Rebecca Williams

Reporter/Producer - The Environment Report

Rebecca has a natural science degree from the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources & Environment, where she had close encounters with escaped boars and poison sumac. Before getting into radio, Rebecca snapped photos of Mongolian diatoms and published a few papers in obscure scientific journals.

Now she spends her days reporting on everything from hungry watersnakes to heritage turkeys to people who live in 300 square foot houses.

She’s won several national awards for her work including a first place National Headliner Award at the network level for her stories on the uber-destructive emerald ash borer.

USDA Forest Service

The emerald ash borer is a little shiny green beetle that loves to feast on ash trees. The adult beetles only nibble on the leaves. It's the larvae you've got to watch out for. They munch on the inner bark of the ash tree, and mess with the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients.

The pest has killed tens of millions of ash trees in Michigan alone and tens of millions more in the states and provinces around our region.

Now researchers know a little bit more about how the emerald ash borer ate its way through the state.

www.isleroyalewolf.org

It’s the 56th year of the study of Isle Royale’s wolves and moose. Researchers at Michigan Tech have just finished this year’s Winter Study.

Rolf Peterson is a research professor at Michigan Tech and he just spent his 44th winter on the island. I called him up to find out how the animals are doing. This year, the team counted nine wolves, up from eight last year.

“I guess I’d say they’re bumping along at the bottom, the bottom of where they’ve been for the last 56 years. So for the last three years, there have been either eight or nine animals total, and that’s as low as we’ve seen them.”

Joe Gratz / Flickr

The American Lung Association just released its annual report card on air quality, State of the Air.

Detroit and Grand Rapids made the list of most polluted cities for their ozone levels (Detroit ranks 34th worst out of 220 cities; Grand Rapids ranks 30th).

But others made the cleanest cities list: Kalamazoo and East Lansing scored well for particle pollution. Those are very tiny specks found in smoke and exhaust.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

I thought I knew a lot about the Great Lakes, until I met Chris Gillcrist. He’s the kind of guy you want on your Trivial Pursuit team.

This is the kind of fact I learned from him every few minutes:

“The first millionaire in American history is John Jacob Astor. It’s a guy trading beaver pelts from the Great Lakes and sending them to Europe.”

Gillcrist is the executive director of the new National Museum of the Great Lakes. It opens this Saturday, April 26, in Toledo.

There are a lot about shipwrecks here, sure,  but Gillcrist wants you to know it’s much more than that.

“We look at it as retrofitting American history to more accurately depict how the Great Lakes impacted the nation as a whole over the past 300 years,” he says.

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Monahan’s Seafood Market in Ann Arbor carries soft-shell crabs from Maryland, Alaskan salmon, and Florida red snapper.

But at the moment, they’re fresh out of Great Lakes whitefish.

Bernie Fritzsch manages the fish market.

“We’re hoping to see it today, but we haven’t seen it for the last week,” he says.

Ryan Von Linden / New York Department of Environmental Conservation

Bats with white-nose syndrome have been found in Mackinac and Dickinson counties in the Upper Peninsula and Alpena County in northern lower Michigan.

The fungal disease has killed more than six million bats in 27 states and five Canadian provinces since 2006.

Allen Kurta is a biology professor at Eastern Michigan University. He’s one of the researchers who found the infected bats. I spoke with him for today's Environment Report (you can hear him talk about white-nose syndrome above).

Kurta compares the discovery of white-nose syndrome in Michigan bats to "every member of your extended family receiving a terminal diagnosis."

“I think that this is one of the worst wildlife calamities ever in the history of North America. You’re looking at potential extinction of multiple species of bats.”

user: Phil Roeder / Flickr

Farmers are finally able to head out into their fields, orchards and vineyards to see how everything fared over the winter. 

Ken Nye is a commodities specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau. 

He's expecting a lot of damage to Michigan fruits. 

NOAA

 

The prolonged winter and the ice cover on the Great Lakes could lead to some lasting effects on wildlife.

For one thing, scientists expect that a lot of the fish that people like to catch will be showing up late to the places they usually spawn.

Solomon David is a research scientist at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

David basically chases fish around for a living.

3D model of a flu virus.
CDC

Flu season is usually wrapping up at this time of year, but experts say it’s not quite over yet.

The H1N1 flu virus reared its nasty little head again this year, and made some people very sick.

Dr. Matthew Davis is the Chief Medical Executive with the Michigan Department of Community Health.

“We saw back in December and early January that some relatively healthy younger patients were getting very severe cases of flu which in some cases were requiring life-saving treatment and in some cases caused death,” he says.

morguefile

The Michigan Legislature recently approved a package of bills that’s causing a split between environmental groups.

The legislation would lower a tax on a certain kind of oil recovery.

Jake Neher is the capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network and he’s been following this story. I spoke with him about these bills for today's Environment Report.

“The main bill in the package would cut the state severance tax from 6.6% to 4% for companies using what’s called enhanced production or enhanced recovery methods to essentially clean out low-producing oil wells. So basically, they pump a bunch of carbon dioxide into the wells to help get relatively little amounts of oil out of them. In other words, companies would pay a lower tax rate on the oil they take out of the ground using that process.”

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

A Ready-Mix concrete company, McCoig Materials, wants to open up a mine on a site north of Chelsea. The two parcels of land they want to mine are in between the Waterloo and Pinckney Recreation areas. This part of southeast Michigan has a lot of little lakes and unique natural areas.

McCoig Materials wants to operate the mine for 22 to 30 years and remove 11 million tons of sand and gravel.

People who live on the lakes nearby have been raising concerns about that.

Mary Mandeville spends summers in her cottage at Island Lake.

“Just to the west of us is where the proposed gravel mine would be putting in their operations. We’re very concerned about the impact on the environment, on the water table level. We’re concerned about air quality with all the dust from the dumping of the gravel into the trucks.”

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

President Obama’s 2015 budget includes some cuts to Great Lakes programs.

Obama is asking for $275 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That would be $25 million less than the current funding level.

Todd Ambs is the campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. He says if the cuts go through, you'd see projects slow down.

“Whether it’s a contaminated cleanup project that’s underway but not completed, or a habitat restoration effort or dealing with the problems of keeping aquatic invasive species out of the Great Lakes.”

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We spend about $21 million a year keeping invasive sea lampreys in check in the Great Lakes.

But they’re resilient creatures. Even after we spend all that money, we still can’t get rid of them.

Scientists now suspect lampreys are getting a little too comfortable up north.

R. Greaves / NOAA GLERL

It might seem a little counterintuitive, but right now, a bunch of scientists are thinking about how high the water at Great Lakes beaches will be this summer.

Early last year, the Lake Michigan-Lake Huron system hit record low water levels.

It made life tougher for the shipping industry, and it’s hard on people who run Great Lakes ports.

Russell Dzuba is the harbor master in Leland.

“For us, it’s shallow. When we went to dredge this year we had to go a foot deeper and the world was a foot shorter, if you will,” he says.

Enbridge

Enbridge Energy is still cleaning up oil left over from its pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River.  

The company has already recovered most of the oil, but it's still working to comply with an order from the federal regulators, who say they need to clean up another 180,000 gallons. 

According to Enbridge's new plan, they can start that cleanup March 15. But that's all dependent on this crazy weather. Right now, everything is frozen. But, if spring warms things up and there's flooding, that can also be problematic for the dredging process. 

Farm in rural Michigan
user acrylicartist / MorgueFile.com

The farm bill has about $57 billion for conservation.

Director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition Todd Ambs says a lot of people don't realize the farm bill is where we find the largest source of conservation money from the federal government.

"That’s because there are so many activities that happen on the land that bring us our food, that if done improperly can have a very adverse impact on the soil and also to surrounding waterways," he says.

If you haven't seen it yet, the Google Doodle is all about love today. This American Life's Ira Glass narrates a candy heart collection of bite-size love stories.

Middle school love. Married love. Love and loss.

The stories are short and sweet and might make you have a little Story Corps moment right at your desk.

And if you haven't gotten a Valentine's card yet, there's always the NPR valentine option:

Rebecca Williams / Michigan Radio

Life could soon get a little harder for backyard farmers.

A law passed in 1981 protects Michigan farmers from nuisance lawsuits. It’s called the Right to Farm Act.  It was created to protect farmers from angry neighbors who were moving out into rural areas from cities.

At the moment, the law also protects people who raise chickens and other animals in their backyards.

Wendy Banka lives in Ann Arbor.  She has seven chickens with orange feathers living in a coop in her backyard.

Most metal food cans are lined with a chemical called bisphenol-A.
(Photo courtesy of Sun Ladder at Wikimedia Commons)

We’re all regularly exposed to the chemical Bisphenol A or BPA. Companies have taken it out of baby bottles, and many kinds of those hard plastic water bottles no longer have BPA in them.

But it’s still used on paper receipts and to line most food and drink cans.

Dana Dolinoy is a Searle Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“There is mounting evidence that BPA has negative health effects in both animal models and humans,” says Dolinoy.

Mark Brush

Maybe you think this is the best winter ever.  Or maybe you’ve had some choice words for Punxsatawney Phil.

So, just how bad - or how fabulous - is this winter? There’s a scientist in Nebraska who has put a number on it.

Brian Murphy

Let's call today Throwback Tuesday, and go way, way back to the 1920s.

That's when Sir Alexander Fleming stumbled on a mold that stopped bacteria from growing in a petri dish. He called it penicillin.

Ever since that huge discovery, people have been looking all over the Earth for more organisms that can fight disease.

Brian Murphy has been searching at the bottom of the Great Lakes.

flickr Kate Gardiner

There’s a lot of time, money and effort being spent to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

To keep them out, we first have to know where the carp are.

Biologists often go out and sample water from rivers and lakes to look for carp. They test the water for genetic material, and some of those tests have turned up positive for Asian carp.

Last year, 20 samples turned up positive hits in Lake Erie. The positive DNA hits raise alarm bells that an invasive carp species might be establishing a population in the Great Lakes.

But the presence of carp DNA does not mean an actual fish was swimming in that area.

Allen Chartier / Great Lakes Hummernet

With the chill in the air now, you might guess that most hummingbirds would have ditched Michigan for a more tropical place.

The Ruby-throated hummingbird is the bird you’re most likely to see in Michigan, and it has flown south, for the most part.

But Allen Chartier still wants you to keep an eye out on your backyard feeders.

He studies hummingbirds and he’s the project director for Great Lakes Hummernet.

“The chances that what you’re looking at is a Ruby-throat is about 50/50, because there are western species that start showing up.”

He says you might get a chance to see a Rufous hummingbird.

“I kind of think of these little birds as each one has certain superpowers, and the Ruby-throat’s superpower is that it’s the smallest bird that can fly across the Gulf of Mexico nonstop. Now the Rufous hummingbird’s superpower is that it’s very cold tolerant. So there are many of these birds that have stayed around in Michigan and Ohio until January and then they move on.”

He says the males are a reddish-brown color with a glowing orange throat and a white breast. But the females look a lot like Ruby-throats.

So if you see one, take a picture of it and e-mail to Chartier. He says he’ll identify the bird and use your sighting in his research.

Here’s his e-mail address: amazilia3 at gmail.com

A small sample of the thick, bacteria-ridden algae spreading across Lake Erie
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Big, ugly blooms of cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) are reappearing in the western basin (and sometimes the central basin) of Lake Erie.

The blooms happen when excess nutrients – mostly phosphorus – run off into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants.

Some of these kinds of cyanobacteria produce toxins that are among the most powerful natural poisons on Earth.

Over the past decade, these cyanobacteria blooms have been common in Lake Erie. And scientists predict climate change could make the problem worse.

Sara DeLeon, PhD / Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Chemicals called PCBs - or polychlorinated biphenyls - are toxic to people and wildlife. The Environmental Protection Agency says they can cause cancer and other adverse health effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems. PCBs were banned in the 1970s, but they’re still in the environment.

Researchers at Cornell University have previously found that PCBs can change the song centers in the brains of songbirds.

Now – a new study suggests that PCBs could be altering the songs some birds sing.

Michael Dority

Anyone who had to pay a lot of money to cut down dead ash trees in their yard remembers a pest called the emerald ash borer.  In our region we’ve had a lot of pests and diseases that kill trees, and now experts have their eye on a disease that kills black walnut trees. This disease is called Thousand Cankers Disease and it’s caused by a fungus. The fungus is carted around by a bug called the walnut twig beetle.

You might have a black walnut tree in your yard. The lumber is beautiful and the trees are also important to people who grow them for the nut.

Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

It looks like food for salmon will continue to be scarce in Lake Michigan. Researchers say it appears not many alewives were born in the lake this year - and salmon eat almost nothing else.

Neither salmon nor alewives are native to the Great Lakes, but it's bad news for people trying to keep the billion-dollar sport fishery alive in Lake Michigan.

Peter Payette is with our partners at Interlochen Public Radio and he's been covering this story. He explains that every year researchers go out on the lakes to see what’s happening.

"One of the important surveys is of prey fish, the little feeder fish that big fish like salmon like to eat, and in Lake Michigan this year they found very few newborn alewives. There are alewives in the lake, ones that were born in years past. But the young of the year, the new class of alewives; they found very few," he says.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This week, the Department of Natural Resources went through a big training drill that’s a first of its kind in Michigan. The drill is supposed to prepare the agency for what to do if the Asian carp makes its way into Michigan’s rivers.

A dozen boats stamped with the DNR logo line the shores of the St. Joseph River. Some of them are normal fishing boats.

But a few have these metal poles sticking out about three feet in front of the boat. At the end of each pole are these long pieces of metal cable that hang down in the water.

The DNR’s Todd Somers is the foreman of one of these homemade boats. He points out a 240-volt generator near the back of the boat. It can deliver up to 16 amps through the metal poles at the front of the boat; sending electric shocks through the cables into the river. That’ll stun any fish nearby.

C. Anela Choy

There are a lot of health benefits from eating fish. But some kinds of fish contain high levels of mercury. A form of mercury called methylmercury is toxic to people, and the main way that gets into our bodies is from eating fish. It can cause damage to the nervous system, the heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system.

Robin Adams Photography

When was the last time you were someplace so remote, you didn’t see another person, or even a road for miles?

Getting that far away from civilization can be hard to do in the U.S. But a husband and wife team from Florida is setting out to do that. Rebecca and Ryan Means are both wildlife ecologists, and they started Project Remote. They’re mapping and visiting the most remote spots in all 50 states. They're preparing to go remote along the Canadian border in a few weeks, visiting Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho.

Ryan Means says they got started on their mission a few years ago.

“We’ve always been interested in remote areas and as biologists and outdoor enthusiasts in general. Then about three years ago, we realized that with the advent of GIS computer software capabilities, coupled with Rebecca’s, my wife’s, great proficiency using this kind of technology, we could actually calculate remote areas,” he says.

Pages