On-the-Ground volunteer efforts are making a big difference in habitat improvement

Volunteer Mike Sands and his son Tyler joined a brush pile building day at Fulton State Game Area.

March 6, 2014

Rabbits and other small creatures will have some new homes at Fulton State Game Area now that a handful of volunteers - working on a Michigan-On-the-Ground program - spent a Saturday building brush piles at the Kalamazoo County site.

The program, a partnership between Michigan United Conservation Clubs and the Department of Natural Resources, recruits volunteers to help the DNR improve fish and wildlife habitat across the state. On-the-Ground has attracted the attention of sportsmen and others who want to help increase the productivity of state game areas, rivers and lakes.

Last Saturday, volunteers felled pre-selected trees to build lattices, which could be piled high with brush to provide nesting and escape cover for small game - like rabbits - and other critters. By noon, the crew had built 10 brush piles along the edge of an agriculture field on the area.

DNR wildlife biologist Mark Mills (foreground) at a Michigan On-the-Ground volunteer outing.The brush piles are part of a 10-year plan, written by DNR wildlife biologist Mark Mills, to improve the habitat at the game area. Mills said he hopes to have 50 brush piles built over the course of the next decade to "improve small game hunting opportunities."

Volunteers, ranging in age from 13 to 64, included guys like Steve Waksmundzki, a 56-year-old drywall finisher who spent his morning manning a chain saw.

"Everyone sits around and complains about what the DNR doesn't do," said Waksmundzki, who was participating in his second On-the-Ground event. "When I heard of this program looking for volunteers, I said, 'I've got to go do this.' It's an opportunity to contribute."

An avid beagler from Kalamazoo, Waksmundzki even recruited fellow drywall finisher Jason Wheeler to join in

13-year-old Michael Wheeler helped build brush piles at a Michigan On-the-Ground volunteer event.Wheeler, who brought his 13-year-old son Michael with him, said he came for three reasons: "for the love of beagles, some good father-and-son time, and to bring back some good hunting."

Wheeler said he hunted pheasants when he was a youngster, but the population has declined and he's looking for other opportunities.

"We need to bring stuff back so we've got something for my kids to bring their kids out to do," he said. "If I wasn't out here I'd be drywalling some place. This is like payment to me - it makes me feel good. I'm glad we're trying."

Michael Wheeler said he didn't need a lot of convincing to come out.

"When my dad asked me if I wanted to do this with him, it sounded fun," Michael said. "I really like rabbits - I've never hunted them, but I want to. It sounds like fun."

Another father-son team at the event was 42-year-old Mike Sands and his 14-year-old son Tyler.

Volunteers work on creating brush piles for rabbits and other small game at Fulton State Game Area."We saw an article in Outdoor Life about the work being done, got on the Internet and found out about this," Mike said. "We thought we'd like to help out. It's an opportunity to give back. I want to get my son's Boy Scout troop involved, but they had another outing planned today."

Tyler, who said he'd likely have been ice fishing if not building brush piles, said he was glad to try to improve rabbit hunting.

"I like rabbit hunting," he said. "It's a challenge, really - finding them and then trying to hit them when they're running."

Tyler said he hasn't been rabbit hunting since fall, but hopes to get out - maybe at the Fulton State Game Area - soon.

Mills, the DNR wildlife biologist whose area of responsibility includes five game areas and a waterfowl production area, went out to Fulton State Game Area days earlier and marked trees for cutting in areas where he wanted to build brush piles, mostly around a sharecrop field that will be planted in corn this year. He said he chose mostly unhealthy or dead trees that were close to his chosen brush pile locations, or other problematic trees - such as one that was leaning out over the crop field - to cut.

"I tried not to cut any oaks or other hard-mast producing trees," he said. "We cut some aspen to provide an immediate food source and help with regeneration. Some of the aspens are in decline; this will help those clones sprout."

Fulton is low-intensity management, Mills said, but the On-the-Ground program will give it - as well as other management areas the program has targeted - a boost.

MUCC and DNR partner to offer habitat improvement opportunities like this brush pile building day."This is my second go-round with this program," Mills said. "I'm always impressed with the attitudes of the volunteers. It's been very successful; I think we had 25 or 30 volunteers on our wood duck-box cleanup this summer. We had a Cub Scout pack come out; they were hilarious.

"We're working with youth. We're interacting with the public. That makes it fun for me."

Mark VanBogelen, a retired real estate agent/banker/retail manager/salesman and part-time school bus driver, was attending his third event. He drove an hour and 45 minutes from his home in Manchester to serve as grill master for the work bee. (After the work, volunteers feasted on 'burgers and 'dogs cooked by VanBogelen.)

VanBogelen said he went to last fall's crabapple tree planting in Gaylord, liked it, and then built brush piles at Sharonville. But he was so sore from wrangling brush after that day that he decided he'd just show up and cook at the Fulton event.

"I'm a sportsman," said the 64-year-old VanBogelen. "I like the camaraderie of everyone pulling together to do some good. My interest in this has only grown."

The brush pile building event was one of about 20 On-the-Ground will tackle this year, said Drew YoungeDyke, who oversees the program for MUCC. The program is partially funded by donations, including grants from Enbridge Energy Partners and Consumers Power.

If you would like to get involved with this program, visit MUCC's Michigan On-the-Ground webpage.

To learn more about Michigan's state game areas and other ways to support habitat improvement efforts, visit the DNR website www.michigan.gov/wildlife.