Michigan Conservation Summary

It is no secret that Michigan is an outdoor destination. Each year, millions of visitors come to Michigan to enjoy the wide sandy beaches, swim in clean lakes, hunt deer and waterfowl on a cool crisp fall morning, fish for trout in a secluded stream, or hike through a vast wilderness area. Consisting of two large peninsulas bordered and defined by four of the five Great Lakes, Michigan is truly the Great Lake State.

However, Michigan did not always appear as it does today. Over the past 2 million years, glaciers, sometimes a mile thick, crossed back and forth over present-day Michigan, carving out the diverse landscape we see today. Glaciers covered Michigan as recently as 14,000 years ago, leaving behind hills and valleys, snake-shaped eskers, patterned mounds of drumlin fields, steep end moraines, and old weathered mountain ranges. As the modern day Great Lakes receded about 4,000 years ago, broad flat lakebeds were exposed, sandy beaches were formed, and large sand dunes were created.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

This diversity of landforms provides habitat for the numerous plants and animals that colonized Michigan since the last glacial period. At first glance, it’s obvious that Michigan has an abundance of game species including white-tailed deer, turkey, grouse, quail, pheasant, ducks, geese, rabbits, trout, bass, northern pike and lake trout. Those who are able to take a closer look will also find many additional species of plants and animals, several of which are only found in the Great Lakes region. Michigan is home to 1,815 native plant species, 691 animal species, and an estimated 15,000 native species of insects. In total, 665 species are currently listed as endangered, threatened or special concern.

Today, Michigan is one of the most forested states in the country, ranking 6th with 19.3 million acres of forest. Northern hardwood forests found in the northern portions of the state are the dominant cover type, but Michigan also has many other types of forests ranging from dry pine and oak forests, to wet floodplain forests, flatwoods, and cedar swamps. These forests provide habitat for many species of wildlife including wide-ranging species such as black bear, moose, and gray wolf. Michigan also has an abundance of wetlands ranging from small isolated coastal plain marshes, to vast expanses of Great Lakes marsh. Something which is not well known about Michigan are the grasslands typically found more inland on the drier, sandy upland sites. These fire-dependent systems include prairie, barrens, and savannah, and contain many of Michigan’s rare and declining species such as prairie smoke, and the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly and Kirtland’s warbler.

The most unique natural features of Michigan however are found along the 4,300 miles of shoreline (more than any other state except Alaska). Michigan is home to the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world. The combination of these dunes with broad sandy beaches and interdunal wetlands provide habitat for many of Michigan’s endemic species including Lake Huron locust, Hine’s emerald dragonfly, dwarf lake iris, Houghton’s goldenrod, and Michigan monkey flower. Many other unique habitats can be found along the Great Lakes shoreline such as alvar, Great Lakes marsh, cobble beach, bedrock shoreline, steep limestone cliffs, lakeplain prairie, and oak openings.

Equally important to Michigan’s natural heritage is its aquatic legacy. Michigan has nearly four times more water than any other of the 48 contiguous states. The state has a tremendous network of rivers and streams stretching approximately 43,000 miles. Many of the rivers and streams in the southeast portion of state harbor numerous rare mussels including elktoe, slippershell mussel, and clubshell, and fish such as eastern sand darter, redside dace, and lake sturgeon, while the rivers in northern Michigan contain some of the cleanest-running waters in the Midwest region. Additionally, Michigan contains almost 11,000 inland lakes, many of which still have not been surveyed. On the other end of the spectrum, the Great Lakes provide ample aquatic habitat for many endemic species such as deepwater cisco and kiyi, and glacial relicts like deepwater sculpin.

Key Challenges

Loss of habitat through conversion, fragmentation, and degradation

Since the mid-1800s, when Europeans began to settle Michigan, the state has lost approximately 50 percent of its forests, 35 percent of its wetlands, and over 99 percent of its native grasslands. More recently, between 1982 and 1997, acreage of developed land increased by over 30 percent. If current trends continue, projections indicate that the build areas of Michigan will increase 178 percent by 2040.

Invasive species

Approximately 160 invasive aquatic species and 50 terrestrial species are currently known to occur in Michigan. Many of these species are causing major disruptions in the food chain and natural processes while decreasing genetic and species diversity. Some of the most problematic species include zebra mussel, quagga mussel, spiny water flea, purple loosestrife, garlic mustard, glossy buckthorn, reed canary grass, and emerald ash borer.

Non-point source pollution

Non-point source pollution is characterized as the runoff from impervious surfaces such as lawns, roads, urban areas, and poorly managed agricultural lands. This runoff contains sediment and toxic chemicals which get into our natural water bodies, disrupting natural flow regimes, degrading habitat for fish, mussels, and insects, and making our waters unsafe for human activities.

Global climate change

Many scientifically based climate models predict major changes for Michigan’s natural environment. The majority of these models predict lower water levels for the Great Lakes, inland lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands; hotter, drier summers; and an increased frequency of intense storm events. These changes will have an impact on species migration patterns, food resources, and habitat which could lead to extinctions and extirpations, particularly in the cooler portions of the state.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Conservation organizations are working across the state to conserve and enhance Michigan’s rich natural heritage. Approximately 20 percent of Michigan’s 36.4 million acres are managed by federal, state, and local agencies, more than any state east of the Mississippi River. These include three National Wildlife Refuges, two national lakeshores and one national park, 2.85 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land, and 4.5 million acres of state forests, parks, recreation areas, and game areas. Equally important has been Michigan’s land trust community, which is comprised of over 40 land trusts that conserve more than 396,000 acres. In addition, the National Resource Conservation Service and Soil Conservation Districts assist hundreds of private landowners each year with managing their land in a more environmentally friendly way through numerous farm bill programs, as well as the innovative Landowner Incentive Program administered by the Department of Natural Resources.

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