DNR Fisheries and Wildlife Divisions collaborate on Augusta Creek Project
To outside observers of the Department of Natural Resources, managing our state's fisheries and wildlife resources are two entirely different functions. There are, after all, separate Fisheries and Wildlife Divisions within the agency to handle these tasks.
But as the DNR has moved toward the practice of holistic resources management in recent years, Fisheries and Wildlife personnel, more and more, are working together on the same project.
The Augusta Creek Fish and Wildlife Area is a good example.
Located in the northeast corner of Kalamazoo County, 13 miles northeast of Kalamazoo and four miles north of Augusta, the 401- acre upland tract was acquired by the Fisheries Division in 1989 and 1993 with financial assistance from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
"The land was purchased to protect water quality and habitat of a trout stream, which is a relatively rare amenity to be found in southern Michigan," said Jay Wesley, fisheries manager for the Southern Lake Michigan Unit in Plainwell. "The cold-flowing Augusta Creek is a tributary to the Kalamazoo River, and the purchase of this property secured almost 10,000 feet of stream bank access to fishermen."
As Fisheries Division protected the creek for fish and anglers, the responsibility of managing the uplands fell to the Wildlife Division.
According to Christine Hanaburgh, field biologist at the nearby Barry State Game Area, wildlife officials saw a unique opportunity to restore an important part of Michigan's ecological landscape at Augusta Creek.
"Prior to European settlement, this portion of southwest Michigan was home to tallgrass prairies," Hanaburgh said. "But since settlement, virtually all native tallgrass prairies in Michigan have been lost; only small remnant patches remain."
Historically, the tillable acres of what is now Augusta Creek Fish and Wildlife Area were farmed in annual row crops, while the erosion prone areas were used as pasture lands for cattle.
"Although the farming was halted as soon as we acquired the property, the lack of disturbance to the landscape, coupled with natural succession, gradually caused woody vegetation to grow," Hanaburgh said.
But DNR wildlife officials had other plans. They saw an opportunity to restore the traditional tallgrass prairie, while continuing to protect Augusta Creek and its watershed.
The DNR began restoring a large continuous prairie (160 acres) to provide habitat for plant and animal species associated with tallgrass prairies.
"Wildlife species that may benefit from this effort are birds such as the Henslow's sparrow, bobolink and western meadowlark, as well as game species such as deer and turkey," Hanaburgh explained.
The DNR used a two-pronged approach to re-create the native prairie: eliminating invasive vegetation and planting warm season grasses and wildflowers in its place.
First, trees and shrubs were removed so the ground could be prepared for an agricultural cover crop during the second year of the project. During the third season warm season grass mixes were planted, intermixed with wildflower plugs.
"This annual planting will continue through 2009, when we hope the entire area will have been reestablished as a tallgrass prairie," said Hanaburgh.
Wildlife officials will manage the area by incorporating ongoing evaluations and research results, adapting their techniques to what they see on the ground.
Tallgrass prairies, like other specialized habitats in Michigan, always have been dependent upon periodic fire to maintain and rejuvenate the landscape. But since we can no longer allow wildfires to do their job naturally, the DNR uses prescribed burns to mimic those effects because fire can be beneficial to a variety of plants and animals. The first use of prescribed fire at Augusta Creek was conducted last spring.
At the same time, to make sure the regenerated tallgrass prairie would not be overtaken by woody plants or other exotic vegetation, workers went out on ATVs to conduct spot spraying with selective herbicides to nip the growth of woody vegetation in the bud.
One of the more interesting creatures to make its home in the tall grass at Augusta Creek Fish and Wildlife Area is the massasauga rattlesnake. A species of special concern in Michigan, the massasauga (which means "great river mouth" in the Chippewa language) spends part of the year in a prairie fen, a unique type of wetland habitat that occurs along the stream corridor of Augusta Creek.
To protect the snake and its habitat, management activities (such as prescribed burns) are timed to take place before the snakes leave the fen to use the upland tallgrass prairie areas to forage during the summer.
Although restoring the tallgrass prairie is a priority at Augusta Creek Fish and Wildlife Area, it is just one part of the overall management plan. Fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing will be important recreational activities. Wildlife research projects that do not compromise the prairie also will be conducted and area staff plan to develop demonstration areas for education.
All in all, the DNR believes Augusta Creek Fish and Wildlife Area will be a complete recreation/ conservation area -- managed holistically for both humans and wildlife.
(Editor's note: This article was provided by the DNR as part of its "Showcasing the DNR" program.)