Steady decline in wetlands endangers Great Lakes

Jan 4, 2016

The Next Idea

In Michigan and across the country, wetlands are known as marshes, swamps, bogs, fens and pocosins.

They are also known as threatened.

A recent study by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which used data collected by our (Ducks Unlimited) mapping experts, points to staggering losses.

More than 40 percent of Michigan's wetlands have vanished, says Doug Gorby.
Credit Flickr/barbaragaillewis / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Since the early 1800s, 40 percent, or 4.3 million acres, of Michigan’s wetlands has vanished in favor of farming, housing and other development. For a state like ours which is rich in wetland habitat, that loss is nearly equal to the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

There are plenty of reasons why we should be alarmed about this.

Wetlands are a wildlife oasis. More than 900 species call them home. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than one-third of the United States' threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives.

Wetland plants and soils play a significant role in purifying water, absorbing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, and in some cases, toxic chemicals. The algae blooms that have plagued portions of the Great Lakes are caused in large part by a loss of wetlands. These blooms that keep popping up each summer could be significantly reduced if more wetlands were established to filter out agricultural runoff.

Wetlands help recharge underground aquifers that store 97 percent of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. They also help reduce the likelihood and impact of flooding by capturing and retaining water, reducing the duration and severity of floods.

In short, we must make more of an effort to reverse this trend of wetland eradication in Michigan.

So what’s the Next Idea?

Most of the property that used to contain historical wetlands are now developed or farmed and privately owned.

We can all work together to restore a portion of this habitat by convincing landowners to replace at least some of their land with natural wetlands.

The future health of our Great Lakes region, both environmentally and economically, must involve convincing landowners that wetlands are highly valuable ...

Their addition has several practical benefits, in addition to the reasons listed above. Farmers can keep soil and nutrients on the land and reduce runoff into adjacent wetlands.

For manufacturers, wetlands are a low-maintenance option for beautifying their properties and boosting employee morale by providing green spaces for walking and breaks.

The good thing is expertise and funding are available to help.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has its Private Lands Program, which provides technical and financial assistance to eligible landowners for habitat improvements that address wildlife needs.

Federal tools are also available, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program and the National Resources Conservation Service Farm Bill programs.

Ducks Unlimited helps landowners navigate all of these opportunities to understand the benefits and implement new restoration projects.

A great success story is the Washtenaw Food Hub in Ann Arbor. With our help, they were able to secure a $50,000 Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act grant administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In July, we and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources planted 82 acres of native grasslands on their property, and over the next year, the plan is to restore more than 20 acres of wetlands.

When finished, the site will provide nesting habitat for mallards and other grassland and wetland birds.

Kim Bayer, a partner with the food hub, said the restored acreage will be used for a mixture of sustainable food development, such as grazing or chestnut trees.

“We want to demonstrate the importance of biodiversity,” she said.

But wetland restoration is not just the stuff of environmentally conscious food growers.

General Motors’ Lansing Delta Township facility earned the 2015 Wings over Wetlands award from the Wildlife Habitat Council for its work in protecting wetland habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds.

The wetland sustainability work at the plant includes floating nest platforms, partially submerged log structures and boulder mounds to provide shelter for fish and other aquatic species, wood duck houses, and bat houses to provide shelter for little brown bats and big brown bats.

Improving the condition of Michigan wetlands seems daunting. But there are resources out there to help. The future health of our Great Lakes region, both environmentally and economically, must involve convincing landowners that wetlands are highly valuable, not only for their property, but for all of us in Michigan.

Doug Gorby is director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited's Great Lakes/Atlantic region. 

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