Report reveals wetlands’ ecological strengths, threats

Audubon Great Lakes, Ottawa County Parks publish biodiversity data on the Grand River Coastal Corridor.
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The marsh wren is one of 14 species of marsh birds found in the Grand River Coastal Corridor whose populations could be increased through better wetlands management. Courtesy iStock

The findings in a new report may help conservationists prioritize areas in Michigan that can increase habitat connectivity and improve wetlands’ ecological resiliency.

Audubon Great Lakes, in partnership with Ottawa County Parks and over 20 stakeholders, last month published its Grand River Coastal Corridor: Ecological Assessment and Conservation Recommendations, a comprehensive conservation analysis for the Grand River Coastal Corridor. The corridor is an ecologically significant area the report said is well-positioned to connect people and wildlife across Grand Haven, Muskegon and Grand Rapids through landscape-scale natural area restoration and inclusive recreational access.

Using Audubon’s spatial prioritization data of top coastal wetlands for marsh bird conservation, natural inventories, scientific literature, community science data and stakeholder input, Audubon identified priority areas and recommendations for wetland conservation, restoration and management that best support wildlife while addressing climate resiliency and public health needs of local communities.

“The Grand River Coastal Corridor is home to some of the highest quality natural communities in the entire state of Michigan and supports high levels of biodiversity, including sensitive or rare species of conservation concern, and (it) is regionally and globally important for birds,” said Erin Rowan, senior conservation associate at Audubon Great Lakes. 

“But invasive species, development and climate change have severely degraded coastal wetland habitat, causing significant declines in marsh bird populations and reducing the resilience of Great Lakes communities to a changing environment.”

The Grand River Coastal Corridor — which the report shows runs roughly from Muskegon State Park in the north to Port Sheldon Township in the south — is ecologically significant, part of a globally recognized important bird area for migratory and overwintering waterfowl, and also is a core area containing hundreds of acres of the top 20% of Great Lakes wetlands critical for marsh bird conservation in the region, Audubon said.

It supports “significant numbers” of migratory birds each spring and fall, serving as a migratory hotspot and stopover site as they rest and refuel on their way to and from wintering grounds. The corridor also provides ecosystem services to communities in the form of stormwater and carbon storage, water filtration and more, making it climate resilient, particularly among the Lake Michigan shorelines. The corridor also holds cultural value for the Gun Lake Tribe for wild rice and fisheries management and restoration.

“In order to address these ecological threats at the landscape-scale while conserving the ecological integrity of the corridor, we recommend higher levels of protections for key areas that can increase habitat connectivity and climate flow within the corridor and increase protections for currently unprotected priority wetlands,” Rowan said.

Some of the top priority areas for wetland conservation and restoration included in the report are Ottawa Sands, The Sag, Harbor Island and Dornbos Island.

To help promote conservation action across the region, the report identified several action steps that could increase habitat connectivity and increase the region’s resiliency across the coastal zone.

  • Facilitate the establishment of a diverse collaborative group to address landscape-level issues. Stakeholders of this group would meet regularly to establish a conservation action plan for the corridor that could support and fill gaps in the existing Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) watershed management plan and collaboratively pursue funding to implement it.
  • As part of the development of a conservation action plan, stakeholders would further define and prioritize ecosystem creation, restoration and enhancement areas.
  • As part of the development of a conservation action plan, stakeholders would identify specific vegetation and wildlife management strategies for the corridor. Invasive plant removal and management, such as phragmites australis, should be prioritized, as secretive marsh birds and waterfowl prefer to breed in areas without it. Hemi-marsh restoration for marsh birds could be done in conjunction with phragmites management, as it often grows in dense stands. Deer population management also is needed if restoration efforts are going to be effective. In-stream restoration throughout the corridor could support the Lake Michigan Lake Sturgeon fishery and wild rice beds.
  • Support water quality management strategies of stakeholders by incorporating habitat creation and restoration into green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) where possible and encourage the inclusion of GSI in stormwater management plans within the corridor where it currently doesn’t exist.
  • Establish programs for ongoing monitoring of secretive marsh birds, conservation focal species, water quality and macroinvertebrates to fill critical knowledge gaps and guide management actions.
  • Create outreach strategies and programming to educate the public about the benefits of the corridor and how they can get involved in stewardship and monitoring efforts within the corridor.

Earlier this year, Audubon Great Lakes released its vision plan to restore the Great Lakes region, which is available to view at audubon.org/conservation/great-lakes-restoration.  As part of the vision, Audubon used spatial data to outline 12 wetland conservation and restoration priority areas within the Great Lakes region, including the Eastern Lake Michigan shoreline. In this region, Audubon has partnered with Ottawa County Parks since 2018 to protect and restore critical marsh bird habitat at the mouth of the Grand River.

Audubon’s report on the Grand River Coastal Corridor was made possible through funding by the Wege Foundation in collaboration with the Ottawa County Parks Foundation and the Ottawa County Parks & Recreation Commission.

Complete findings and recommendations in the report are available to view at bit.ly/audubonGRCC.

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