Working Around Michigan’s Most Sensitive Species

Rare ecosystems tend to hold rare species, and the work we do across Northern Michigan to restore these landscapes puts Huron Pines staff in close proximity to wildlife whose populations rely on special protections to survive.

Coastal Project Manager Amy Nowakowski surveys for Hungerford’s crawling water beetle at a Huron Pines stream restoration site.

Our efforts to benefit Michigan’s most sensitive species goes back to 2007, when we enlisted volunteers and members of Huron Pines AmeriCorps to stabilize an eroding stream bank overlooking the spawning grounds of lake sturgeon. Today, our work takes us to places inhabited by eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, Hine’s emerald dragonflies, and a host of other plants, insects and wildlife recognized as threatened or endangered.

To better understand these species and ensure our efforts don’t negatively impact their habitats or populations, members of our team are actively being trained to survey for, identify and relocate them if necessary. Here are some examples of trainings we completed in 2022 to make certain these species, which help define Michigan’s identity, will always have a home.

To Benefit a Rare Beetle
Waist deep in her waders, Coastal Project Manager Amy Nowakowski coaxed the end of a dip net into the shadow of an undercut riverbank. She prodded gently, feeling for hidden snags, then withdrew her net
and examined its contents in the sunshine.

Hungerford’s crawling water beetle, Brychius hungerfordi, S.A. Marshall photo

Scrambling inside the mesh net were dozens of dragonfly and stonefly larvae — the kind of aquatic life Nowakowski would expect to see in a healthy cold-water stream — but she was on the hunt for something special: a striped brown beetle the size of a watermelon seed.

Hungerford’s crawling water beetle (HCWB), a critically endangered species, is found in only a handful of streams in Northern Michigan. In fact, there are only nine known locations in the U.S. and three in Canada where these beetles have been found. These known locations represent the last relict populations of the species, where they have been hanging on for the last 10,000 years in small pockets of suitable habitat. The presence of HCWB in cold-water streams serve as bioindicators for stream health.

Nowakowski is among four Huron Pines Water Program staff trained and permitted to survey for the beetle.

“Very little is known about its geographic range or life history, so increasing our shared knowledge through training and surveys will contribute valuable data for the protection of this rare species,” Nowakowski said. “We hope to find populations of beetles in new locations to gain a better understanding of distribution and abundance in northeast Michigan.”

In 2023, with grant funding from U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s National Fish Passage Program, Huron Pines staff will survey 25 sites within and outside the beetle’s known range to better learn its distribution across Northern Michigan. The data will be shared with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and will help determine the status of the beetle for future endangered species status changes.

Flexing Our Mussels
We’re taking similar steps to look for and identify species of Michigan’s native freshwater mussels, many of which are threatened or endangered and all protected accordingly under state and federal law.

In September, Water Program Technician Nick Theisen completed a field training on the Grand River where he learned how to locate and identify native mussels like hickorynut, fawnsfoot, elktoe and snuffbox. Freshwater mussels are sensitive to environmental changes and pollution, and their presence and diversity in a stream are indicators of good water quality. They also filter excess nutrients from the stream and are a food source for wildlife like otters, mink and muskrat, making them an essential part of a river ecosystem.

Conservation professionals learn how to identify freshwater mussels

“Our restoration efforts on Michigan’s rivers are for the benefit of all species,” said Theisen. “Being able to identify freshwater mussels teaches us more about these ecosystems and helps us better understand how our work will positively impact those habitats.”

This training was soon put to use when Theisen and his colleagues surveyed an undersized road/stream crossing site in the Manistee River Watershed due to be restored. Theisen found and identified a creek heelsplitter mussel, a species of special concern in Michigan, and photographed it before placing it back on the riverbed.

“With that information, now we’ll know to look for and relocate those mussels before our restoration work begins,” he said.

The mussel training was led by scientist and author Joe Rathbun and Grand Valley State University professor Eric Snyder. Our involvement was supported by the National Fish Passage Program.

A Black River erosion site in 2009 after volunteers placed rock, topsoil and landscape fabric and then installed over 3,000 native plants.
Associate Director Lisha Ramsdell (right) meets a male lake sturgeon held by an MSU researcher in 2008.

Supporting Sturgeon Habitat
Efforts to benefit rare river life are nothing new for Huron Pines. Starting in 2007 and running for several years, our organization led efforts to restore erosion sites along the Black River where lake sturgeon spawn. Sturgeon lay their eggs on exposed gravel beds where they can be hidden from predators within the spaces between rocks and pebbles. Eroding stream banks input sand and sediment into the river where it buries these important gravel beds and significantly decrease the productivity of these fish.

We enlisted volunteers to replant and stabilize streambanks overlooking these spawning areas and occasionally caught glimpses of these massive fish — which can reach 9 feet in length and weigh 300 pounds — as they migrated upstream.

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