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Michigan endangered species list undergoing review

By Grace Lovins

Species extinction has been a natural part of the evolutionary cycle: whether it's been the dinosaurs, woolly mammoths or numerous different kinds of plant species. It’s believed that roughly 90 percent of all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct, according to the Young People’s Trust for the Environment. But the decline of various populations of species continue to increase far beyond the scope of natural extinction.

It’s no secret that human activity and growth has had a negative impact on the natural world, especially when it comes to the total loss of wildlife species. One of the best, and extreme, examples of this is the story of the passenger pigeon – a long tailed pigeon previously found in North America.

Early reports claimed a flying flock of passenger pigeons would take nearly a day to pass over a given area, and nested trees were so packed with the birds that branches would snap off. According to Smithsonian, once the most prolific bird species in North America, estimated to have a population between three and five billion, the passenger pigeon came to the brink of extinction by the late 1800's due to a combination of commercial exploitation and habitat loss.

When early settlers cleared forests for farmland, the enormous pigeon population was pushed closer together in the forested areas that were left, the Smithsonian said. Eventually, the food supply in the forests began to shrink and the passenger pigeons were forced to eat from farmers’ grain fields. Damage to the crops caused farmers to retaliate by shooting the birds for meat, which opened the door to the eventual overconsumption of the species, according to the Audubon Center.

Subsequently, professional hunters began netting birds to sell in markets, and the commercial demand grew throughout the 19th century, hitting its peak in 1850. The passenger pigeon population declined severely, but people only began to notice in 1860. Even with the excessive hunting, the pigeons might have been able to recover, or at least avoid extinction, but hunters also attacked and destroyed nesting sites.

The passenger pigeon's population decline and subsequent extinction was a wake-up call to conservationists, and before the bird was officially declared extinct, Congress passed the country’s first wildlife law in 1900. Named the Lacey Act, the legislation targeted the trafficking of illegally taken wildlife, fish or plants. Unfortunately, the new protections weren’t enough for the passenger pigeon’s population to recover, and the last passenger pigeon believed to exist died in captivity in 1914.

It wasn’t until over 60 years later that Congress passed a second wildlife bill, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 – a book documenting environmental harm caused by the significant overuse of pesticides – formed the roots of the environmental movement as the country knows it. Activists pushed Congress to act against environmental harm, leading to the 1966 legislation, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Passage of the act allowed for the creation of a list of endangered native animal species, providing them with limited protection. It also allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to acquire land for the conservation of endangered species. The act was amended three years later to include endangered species around the globe; however, some species that were only considered endangered in the United States were removed from the list. Coined the Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969, this legislation created two lists: the first containing species native to the U.S., and the second containing species native to other countries, according to U.S. Legal.

Government agencies were able to focus on the list containing endangered species specifically in the U.S. and offered protections for globally listed endangered species from being brought into the country. Additionally, the trade or killing of endangered animals in the U.S. was made punishable by fines or jail time. The two acts served as legal precedents for passing the Endangered Species Act of 1973, further extending the protections granted in 1966 and 1969.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 established a program for the conservation of endangered animals and the habitats in which they are found. It also extended protections to flora, such as trees and grasses, and included them on the endangered species list. In 1994, Michigan passed its own Endangered Species Act, which went into effect in 1995 – otherwise known as a part of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act – establishing another endangered species list specific to plants and wildlife species in the state. Species listed on the federal endangered species list are also automatically included on the state list.

Under Michigan law, “endangered” indicates that a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of the state, whereas “threatened” indicates a particular species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future if conservation efforts aren’t taken. The law also states that it is illegal to take, possess, transport, import, export, process, sell, or buy any fish, plants or wildlife included on the list – violation is punishable by either a fine or jail time.

Endangered and threatened species have been monitored and protected nationally and globally since the 1970s, but even so, the endangered species lists continues to grow. This past fall, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released the proposed updates to the state’s endangered and threatened species list showing an increase in listed species from 399 in 2009 to 407 at the end of 2022. At face value, this may not seem all that drastic, but in total there are 141 proposed changes that include species being recategorized from threatened to endangered, or being delisted because the population has disappeared from Michigan.

The Michigan DNR is responsible for updating the list every 10 years, which is in the process of being finalized. This year’s proposed updates include listing 58 new species as threatened or endangered, delisting 36 species whose populations have recovered, reclassifying 26 threatened species as extinct, and reclassifying eight extinct species as threatened, rather than extinct. There are also reports that 13 species are proposed to be delisted because their populations have completely vanished from the state. The big question is: what is causing the increase in some species to be threatened and endangered?

“Species listed as threatened or endangered are often dependent on high-quality natural systems that benefit all of us in Michigan by providing clean water and other ecosystem functions,” said Jennifer Kleitch, endangered species specialist with the Michigan DNR.

“A decline in the species found in those systems can indicate declines in the functioning of those systems. Habitat fragmentation from roads, habitat removal from development, and degraded habitat conditions from invasive species can threaten the functioning of these natural systems,” she continued. “Also, many species are listed as threatened or endangered because they face serious threats that can affect their populations such as disease, climate change, and direct losses of individuals through predation or human impacts.”

Overall, there are several factors that can contribute to the decline of species populations, and as Kleitch notes, a decline in the species can be an indicator that something may also be wrong with the functioning of an ecosystem. When that functioning begins to decline observations can be made of a decline in an ecosystem’s productivity or a reduction in an ecosystem’s complexity due to loss of biodiversity, according to Britannica, making the species' that belong to these ecosystems vulnerable to population decline or possible extinction.

Human activity and hunting, disease and climate change are all significant factors negatively impacting wildlife and their habitats. However, the biggest factor contributing to the decline in wildlife populations and biodiversity is the loss of land.

“If you look, historically the single biggest factor in the decline of biodiversity and species resulting in threatened and endangered species is habitat and land conversion,” said Brian Klatt, director of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI).

Land conversion resulting in habitat loss is not an issue specific to Michigan. Increasing populations call for increase agricultural uses of land for food on top of growing urbanization to accommodate increasing human populations. Southeast Michigan primarily sees urban growth while more northern parts of the state sees land conversion for agricultural uses.

On top of land conversion and habitat loss, invasive species pose a threat to the health of ecosystems and biodiversity, especially in aquatic ecosystems. The Great Lakes Aquatic Non-indigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS) reported that as of 2018, there were an estimated 187 non-native species established in the Great Lakes. Aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels, sea lamprey, and Asian carps have long wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes ecosystems, competing with native species for limited resources, changing habitats and reducing biodiversity, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In southeast Michigan, there are three invasive species identified as priority species by the Johnson Nature Center in Bloomfield Hills: Common reed, otherwise known as Phragmites; European Frog-bit; and Japanese Knotweed. Phragmites are found in wetlands and replace native phragmites, taking up space meant for animals and other wetland plants, said Zachary Mork, a naturalist with the Johnson Nature Center.

Japanese Knotweed and European Frog-bit, along with other invasive species, are problematic for several different reasons, Mork said. Some, like Japanese Knotweed, prevent other native species from being able to grow and present a problem for infrastructure since they are able to grow right up through cracks in concrete. Others, like European Frog-bit, can cause animals to change their diets and it reduces oxygen levels in the water.

Other species of note throughout Michigan include the Emerald Ash Boer, an insect that infests and destroys ash trees, and Eurasian water milfoil, which shades out native aquatic plants.

Michigan keeps an invasive species watch list of species that have been identified as immediate or potential threats to “Michigan's economy, environment or human health,” the watch list notes.

Invasive species have a clear negative impact on the ecosystems they invade, but another piece of the puzzle is the economic and social impacts that come along with invasive species.

“The economic and social impacts of invasive species range anywhere from lowering property values, limiting recreational opportunities, a decrease in tourism, poorer water quality, a decrease in agricultural and fisheries productivity, damage infrastructure, as well as costs associated with invasive species control efforts,” said Cathy Wesley, a naturalist with the Johnson Nature Center.

Once an invasive species inserts itself into an ecosystem, it is a huge challenge to try and get rid of it – from both a environmental and financial standpoint. The longer an invasive species resides in an ecosystem before it is detected, long-term management may be avoidable and expensive.

With some of the biggest threats to endangered species being the loss of habitats and ecosystems, how can we tell when an ecosystem is on the decline before it’s too late? Scott Tiegs, professor in the department of biological sciences at Oakland University and a member of the Campus Alliance for Sustainability and the Environment, explained that we can observe how the loss of biodiversity shows up to ecosystems by examining structure and function.

“We see changes in what ecologists call the structure and function of ecosystems,” Teigs said. “The structure relates to things like the composition of the organisms that are present, the number of species, the diversity of the biotic communities that are present, but then we also see impairment to ecosystem processes – things that ecosystems do like sequester carbon, release greenhouse gases, nutrient transformations and the like, so we see impairments to both of those when we have land use conversion.”

Unfortunately, the chances of an ecosystem being able to completely return to its “natural” state after it has been damaged or harmed aren’t great.

“When I talk to my undergraduate students, I use the analogy of Humpty Dumpty. You can’t put that back together again. Ecosystems are much more complex than eggs; you can’t put them back together. It’s just really not possible so the best thing to do is not impact it to begin with,” Tiegs said.

Local groups and state organizations employ numerous strategies to protect Michigan’s unique ecosystems. The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit with a focus on Michigan, is directly involved in the conservation of the state’s wetlands, fisheries, forests and the Great Lakes. They focus on conserving land and water in a variety of locations using strategies that help ensure the vitality of the people, places and wildlife well into the future, per their website.

Doug Pearsall, a senior conservation scientists at The Nature Conservancy, coordinates research and monitoring projects in Michigan and the Great Lakes. He was also involved in the development of conservation strategies for four of the Great Lakes, co-leading the effort for Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.

“Addressing threats is one of the critical components of any conservation plan,” Pearsall said. “and that’s the basis for identifying strategies because often many of our strategies are focused on minimizing or abating threats. You can also think of another big bucket of strategies that is directly restoring an ecosystem or propping up a species through captive breeding – those are more restoration kinds of strategies.”

Conservation strategies are a set of actions intended to conserve and protect a specific natural area. Once priorities are established for the area the conservation strategies will target, a plan is made consisting of the strategies that should be used in order to meet those goals and monitoring that should be conducted after the strategies have been implemented.

These strategies are important for advancing sustainable development, but can be difficult to implement without teams to help monitor and record any changes in the system, said the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource. Many environmental groups and organizations throughout the state partner with the public and with each other to address the various aspects of ecological conservation and restoration.

The Clinton River Watershed Council (CRWC) – a nonprofit organization in southeast Michigan dedicated to protecting and enhancing the Clinton River, its watershed and Lake St. Clair – collaborates with partners to complete projects aimed at restoring and enhancing the natural ecosystems of the watershed, as stated on their website.

Recently, CRWC partnered with the DNR on a dam removal project with the intent to enhance ecological restoration in the area. Eric Diesling, chief watershed ecologist with CRWC, and Cleyo Harris, a fisheries biologist with the Michigan DNR, developed the project and acquired the funding to remove an old dam from Trout Creek – a tributary of Paint Creek in Oakland County.

Dam removal is a form of ecological restoration which has been growing in popularity over the last decade or so, Diesing said, since older dams which have come out of use no longer benefit the ecosystem they’re in. Removing a dam has the potential to improve water quality, reopen the waterways to their natural paths allowing fish and other wildlife to return, and sediment to to be released. Harris also noted that dam removal can be beneficial from an economic sense as well – getting rid of the maintenance and restoration costs for the concrete structures.

Jennifer Hill, executive director of CRWC, said that dams can be expensive to maintain, and sometimes to have the dam removed falls outside the abilities of the dam owners. That’s where partnerships come in. Working with state or local partners who have the ability to take advantage of funding in order to address projects like this is important, she said.

Environmental groups also partner for research and monitoring. For instance, part of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory’s (MNFI) work consists of field surveys ranging from targeting a group of animals to keep from extinction to a more comprehensive effort that encompasses plants, animals and natural communities.

Klatt, of MNFI, noted that MNFI conducts a lot of surveys on behalf of the DNR, which covers state game areas, state forests and state parks. Members from MNFI also sit on technical committees, separated by taxonomy, as well as the added benefit of belonging to the DNR, which provides the recommendations regarding updates to the DNR’s endangered and threatened species list.

The MNFI maintains the most comprehensive database on the location and condition of threatened and endangered species and other rare species and high-quality habitats, said Klatt. The process for doing so includes analyzing museum records to see where species have been located and conducting field surveys to determine location and abundance. Filling in the gaps in records of species populations and locations lays the foundations for natural resource management, sound land use and conservation decisions.

While field work is an essential part of conservation efforts, the educational aspect of ecological preservation is an equally important step in the endeavor to protect our ecosystems and wildlife now and into the future. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy and CRWC offer various resources and programs to educate the public on how to take care of the natural world around us. The Johnson Nature Center, part of Bloomfield Hills Schools, provides educational resources and programs including community programs, like camps and workshops, and is a field trip destination for K-12 students attending BHS, in addition to its services and work with the natural world.

Johnson Nature Center also hosts community outreach events throughout the year that not only gets the public excited about connecting with our natural environment, but they also double as fundraisers to aid in some of the conservation work the center does. For example, it hosts an annual event called Forest to Table, where participants walk through the center’s trails to different food stations, offering “food intertwined with Michigan native and invasive species of flora and fauna as ingredients.” The funds raised through this event contribute to the, among other things, the restoration and upkeep of the center’s sugar bush, according to Cass Arsenault, lead interpretive naturalist.

With over 42,000 species from around the globe listed on The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species – described as a critical indicator of the world’s biodiversity – the importance of conservation and restoration strategies only grows. The ecologists and researchers work tirelessly to implement effective conservation plans and strategies, research the effectiveness of strategies, and monitor the changes to ecosystems after conservation strategies have been implemented.

There’s no clear cut path or one specific solution that on its own will restore wildlife populations. But the best way to help is simple: avoid damaging ecosystems and habitats in the first place. Conservation and restoration strategies are a vital part of preserving the natural areas and wildlife have left, with the one way for everyone to contribute is by being aware of how our actions may negatively and continually impact the environment and wildlife species.


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