they can continue to reproduce, Howard said. “Without the sand movement, you don’t get that scouring effect, and in return you get reduced germination rates of that particular plant. So we use Pitcher’s thistle success and growth as an indicator for whether the dunes are healthy.”

Coupled with understanding how individuals use dunes, researchers also sought how to galvanize dune supporters.

“We wanted to catalyze a group of dune stakeholders,” said Robert Richardson, an ecological economist with Michigan State who helped develop the survey that 3,610 people answered. “So given that we don’t know who cares about dunes, people who took the survey were invited to give us their contact information so that we could follow up. So now we can build upon this dune stakeholder community.”

Survey respondents were fairly homogeneous, Richardson said. About 87 percent are white.

“We feel like that’s also an opportunity for the Department of Natural Resources to do some targeted outreach to reach more diverse communities who may not have visited dunes or who may not be aware of the uniqueness of dunes,” Richardson said.

To reach minorities, there needs to be a reframing of the discussion about promoting the environment, said Sandra Turner-Handy, the community engagement director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

It’s not that people of color don’t enjoy nature, because they do, she said. The priorities for many people of color in the environment are about survival.

“We are long-term lovers of nature. But when we have our hands in the dirt or we’re fishing or hunting, we’re supplying our food system,” she said. “Reframing how we can enjoy the environment is happening and it will take a while. But we have to invite more people of color into the conversation about the environment so we can begin to understand how it plays a natural role in our everyday lives.”

It’s not easy to calculate the economic value of dunes. Park officials say Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore brought in 1.68 million people in 2016 who spent $183 million in nearby communities. Silver Lake Sand Dunes officials say that state park generates about $2 million a year from the 1 million people who visit. Arcadia dunes near Traverse City collects close to $1.45 million a year in direct economic impact, according to the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy.

Howard said, “They offer Michigan a unique opportunity to develop an ecotourism economy. We know people traveling from all over the country and all around the world come to see these dunes.”

As dynamic as they are, dunes are also sensitive to outside influences. When people pick them as a tourist spot, it can harm them.

“In a large dune area, there are places where people run wild,” said David Foote, the director of stewardship for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. “It denudes the face of the dune, moving vegetation from an entire system.”

As a solution, the conservancy uses a tactic called controlled trampling. That makes it more inconvenient for individuals to walk on dunes by making the trails between them and parking lots longer. Fewer people walking on the dunes loosens up the sand, without destabilizing the mound.

“If you have just a trickle of people, it can free up sand that will be blown up the dune on the backside,” Foote said. “That way rare plants like Pitcher’s thistle can thrive. It’s sustainable in the long run and a way we handle public use on some of the larger properties.”

Hydrophones can hear fish spawning

By STEVEN MAIER
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

By EVAN KUTZ
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.

New book shows off Michigan’s best waterfalls

By KATE HABREL
Capital News Service

LANSING — “Waterfalls” and “Michigan” aren’t words often paired. Photographer Phil Stagg of Cadillac is on a mission to change that.

His latest book, “Waterfalls of Michigan: The Collection” is the fifth in a series documenting the state’s waterfalls. It contains the most spectacular and easiest-to-reach ones in the state.

And Stagg has been to every single one.

All photos, maps and descriptions in the book are his own. He’s walked every trail, some many times over. He’s taken GPS coordinates showing the exact location of each waterfall.

Why?

“I don’t think we realize the rugged beauty that exists in the state,” Stagg said. “That’s become part of my quest: to open the eyes of so many Michiganders who are not familiar with what lies north of the bridge. I hope that they will appreciate the U.P., maybe more than they have.”

There are 202 waterfalls in his book, most located in the Upper Peninsula. The full series includes more than 600.

Each waterfall is accompanied by a picture, information on hiking conditions, danger level from walking on uneven or icy ground, elevation change and a short description of the falls. Stagg also rates each on a “must-see” scale from 1 to 10 and marks the most spectacular sights with a green square.

“Waterfalls of Michigan: The Collection” (MI Falls Publishing, $29.95) contains those that are most beautiful and easiest to get to.

The series got its start in 2008, when Stagg took a photo he loved at Tahquamenon Falls in the U.P.’s Luce County. That photo inspired him in 2009 to seek others.

“I was just trying to find some at that point,” Stagg said. “But then when the idea of actually creating a book gelled in the mind, I thought, okay, let’s get serious about this and try to actually get to all of them instead of finding just the nice ones.”

It took nine years to gather his pictures and field notes. The first book came out in 2016, the other four following soon after.

You’ll find many well-known waterfalls like Tahquamenon, Agate Falls in Ontonagon County and Manabezho Falls in Porcupines Mountains Wilderness State Park in Gogebic County.

You’ll also find several that Stagg named himself — including one in the Porcupine Mountains. Stagg stumbled across it while hiking with his oldest son.

“He yelled at me and said, ‘Dad, there’s a waterfall! You need to come up here!’” he said. “I finally said, ‘Okay, fine!’ So I went up there and sure enough, there was this cute little waterfall. I called it Insistence Falls because he insisted that I go up there.”

Each waterfall-hunting trip he took offered a new set of challenges. Sometimes the falls’ location wasn’t marked on maps. Sometimes there was no maintained trail leading to it. Sometimes the falls themselves were unmarked.

Stagg sometimes had to rely on GPS coordinates or word of mouth to find the waterfalls. When he arrived, conditions weren’t always right for a good picture and he’d have to go back later.

The searches turned him into a hiker, he said. He said he hopes the same will happen to those who pick up his book.

“You can’t see it all, you can’t hear it all, you can’t smell it all from a picture,” Stagg said. “You have to get out there and experience it. The wind’s blowing and you’re hearing the water. You feel the moss along the sides of the river. There’s just so much more dimension to be seen than you can ever get with just a photo or two.”

Books in the “Waterfalls of Michigan” series have been sold across the country, from New York to Florida. Some people buy them to look at the pictures and remember their own vacations. Others plan their own hikes around the information Stagg offers.

They’re an introduction to something Michigan isn’t well known for — but perhaps should be.

Kate Habrel writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Saginaw Bay perch populations up against a walleye

By STEVEN MAIER
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.

Being licensed is not the same as being a trapper

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — Nearly 30,000 people buy a Michigan fur harvester license each year.

About half are trappers. The others are hunters of furbearing species, according to the  Department of Natural Resources (DNR). However, only about half of those who buy a license participate in any given year.

A furbearer license is required to trap or hunt animals that are traditionally taken for their fur. The license costs $15, but a trapper also needs a base license which costs $11.

Michigan license sales are stable year to year. The state isn’t alone in issuing more licenses than it has active trappers. In Wisconsin, roughly 20,000 people buy a trapping license each year, said Shawn Rossler, the furbearer specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. But only 40 to 50 percent of license holders actively trap in any given year.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s hard work,” said Mark Earl, the public relations director for the Michigan Trappers and Predator Callers Association. “You really have to want to do it.”

Trapping requires a large time commitment, and Rossler said he believes that’s why people buy a license but do not end up trapping.

“You have to check those traps every 24 hours,” he said. “People buy a license with the intention of going out, but other things come up and they just can’t make the commitment that year.”

In Michigan, 17 species are considered furbearers, said Adam Bump, the furbearer specialist at the Michigan DNR.

They include muskrats, raccoons, beavers, minks, coyotes, red and grey foxes, bobcats, martens, fishers, otters, badgers, opossums, three species of weasels and skunks.

The season for trapping varies by species as well as location.

The bobcat, fisher and marten seasons begins Dec. 1 in the Upper Peninsula. Bobcat trapping season for parts of the Lower Peninsula begins Dec. 10.

It’s typical for the number of trappers to grow modestly when pelt prices are high and to fall slightly when prices are low, Bump said. Pelt prices change by species, so the impact varies from year to year

Earl said it’s not about the money anyway. Rather, it’s  about beingin the woods connecting with nature and the animals he’s pursuing.

Trapping requires in-depth knowledge about the animal, Earl said. A hunter with a rifle can shoot a deer from 30 yards or 300 yards away. A trapper must get an animal to step on a 2-inch circle.

“Trappers really have to study their target species,” he said. “You have to have a lot of knowledge about where they’re going to be and what they’re going to do.”

Trapping also requires a great deal of skill, Earl said. Experienced trappers can catch only the animals they wish to trap and will avoid snagging unintentional species.

In the past, it would take time to become this proficient, he said. But in the last 15 to 20 years, things have changed in terms of the information available.

“In today’s age, people can get pretty good pretty fast,” Earl said. “There’s a lot of knowledge out there. You can get on YouTube and watch people do it, where 15 years ago you couldn’t have done that. You had to learn from somebody or maybe read it in a book.”

Historically, Bump said, trappers were fairly tight-lipped about their trade, particularly when it was a lucrative business.

“There was this view of competition,” he said. “If you told everybody about your good spots, somebody else could come and trap them. People tended to say, ‘I learned it on my own, I don’t want everyone to know my secrets.’”

In recent years, trappers have been hesitant to talk about trapping because it tends to be viewed negatively by the public, Bump said.

Some groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, oppose trapping.

“Millions of raccoons, coyotes, beavers and other animals are killed every year just for their fur,” said Christina Sewell, the assistant manager of fashion campaigns for the organization. “There’s no specifications on how the animals are killed once they’ve been trapped, and it’s very inhumane.”

Both Bump and Rossler were quick to point out that trapping is highly regulated, and people cannot simply go out and do whatever they please.

“There’s a lot of things that are different than I think the way people envision trapping,” Bump said. “The way we trap now, we have daily or 48-hour trap check laws. The traps are designed in ways to minimize the amount of trauma or injury to the animal.”

Trapping isn’t well-understood, said Geriann Albers, the furbearer biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

“Most of what the general public knows about trapping is from pop culture, such as the ‘Fox and the Hound’ where a man breaks his leg in a giant-toothed bear trap,” she said. “Modern trapping is different from those perceptions. We have humane trap research. Traps are smaller, better made, and have modifications like offset jaws, padding or extra wide jaws that make them more humane for the animal.“

Some trappers use the activity as a way to bond with their family.

“My brother traps too,” said Rossler. “So it’s something we can go out and do together.”

Others, such as Earl, pass the tradition on to their kids.

“I’ve taken my children trapping with me,” he said. “My daughter’s trapped muskrats. It’s something that can be passed down from a father to his children.”

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

By LUCY SCHROEDER
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.

Michigan protects more than a dozen shipwreck areas

By CARL STODDARD
Capital News Service

LANSING — More than a dozen underwater preserves along Michigan’s Great Lakes coastlines have been established to protect hundreds of shipwrecks.

The Michigan Underwater Preserves Council lists the following state-designated sites:

— Alger Underwater Preserve, which stretches from just west of Munising to Au Sable Point and includes Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The council says the preserve is the final resting place for at least eight shipwrecks.

— De Tour Passage Underwater Preserve, a narrow strait between the eastern end of the U.P. and Drummond Island, home to more than a dozen wrecks, the council says.

— Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve, where at least eight wrecks and even a sunken Ford Pinto can be found, including one wreck that lies in just 6 feet of water, according to the council.

— Keweenaw Underwater Preserve, which wraps around the U.P.’s Keweenaw Peninsula on the southern shore of Lake Superior, holds about a dozen wrecks and artifacts dating to the 1800s, the council says.

— Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, which the council calls “one of the richest areas in Michigan for shipwreck diving.” The preserve — home to 11 wrecks — is around the North and South Manitou Iislands in Lake Michigan and next to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

— Marquette Underwater Preserve, location of more than a dozen wrecks, is split into two parts. The Marquette section borders 24 miles of U.P. coast, extending into Lake Superior. The second part is around the Huron Islands, rocky outcroppings rising from Lake Superior in Marquette County, the council says.

— Sanilac Shores Underwater Preserve, which runs along Lake Huron from near Lexington in the south to just north of Forestville in Sanilac County. At least 16 shipwrecks lie within this preserve.

— Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve, on the shores of Lake Michigan, runs southward from the Holland area to near the Indiana border, the council says. About a dozen wrecks are submerged within the preserve.

— Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve is in the turbulent waters around Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. “The straits has a well-deserved reputation as a dangerous area to navigate,” the council says. “Over the years large numbers of ships have foundered in the straits. Many have yet to be discovered.”

— Thumb Area Bottomland Preserve, running from the Harbor Beach area to Port Austin, is home to at least 22 major wrecks, according to the council.

— Thunder Bay Underwater Preserve also is home to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the first such federal sanctuary in the Great Lakes. Thunder Bay harbors “at least 99 known shipwrecks and possibly another 100,” according to Stephanie Gandulla, volunteer coordinator for the federal sanctuary.

— West Michigan Underwater Preserve, the state’s newest submerged preserve, is the final resting place for at least 10 sunken ships, the council says. The Lake Michigan preserve extends from just north of Big Sable Point near Ludington to just south of Grand Haven.

— Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve, west of Sault Ste. Marie, covers the Lake Superior coast west of Whitefish Point and most of Whitefish Bay. The preserve is the graveyard for “a long list of historical shipwreck sites,” the council says.

Shipwrecks also lie in protected waters of the Isle Royale National Park Preserve, which  the National Park Service manages. The federal underwater preserve surrounds Isle Royale National Park, a 45-mile-long island in Lake Superior. The frigid waters around the  island hold at least 10 shipwrecks, the council says.

Perfect storm shrinks volunteer corps that protects Michigan shipwrecks

By CARL STODDARD
Capital News Service

LANSING — Silently resting beneath the surface of the Great Lakes, off the shores of many Michigan communities, are hundreds of shipwrecks, protected by the state and a dwindling crew of volunteers.

Michigan has designated 13 underwater preserves, from St. Joseph to the Straits of Mackinac, and from the Thumb to Copper Harbor in the Upper Peninsula. The state also has two federal underwater preserves.

The state preserves, which protect sunken ships and natural features, receive no state money.

So protecting these sunken sanctuaries is left largely to volunteers with the nonprofit Michigan Underwater Preserves Council, which is based in St. Ignace and draws many of  its members from communities near the protected underwater areas.

“Our volunteer corps is not expanding. It’s declining and it’s going to continue to decline,” said Ron Bloomfield, past president of the council. He also spent eight years on the state’s Underwater Salvage and Preserve Committee, an advisory panel.

Volunteers place marker buoys at the sites of shipwrecks, research the sunken ships, promote the preserves and check on the vessels to “make sure people aren’t stealing stuff off the wrecks,” said Bloomfield, who lives in Kawkawlin Township.

The volunteers even raise the money to buy the marker buoys, he said.

“At one time there were approximately 50 to 60 volunteers spread throughout the preserve system,” he said. “I would venture a guess we now have less than 20 active volunteers mostly spread between three preserves, with a few in some of the other area.”

There are a variety of reasons for the shrinking pool of volunteers, Bloomfield said.

Many people move away or get out of diving, he said, and “fewer new divers seem interested in the Great Lakes..

“In addition, our projects are considered to be long-term commitments and the current trend in volunteering is to shy away from long-term commitments and focus on short-term experiences and then move on to the next.

“Couple that with increasing demands on people’s time, and it is one of those cliche ‘perfect storms.’”

Within the preserves are at least 500 shipwrecks, Bloomfield said, and “they’re finding new ones” all the time.

“We have some of the best preserved wooden shipwrecks in the world,” he said.

Michigan’s 13 underwater preserves include more than 7,000 square miles of Great Lakes bottomland, said Dan Friedhoff, the secretary of the Michigan Underwater Preserves Council.

The preserves range from nearly 14 square miles at the Detour Passage Underwater Preserve in the eastern U.P. to 4,300 square miles in Thunder Bay, off the coast of Alpena, said Friedhoff, who lives in St. Ignace.

Thunder Bay is a national marine sanctuary as well as a Michigan underwater preserve, and is jointly managed by the federal and state governments.

The waters around Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior also are under federal protection.

Friedhoff says the council’s “active volunteer base is shrinking, to an alarming point.”

“We have the same issues as most nonprofit organizations. Lots of people are in favor of what you do, but few have time or inclination to get involved,” he said.

After becoming a certified diver in 2001, Friedhoff learned that all Great Lakes wrecks are not the same.

“I quickly became aware of the vast difference between shipwrecks that were discovered and largely stripped before the preservation ethic caught hold, and those that were discovered later, after divers recognized the value in keeping these sites relatively intact,” he said.

And while there has been a significant reduction in the stripping of wrecks, he said, “there is still a lack of understanding that certain traditional diving activities are harmful to old wooden vessels.”

Volunteers have made strides in educating divers about not hooking directly onto wrecks and instead using moorings placed on wreck sites, he said.

“The preserve volunteers also help raise awareness of the damage done by simple acts, like forcing a way through a tight passage or attempting to move artifacts to get a better photo,” he said.

The Michigan Underwater Preserves Council and the individual preserves “work to spread the word that even the smallest artifact needs to be preserved,” he said.

“I think most divers are receptive to the preserve ethic promoted by the preserve system, and increasing peer pressure has gradually reduced the impact of looters.”

Thanks to promotion and protection efforts by the council, the state and local residents, Friedhoff said, “divers come to the Great Lakes from across the country and around the world to see the well-preserved freshwater shipwrecks.”

Volunteers also are important to the success of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said Stephanie Gandulla, who coordinates volunteer activities at the sanctuary.

Volunteers staff the visitors center, place mooring buoys and help with events and educational activities, including underwater robotic competitions, Gandulla said.

She has the names of about 300 volunteers in her database and has been fortunate to not see a drop off in volunteering, she said. That may be due to the fact that many volunteer tasks at the Thunder Bay facility are less demanding than anchoring buoys, she said.

The Thunder Bay sanctuary and preserve is jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state.

Sandra Clark, director of the state’s Michigan History Center in Lansing, heads  the state’s half of the management team at Thunder Bay.

That team includes a state underwater archeologist, whose responsibilities include preserving the rich maritime history at Thunder Bay, she said.

A shipwreck “is a frozen-in-moment kind of history,” Clark said. “That moment doesn’t get altered.”

Since the creation of the state  preserve at the Straits of Mackinac, area tourism has been up, said Janet Peterson, executive director of the St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce.

“Yes, it’s absolutely impacted our community,” Peterson said. “It’s just not as visible. They don’t walk around in their gear.”

But if you look, she said, there are plenty of signs in the summer of divers in the St. Ignace area. She said she’s learned to spot dive decals on vehicles, tourists wearing dive T-shirts and dive gear left to dry outside motel rooms.

Black tern numbers plummet, invasives largely to blame

By ERIC FREEDMAN
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.