DNR marks busy 2015 with several successes

The entrance to the Outdoor Adventure Center in Detroit

Dec. 30, 2015

Whether teaching a new angler to bait a hook, improving habitat for wildlife, leading a nature hike in the woods, expanding an off-road vehicle trail, or spearheading dozens of other efforts, for the staff at the Michigan Department Natural Resources, 2015 was one of the agency’s busiest and best years.

Here is a quick look at some of the year’s biggest challenges and successes.

Fighting invasive species on land, in water

Keeping our “Pure Michigan” natural resources healthy, abundant and safe from invasive species takes time, effort and tenacity. Funding helps, too.

Enter the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program (a joint collaboration of the DNR and the departments of Environmental Quality and Agriculture and Rural Development, launched in 2014 as part of the state’s invasive species initiative), which this year awarded $3.6 million to projects around the state. Two projects – oak wilt mapping on private lands and a study on alternatives for controlling aquatic invasive plants – are among those making great strides.

Forestry Assistance Program foresters from across Michigan completed training by DNR forest health specialists to identify and map oak wilt – a serious disease affecting oak trees in dozens of Michigan counties – on private lands. The training was part of a larger oak wilt management project directed by the Dickinson Conservation District in the western Upper Peninsula. Foresters learned how to locate fungal pads below the bark of dead trees and to recognize discoloration or streaking in the veins of distressed trees.

“Funding from the Invasive Species Grant Program helped to cover expenses like laboratory tree tissue analysis and site visits,” said Ryan Wheeler, a terrestrial invasive species biologist with the DNR. “Having more foresters who know how to properly identify oak wilt will go a long way toward providing better information and understanding of this disease. That means better management, education and, ultimately, containment.”

The goal of better management also drove a team effort led by Central Michigan University to evaluate effectiveness of current treatment methods for aquatic invasive plants like Eurasian watermilfoil and starry stonewort, and to test out alternative control methods.

Armed with a nearly $400,000 grant, the team this summer documented locations and abundance of these plants in selected test lakes in Barry and Ionia counties, and also took plant samples of Eurasian watermilfoil for genetic Invasive carp removed from Illinois Rivertesting. After applying several treatments (chemicals, harvesting, and natural fiber mats or weed screens installed at the bottom of a water body) to different test plots, scuba divers monitored for the rate and method of regrowth. Work will continue through the 2016 field season.

No welcome for invasive carp

Keeping invasive carp – in particular, silver, bighead and black carp – out of the Great Lakes is perhaps the state’s most important invasive species fight. That battle continued in 2015 through sustained efforts with partners to stop fish passage through the Chicago Area Waterway System, including a summer invasive carp removal project along the Illinois River.

Though no silver, bighead or black carp are known to be present in any Michigan waters, the training and knowledge Michigan DNR staff picked up in Illinois could prove vital to potential future response efforts.

Tammy Newcomb, the DNR’s senior water policy advisor, said that’s exactly the point.

“Removal exercises like the one in Illinois help to strengthen regional collaboration and, ultimately, help to reduce the invasive carp population that currently threatens the Great Lakes,” Newcomb said. “These efforts provide valuable opportunities to help us address any invasive carp issues that threaten our state’s waters, while we work toward additional preventative solutions in Illinois.”

Blazing trails in outdoor recreation

Whether interests run toward hiking, biking, horseback riding, paddling, skiing, snowmobiling, off-roading or plain old exploring, there’s a trail for that in Michigan –actually, roughly 12,000 miles of state-managed trails.

This year saw big developments, including the naming of the state’s showcase trail, with separate hiking and bicycling routes stretching from Belle Isle in Detroit to Ironwood in the western Upper Peninsula. After more than 9,000 suggestions were tallied, the name Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail emerged the winner.

The Iron Belle Trail got a boost from more than $2 million in Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grants for making key connections along the two routes. The trail’s first corporate sponsor, TransCanada, also came on board with a $25,000 donation and the promise of staff volunteer support for work in Kalkaska County.

On the technology front, DNR state trails coordinator Paul Yauk said a successful pilot project already is under way in Marquette County, as the DNR worked with partners in the county to collect and standardize 900 miles of trails data and make it publicly available for mobile app development.

“Even as Michigan continues to secure its reputation as the Trails State, we’re also hard at work on taking the title of Digital Trails State, by collecting and standardizing data on Michigan’s 20,000 miles of trails at the local, state and federal level,” Yauk said. “We’re blessed with amazing natural resources, and we want to make sure residents and visitors know about the trails in their own hometowns and all across the state.”

Battling chronic wasting disease

This year saw the state’s first confirmed finding of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Michigan’s free-ranging white-tailed deer herd. To date, CWD – a neurological disease that is always fatal for deer, elk and moose – has been A woman places a confirmed in four deer, all in separate incidents in Clinton and Ingham counties.

Although it was a finding wildlife officials had hoped to avoid, DNR deer program managers are pleased with the cooperation and commitment that have made surveillance of CWD more productive.

For DNR deer specialist Chad Stewart, the biggest takeaway has been how the DNR, local officials, hunters and landowners came together in a joint effort to combat the deadly wildlife disease.

“Because we had solid relationships before the CWD finding, we were able to mobilize quickly and put our plan into action,” Stewart said. “We want to thank hunters, too, for their vigilance in our CWD surveillance. This disease will take time to understand whether and how it can be eradicated. That can’t happen without hunter support.”

In light of Michigan’s proximity to CWD-infected Wisconsin, the DNR also launched a proactive hunter education campaign – “Keep CWD Out of the U.P.!” – that garnered national attention for the agency’s efforts to boost awareness among hunters.

Bringing 'up north' to downtown Detroit

This summer’s opening of the Outdoor Adventure Center (OAC) in Detroit created – with the nearby Milliken State Park and Harbor and Belle Isle Park – a trio of recreation facilities that provide a gateway to the outdoors. The OAC is a dynamic, welcoming space that allows students, residents and visitors to learn about Michigan’s outdoor recreation opportunities, conservation efforts and world-class natural resources.

Guests at the Outdoor Adventure Center can enjoy an up-close indoor exploration of Michigan’s great outdoors. The facility features a 40-foot-tall, man-made, interactive tree; off-road vehicle, bicycle, kayak, canoe and fishing simulators; a life-size beaver lodge and eagle’s nest; an indoor archery range; a 3,000-gallon, freshwater aquarium; a man-made waterfall with a 36-foot drop, and much more to see and experience.

The center hosted 20,000 visitors in the first seven weeks after its July opening while Belle Isle Park hosted over 3 million visitors in 2015, up from 2014 attendance.

State recreation offerings across Michigan were in high demand this year as camp nights at state parks posted a 9 percent annual increase and the Recreation Passport program reached a 30.4 percent participation level, its highest mark yet.

More good news: A DNR camper survey revealed a nearly 90 percent customer satisfaction rating.

Lending support against western blazes

When wildfires raged this season in western states – and a Canadian province – the Michigan DNR was quick toA fireman works on putting out a hot spot on the Marquette County Road 601 fire. The fireman was among several sent to Manitoba this past summer. respond. This year, 54 individuals traveled to hot zones in Alaska, California, Idaho, Manitoba, Montana, Oregon and Washington, taking on 16 different overhead positions from fire-line leadership to command staff and hand crews. There were a total of 58 dispatches (or assignments), each one lasting roughly two weeks.

“Cooperative efforts are key to protecting people, property and resources statewide as well as nationally,” said Paul Kollmeyer, DNR resource protection section manager. “We are proud that our firefighters have the necessary skills to assist with emergency situations in other states.”  

Kollmeyer said that while DNR firefighters are providing assistance out west or in other locations, Michigan remains adequately staffed to handle any fire incident that might start here at home. When sending staff on out-of-state firefighting assignments, the state of Michigan is fully reimbursed for all costs associated with providing that support.

Welcoming the next generation of conservation officers

Michigan added to the ranks of its highly trained conservation officers, with the completion this past June of another successful training academy.

"These 35 new officers are filling critical vacancies for natural resources protection and general law enforcement coverage throughout Michigan,” said Gary Hagler, chief of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division. “Every day, our conservation officers play a critical role in ensuring safe, enjoyable recreation experiences for our residents and visitors.”  

Hagler said that Michigan conservation officers often are the first responders on the scene, and noted several instances this year when DNR conservation officers were involved in lifesaving or fugitive apprehension efforts. These included:

  •        Finding a lost hunter in Mackinac County.
  •        Rescuing a Gladwin County woman who had been reported missing.
  •        Helping to apprehend an escaped Iosco County prisoner.
  •        Rescuing three people who had fallen through ice on Belle Isle.

To learn more about the good work being done by conservation officers, wildlife and fisheries biologists, park rangers and educators, foresters, and others committed to protecting, promoting and sharing Michigan’s natural resources, visit the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/dnr.