By YANG ZHANG
LANSING — Kirtland’s warbler, a songbird that nests only in northern Michigan. Eastern massasauga rattler, the sole poisonous snake in the Great Lakes region. Majestic white pines. Miles of coastlines. Acres of wetlands.
Michigan is making strides in protecting its unique landscapes and wildlife.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) initiated a “Living Legacies” program to identify, restore and manage places that best represent the state’s biodiversity.
The department began researching the program in 2006.
“The plants, the animals and the microorganisms are what keep our natural places alive,” said Amy Clark Eagle, the biodiversity and conservation program leader at the department’s Forest Management Division.
Her division recently proposed designating 151 places in the northern Lower Peninsula as “biodiversity stewardship areas.” DNRE held public meetings on the proposal in Lansing, Traverse City and Gaylord.
The areas cover about 678,000 acres, 6 percent of the total region. They include Black River Wetlands in Cheboygan County, Boardman Sand Lakes Forest in Grand Traverse and Kalkaska counties, Devil’s Lake Shoreline Complex in Alpena and Muskegon Floodplain Complex in Clare.
Doug Pearsall, a senior scientist at the Nature Conservancy’s Michigan office, said the sites were determined on a scientific basis as the most important for biodiversity.
His organization helps the DNRE identify and determine how to manage biodiversity stewardship areas.
Eagle said the sites are under different types of ownership. They include DNRE or federally managed land, private property and land owned by other state or local agencies.
Pearsall said some Nature Conservancy preserves along the coasts of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are on the list.
“There are many species associated with those coastal systems in the northern Lower Peninsula,” Pearsall said.
For example, he said, Pitcher’s thistle and dwarf lake iris, two federally threatened plants, concentrate along those shorelines. Piping plover, an endangered small bird, inhabits the coast of Lake Huron.
“The Living Legacies program fits very well with our mission of conserving biodiversity,” Pearsall said.
Eagle said if a DNRE-owned site is designated, the department may change its land management practices to best preserve its biological heritage.
But it’s up to landowners to decide how to manage non-DNRE areas, she said.
For example, Pearsall said a conservation easement can protect the ecological value of private land. The easement is a voluntary, legally binding agreement where landowners retain ownership but promise not to develop them.
Pearsall said participating landowners could take advantage of federal or state funding to help conserve their designated properties, such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s habitat restoration programs.
Eagle said DNRE will propose places for designation in the Upper Peninsula and southern Lower Peninsula next year.
However, Erin McDonough, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said she wants to know how the state may change its management of some state game areas in southern Michigan if they are designated.
“Nobody is explaining what those changes could possibly be,” she said. “We want to make sure that those areas are managed for recreational activities.”