Northern Michigan’s Changing Nature

Northern Michigan’s beautiful and productive natural resources are essential to our economy and way of life.

This guest post is part of the Traverse Magazine series “For Land and Water.” Subscribe for more about environmental preservation efforts in our communities.


She wasn’t looking for that lake trout. In fact, DNR Fisheries Biologist Jory Jonas had never planned to go on the fish-sampling trip to begin with. But things happen, and she was in the boat on Elk Lake when the crew pulled this particular lake trout to the surface. She knew right away that the fish was different from all the other lake trout (thousands and thousands of them) she’d seen in the Lake Michigan watershed.

Jonas has worked at the Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station for many years. Looking carefully at the shape, fin locations and upturned head of the fish taken from the deeps of Elk Lake, she knew this lake trout was unique. Subsequent morphometric and genetic analyses show that Elk Lake has been a refuge for lake trout descending from the original line of Lake Michigan fish lost back in the 1950s and ’60s.

When Nature Change first presented a mini-documentary video about the fish last December, Jonas and her colleagues were assessing the possibilities of reintroducing the ancient strain of Lake Trout into Lake Michigan. But that discussion wouldn’t have been possible without her trained eyes and some skillful observation.

Jonas shares these skills of informed observation with thousands of resource professionals and conservation volunteers who help to measure, document and manage the natural resources of Northern Michigan. Though they tend to have a specialty like forestry, botany, soil science, or stream ecology, these observers know all of nature is connected. And they see that it’s all changing.

In the documentary video, Jonas gave Nature Change a detailed accounting of how much Lake Michigan has changed since the introduction of round gobies and quagga mussels. And the fishery continues to undergo massive changes linked to the introduction and explosive growth of these and other invasive species.

Northern Michigan’s beautiful and productive natural resources are essential to our economy and way of life. The forested hillsides, fields and wetlands, pristine streams and idyllic lakes surrounding small towns and villages help form our sense of place and enrich our lives. But development, invasive species and climate change are altering the basic conditions for plant and animal life.

Nature Change is working to inform community-wide discussions about the natural resources of Northern Michigan. Sponsored by nine regional nonprofit groups and foundations, Nature Change publishes stories and observations from resource professionals and volunteer conservationists about the insects, plants, animals, soils and landforms that make this region so special.

Traverse City ornithologist Dr. William Scharf shows us that local bird populations have changed as our climate has shifted. He describes finding a southern species of tick (exodius brunius) never seen in our region before, hitching a ride on a migrating sparrow. Apparently, climate is playing a role in the movement of both animals and insects.

District forester Kama Ross shows us that ash and beech trees are dying out of northern hardwood forests because of invasive pests. As the average Northern Michigan winter grows less severe, the insect pests stay active longer, complicating matters. Ross and other foresters encourage landowners to increase the diversity of both species and age classes of trees for greater resilience.

Sarah U’Ren, an environmental scientist with the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, says the frequency and severity of the big storms are increasing. These storms generate big problems with stormwater runoff, threatening the water quality of our streams and lakes. U’Ren says communities can respond—by increasing on-site storage, installing rain gardens, infiltration trenches and additional trees.

These and dozens of other stories show that invasive species and climate changes are substantially altering the region’s natural resources. By helping resource professionals share their observations and experiences, Nature Change is informing residents of Northern Michigan about the changes underway and how each of us can help preserve, manage and restore our treasured natural resources.

Joe VanderMeulen, Ph.D., Publisher, Nature Change. naturechange.org. This piece was published in the August 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


More Preservation Efforts in Northern Michigan:

Studying Climate Change at Grass River Natural Area

Little Manistee River Weir Attempts to Save the Fish & the Water

Waters of Resiliency: DNR Researchers Talk Mysteries and Surprises of Changing Life in Lake Michigan

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