Building on Warbler Success for Landscape-Scale Restoration

The work of many saved one bird from the brink of extinction. Can the same be done for an entire ecosystem?

At the heart of Oscoda County, amid the remnants of an ancient glacial outwash plain, exists one of the most species-rich places in Northern Michigan.

Welcome to the Mio Plateau, a region defined by jack pine forests, rolling grasslands and wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. These pine barrens had been the dominant natural community across large parts of the Northern Lower Peninsula after the last ice age ended some 11,000 years ago, inhabited by species adapted to this arid landscape where water is scarce and fire was frequent.

Huron Pines staff explore a prairie landscape on the Mio Plateau in 2022.

In more recent times, human activities like land development, the suppression of wildfire and the introduction of invasive species shrank and fragmented this landscape to a vestige of its former self. As habitats disappeared, species followed suit, among them a famed blue and yellow bird whose plight sparked a decades-long endeavor to save it from extinction.

The recovery of the Kirtland’s warbler is a success story shared by many natural resource organizations, including Huron Pines, who worked diligently to restore the bird’s nesting habitat of young jack pines across swaths of Oscoda and neighboring counties. The warbler came off the Endangered Species List in 2021 and Huron Pines and its allies are joining forces again, this time for the benefit of the broader landscape.

“The Kirtland’s warbler is just one resident of the larger jack pine ecosystem,” said Steve Woods, Conservation Stewardship Director for Huron Pines. “Because it was once so critically imperiled, it made sense to focus on it first. Now that it has been delisted, we’re shifting to a more holistic approach on behalf of many other species, some of which are threatened.”

Working Together to Benefit All Species

To restore this ecosystem, Huron Pines is leading the development of the Northern Pine Plains Partnership with state and federal agencies whose combined land ownership covers a significant portion of the Mio Plateau. Through this partnership, Huron Pines is working with resource professionals at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Camp Grayling on coordinating habitat restoration efforts across the lands these agencies own and manage. Other partners include American Bird Conservancy, HeadWaters Land Conservancy and the Kirtland’s Warbler Conservation Team.

A monarch butterfly rests among lush plants on the prairie.

This partnership is an opportunity to experiment with using a variety of techniques, including prescribed fire, to promote species diversity, suppress invasive plants and improve the outcomes for all species which reside there. Additionally, Huron Pines’ budding Native Seed Program, which utilizes locally collected seed to propagate native grasses and wildflowers, will also play a role in this work.

“The great thing about this partnership is that we have biologists, ecologists, experts in prescribed fire and other resource professionals all at the table,“ Woods said. “Through cohesive co-management, there’s the potential to influence thousands of acres and have a significant, positive impact on the landscape.”

Lasting Partnerships Support a Shared Landscape

Huron Pines and its partners will work to rebuild the ecosystem by testing new techniques, reintroducing native plants and restoring natural diversity to the ecosystem. Standing to benefit are some incredibly rare and protected species like the massasauga rattlesnake, dusted skipper butterfly and the secretive locust, a short-winged grasshopper found only in six Michigan counties. Threatened plant species like Hill’s thistle and pale agoseris grow here among vast purple seas of native blazing star wildflowers buzzing with pollinating insects.

Blazing star in bloom

All these species have historically shared the landscape with Kirtland’s warbler and help define the jack pine ecosystem. They also suffered the consequences of habitat loss but did not necessarily benefit from the restoration efforts which were focused solely on the songbird. Lessons learned from those efforts, and
the partnerships formed along the way, will continue to play a significant role in restoring the health of the ecosystem as a whole.

Abigail Ertel is Community Program Director for Huron Pines. She helped lead the Kirtland’s Warbler Initiative in 2012 as a way to transition partners from population recovery efforts to those promoting the bird’s sustainability long term. She sees parallels between the success of that initiative, which facilitated the 2021 delisting, and the great potential of the Northern Pine Plains Partnership.

“At that time, Huron Pines brought experts to the table in order to solve a serious problem,” Ertel said. “We helped build relationships between partners and lifted them up to meet complex challenges together. I think the Northern Pine Plains Partnership can inspire connections that go beyond just a single species and foster an appreciation for the landscape as a whole. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing happen.”

The Northern Pine Plains Partnership is supported in part by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Habitat Grant Program.

Huron Pines AmeriCorps Members Learn & Collect Seed on Rare Landscapes

Huron Pines AmeriCorps members spent a sunny September day with the Huron Pines Stewardship Team exploring Northern Michigan’s jack pine barrens and learning how to restore and propagate the native plants found on these rare landscapes.

Seth Lanning, a 2021 Huron Pines AmeriCorps member, collects native seed from a pine barren ecosystem.

Over the course of the morning, members learned the importance of using locally sourced
plant species to restore habitats and practiced identifying native wildflowers and grasses. In the afternoon, members put their knowledge to the test, collecting seeds from a pine barren ecosystem at the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, a 148,000 acre military training center. In an effort supported by Camp Grayling, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service, Huron Pines works to restore biodiversity on the grounds of the expansive training facility. The habitat restoration includes removing invasive species and gathering native wildflower and grass seeds for future planting across Northern Lower Michigan.

After native seed is collected, it is brought back to the Huron Pines office and is dried, cleaned and stored until it is planted or propagated. The Huron Pines Stewardship Team plans to collect native plant genotypes with the intention of restoring, creating or enhancing native habitats within Lower Northern Michigan.

This seed collection effort is being replicated on a larger, region-wide scale through the Northern Pine Plains Partnership, a collaborative of conservation organizations committed to restoring the pine plain landscapes in Northeast Michigan.

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