There’s No Place Like Home: Protecting Our Favorite Places

Through thoughtful prioritization, planning and execution, Huron Pines protects and restores some of Northern Michigan’s most iconic places including the jack pine plains of the Au Sable River, the dunes of Negwegon State Park, the shores of Lake Huron and the depths of the Pigeon River Country State Forest. These wild places provide the ideal habitat for threatened and endangered species like Hine’s emerald dragonfly, piping plover, Pitcher’s thistle, eastern massasauga rattlesnake and Kirtland’s warbler.

The process includes monitoring habitats from the heartland to the coast to inventory and report existing and emerging invasive plant species, understand the impact a changing climate is having on local vegetation and wildlife and prioritize action based on this carefully collected data.

In the same way our river restoration work across Northern Michigan is the culmination of years of information gathering and planning, the decisions we make about our land stewardship efforts are also based on extensive data collection by our staff, partner organizations and citizen scientists. The more information we have, the easier it is to prioritize where we should focus our efforts and accurately estimate the time and resources necessary to make the biggest impact on the region.

In 2020, to better meet the demands of our region, we reorganized our 12-county invasive species network into two Coastal and Heartland Invasive Species Networks. The networks are supported in part by the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program and each have their own coordinators and field technicians, to provide greater capacity and better services tailored to the unique needs of each landscape.

Working collaboratively, partners in the Huron Coastal Invasive Species Network and the Huron Heartland Invasive Species Network engage communities and lead them in a strategic, coordinated approach to invasive species management, including awareness, prevention, control and restoration. We envision a Northern Michigan where native plants and wildlife thrive, unencumbered by invasive species, and healthy ecosystems enrich the quality of life in the region.

Prioritizing Critical Habitat 

From June to September, our invasive plant inventory and treatment work took us to parts of Northern Michigan that are home to some of the rarest plants and animals of the Midwest. Among these places were the 147,000-acre Camp Grayling National Guard training facility that spans Crawford and Kalkaska counties and the 4,118-acre Negwegon State Park on the border of Alcona and Alpena counties.

During our visits to distant corners of the Camp Grayling property, we came across two species of concern — Voss’s goldenrod and an eastern massasauga rattlesnake.

The federally threatened rattlesnake was spotted swimming across a small stream while the field crew was collecting invasive species inventory data. Keeping this close encounter fresh in their minds, they conducted careful treatments throughout the season to ensure minimal impact on the surrounding environment for the sake of this species.

Heartland Restoration Team Lead Rachel Leggett kneels beside a Pitcher’s thistle growing on a shoreline dune at Negwegon State Park in June.

The stewardship team also spotted Voss’s goldenrod near Howes Lake during their inventory and treatment of reed canary grass, an invasive species that is in direct competition with the native goldenrod found only in two counties in Michigan. To avoid any potential for collateral damage to this species, they switched from spray treatment of reed canary grass to hand-swiping the invasive plants in that area.

Our ongoing work at Negwegon State Park focused this year on the restoration of lakeshore habitat for the federally threatened Pitcher’s thistle.

For most of its life, the Pitcher’s thistle is a wispy tangle of stems branching like antlers into slender leaves. Below ground, the plant sends a taproot 6 feet down, stabilizing beach sands as it searches out nutrients. In its final summer, it puts on a show of pale pink blossoms, pollinates, makes seed and dies. This life cycle, evolved over millennia and specialized to a handful of places around lakes Huron and Michigan, is not compatible with the relatively recent arrival of invasive species, shoreline development and climate change.

“The coastlines of our service area are at the very top of the list for us in terms of Michigan’s at-risk natural resources,” said Steve Woods, Conservation Stewardship Director. “There’s a disproportionate number of rare and threatened species along the Lake Huron coast and the Pitcher’s thistle is representative of that. To start their recovery, we want to focus our work in the places where they still exist.”

Our stewardship team surveyed 3.5 miles of Lake Huron shoreline at Negwegon and recorded precise GPS locations where these plants were found growing among the park’s sugar-sand dunes. These coordinates informed our efforts throughout the summer to remove invasive spotted knapweed growing within a 50-foot radius of each Pitcher’s thistle, giving the silver-green plants and their seedlings room to grow in the absence of kapweed’s toxic roots. We also treated invasive phragmites along the same stretch, ensuring that natural wind and wave action will continue building the dunes that Pitcher’s thistle calls home. In all the world, this species is found only on a few shores of the Great Lakes.

We Get Around

By land and by sea, we racked up the miles in 2020.

Stewardship Program Coordinator Shelby Bauer and Coastal Restoration Lead Logan Hawley fired up their four-wheeler for the first half of a 2-year effort to survey 700 miles of motorized trails and 65 forest campgrounds for invasive plants. Data gathered during this inventory will help drive our future work to restore these recreation areas so that native plants and wildlife can flourish. This project, funded by the U.S. Forest Service’s Cooperative Weed Management Area program, covers Crawford, Montmorency, Ogemaw, Oscoda, Otsego and Roscommon counties. 

They also looked at sites where trails intersect streams to help determine whether future projects could restore those waterways with improved crossing structures.

“I’ve been surprised at the variation in terrain and habitats I encounter in one trail loop,” Bauer said. “It has really been a unique and different way to experience Northern Michigan.”

For our surveys within the Thunder Bay River Watershed, we relied on a mix of kayaks, canoes and motorized boats to search out and document invasive species and areas where streambank erosion is occurring.

“There’s no better day than being in a kayak for work, no matter how many logjams, portages or mosquitoes there are,” said Coastal Project Manager Amy Nowakowski, who conducted surveys by kayak on the upper Thunder Bay River near Hillman. “It’s interesting to see how much the watershed changes from the upstream to downstream sections. I find this kind of work really rewarding.”

In 2020, we surveyed 22 miles of the Thunder Bay River, along with 60 miles of shoreline at Hubbard Lake, Lake Winyah and Fletcher Pond.

“It was humbling to experience how much work goes into surveying these shorelines for invasive species,” said Communications Associate Chris Engle. “I saw firsthand the negative impacts they can have on the landscape and how important it is that they be kept under control. These were long days but I felt good about the work we accomplished.”

Our inventory of the Au Sable River covered more than 160 miles of the North Branch and Main Branch by canoe, kayak and waders. Sometimes lasting 10 hours, these long days took us through some of the most scenic stretches of water Northern Michigan has to offer and also gave us a hard look at areas where our future treatment work will need to be focused.

From the Pigeon River Country State Forest to the shores of Lake Huron, the entire Huron Pines staff played a part in our 2020 field season. Clockwise from top left: Coastal Project Manager Amy Nowakowski, Stewardship Program Coordinator Shelby Bauer, Communications Associate Chris Engle, Marketing and Development Director Colby Chilcote and Conservation Stewardship Director Steve Woods.

This piece originally appeared in our 2020 Annual Report.

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