News Articles

Soaring Again

June 3rd, 2013

There are more eagles in Monroe County today than there were 200 years ago during the early years of the French Town settlement.

“We’re seeing more bald eagles than the settlers would have seen,” said Gerry Wykes, a retired interpreter for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks and Frenchtown Township resident. Mr. Wykes remembers taking a class of students to a bald eagle’s nest in a woodlot near Swan Creek off Port Sunlight Rd. near Estral Beach in the late 1980s. “It was one of the first nests built in Monroe County at the time,” he recalled last week. “It got to be well known. The nest was so big, you could see it from” U.S. Turnpike. The fact the nest is still around today is a testament to the comeback the predator bird has made in the region in the past 25 years.

Thanks to a ban on the pesticide DDT, pollution-control measures and legislation, the bald eagle is no longer on the endangered and threatened species list as it was in the 1960s and ’70s. Instead, the national symbol for freedom and democracy is thriving along the Lake Erie shoreline and its numbers continue to grow rapidly.

“It’s amazing what conservation can do,” Mr. Wykes said. “That’s our national symbol. It’s one thing that most people are aware of and concerned about that it (won’t) go extinct. It scared everybody to the point where they said we can’t let it go.”

Almost extinct

Yet they almost did become extinct. A study of nests that existed from 1961 to 1987 showed no bald eagle young were produced in Michigan during that time. The eagle, which has been protected by federal laws from hunters since the early 1900s, saw its numbers drop to almost zero in Michigan. Mr. Wykes cited several reasons why their numbers decreased.

  • First, at one time in the 1900s, farmers shot them in their fields and many of the eagle eggs were collected and sold for money.
  • Thieves would take the eggs from their nests and blow the yoke out and decorate the shells, Mr. Wykes said.
  • The biggest reason they almost disappeared was the lack of laws to protect the birds, their food and habitat.

“The bottom fell out in the late 1950s when DDT was sprayed in fields and it got into the food chain when it drained into rivers and streams,” Mr. Wykes said. “DDT was a real nasty thing after World War II. It didn’t kill them, but had a big impact on their eggs.” Eagles eat both live and dead fish and ducks in the lakes and other dead animals. Eagles are at the end of the food chain. With the DDT chemical in their digestive systems, some eaglets were born with malformed beaks or their egg shells were “super thin,” he said. When the mother eagle sat on them, they broke, killing the young. “Around 1969, at the height of the DDT scare, only 38 percent of bald eagle nests were able to produce any young,” Mr. Wykes said. “The rest all failed.”

DDT was banned for most uses in 1972, but it has long-lasting effects. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other heavy metals used in Monroe’s paper mills and other industries also threatened the eagles and other natural predators like ospreys by seeping into their food chain.

Numbers Rise

Eventually, with new federal laws being enacted in the 1970s and ’80s to protect the eagles, the tide began to change and more eaglets survived. A Michigan bald eagle survey started in 1986 found 86 pairs of eagles nesting in the state. The large birds require a large body of water nearby like the western basin of Lake Erie to sustain nests. By 2011, their number had grown to 700 nesting pairs.

“That’s a very healthy population and a dramatic change from what had been,” he said. “All it took was preservation. The DDT ban and pollution-control measures made a difference.”

Employees for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitored eagles in the mid-1980s to gather data on the birds. They placed metal or plastic bands on the legs of the young and also took blood samples to check for body weight and to determine the amount of mercury and other pollution in the birds. Annual bird counts by organizations like the Erie Shores Birding Association also produced evidence of the eagles’ rebound. In the Christmas Bird Count last December, 83 bald eagles were found in the area of DTE’s Monroe Power Plant. The survey showed 46 adults plus 37 young birds with dark heads and that were younger than 5.

The survey also counted 46 red-tailed hawks and almost 40 Downy woodpeckers, another positive sign for the environment.

“Bob Pettit (a member of of the Erie Shores Birding Association) told me they saw so many eagles it was almost not eventful to find one, Mr. Wykes said. “That’s how far we’ve come.”

Around 1987, the first pair of eaglets produced in Wayne County in 100 years were found in Pointe Mouillee and banded by the FWS. That marked another breakthrough in the birds’ comeback, as food sources for the birds like Walleye and Perch began to rebound.

“They are a great feeder fish,” he said about the eagles. “The walleye and perch are important for their survival. There’s an important economic reason to keep them here” as well.

Work Not Done

But despite the rising number of eagles in the area, there remains some doubts about their future, Mr. Wykes said. Eaglets being sampled are still showing traces of PCBs in their system or some malformations are still being found, so there are still some dangers out there.

“We should be constantly vigilant,” he said. “We’re happy that they’re back, but the work isn’t done yet. Their presence is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. But like salamanders and fresh-water clams, they could soon disappear if pollution continues and their habitat is destroyed.”

Lampreys could Sidetrack Channel Near Dam

June 3rd, 2013

Fears of a sea lamprey invasion might scuttle a plan to create a channel this summer that would allow the River Raisin to bypass the Waterloo Dam near Veterans Park. The project is part of a continuing effort to improve fish migration upriver from Lake Erie and provide better opportunities for anglers, canoeists and kayakers, but some are worred it could lead to a sea lamprey infestation in the river. Four dams on the river were altered last year; two dams were removed and arched rock ramps were installed at two others, creating mini-rapids and freshets.

The second phase of the project would modify two more dams just east of the Roessler St. bridge and slightly downstream east of Sister’s Island, according to Patrick M. Lewis, director of engineering and public services for the City of Monroe, and permits have been issued for the work. Rock arches and rapids will be created at those dams, similar to what was done at dams near the water treatment plant and Winchester St. bridge last year. But a plan to develop a channel through Veterans Park that will divert the river’s flow around the Waterloo Dam awaits approval due to questions about whether it will increase the chances of parasitic sea lamprey invading the river. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are studying the issue and whether the bypass channel would allow sea lamprey to migrate up the river from Lake Erie.

“We’re currently in the process of going out and doing barrier inspections and larval assessment surveys,” said Jessica Barber, a fish biologist with the USFWS. “We’re hoping to get all field work completed by the middle of June, but that’s really dependent on water levels.”

She said the federal agency learned about the channel project through a fishing blog.

Sea lampreys are a parasitic invasive species that attach themselves to adult fish and use a sucker-like mouth to grind wounds into the side of the fish and suck out body fluids, often killing the host fish.

A single lamprey can destroy 40 pounds of fish and they target the largest adult fish, explained Dale Burkett, director of the sea lamprey control project for the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Lampreys prey on all species of large Great Lakes fish, including lake trout, whitefish, walleye, catfish, and sturgeon. Removing the dams on the river in Monroe is part of a plan to make it easier for game fish to migrate from Lake Erie up the river, but the concern is that lamprey also will travel upstream, spawn and multiply.

Officials are expected to decide by Aug. 1 whether to allow the Waterloo Dam work or nix the plan. Mr. Barber said it might be allowed, but require application of a lamprey-killing chemical treatment.

“The underlying issue is whether or not that would allow adult lamprey to access an area suitable for spawning,” Mr. Burkett said. “That would be the threat to Lake Erie.”

The work on the dams is expected to cost about $1.5 million, mostly paid from federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants. The Waterloo Dam project, which would include a footbridge over the new canal, is expected to represent about a third of the cost of the dam work this year, Mr. Lewis said. He said the two smaller dams in Monroe, plus a dam on the river near Ida-Maybee Rd., probably would see work this year and contracts would be sought within about a month.

“As far as we’re concerned, this project is going to happen,” Mr. Lewis said. “The only hiccup is what will happen at the Waterloo Dam.”

Mr. Burkett said the lamprey problem has been under reasonable control since the late 1960s, largely because about $18 million to $20 million is spent annually on sea lamprey control throughout the Great Lakes region. But the critters can devastate the fishery if they get out of hand.

“Individual projects like this need to be evaluated for their threat potential,” he said. “The River Raisin is kind of a microcosm of the larger issue.”

Investing in ecology

October 27th, 2012

An earthen mound at the state park is being restored to prairie, and dirt is being used to build a dike for better fish and plant habitat.

It is a recycling project on a grand scale that ultimately might please flora and fauna as well as nature-lovers near Sterling State Park.

Contractors have constructed an earthen dike off E. Elm Ave. east of I-75 into the marshlands of the state park to help regulate water levels within the marshy areas.

“The dike will include a water-control structure — a pump and box culvert with gates — near Elm Avenue that will allow us to flood or de-water the marsh within the diked area to provide seasonal habitat for migratory shorebirds and allow for better vegetation management, including phragmites control in the marsh,” explained Glenn Palmgren, an ecologist with the stewardship unit of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division. The structure will be left open to allow fish passage into and out of the marsh whenever it is not being specifically flooded or de-watered for birds or invasive plant control.

The dike was being built with dirt from the long-time giant mound in the park that has been known for years as “the volcano” and that mound is being flattened and restored to lakeplain prairie.
The work is part of $3.42 million in projects at Sterling funded by federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants. About $2.8 million is being spent directly on construction-related costs and the rest is being used for the annual phragmites control work and fish/wildlife/wetlands monitoring.

Mr. Palmgren reports that there are no plans for a formal trail or road on the new dike, but it will be walkable by the public for fishing, bird-watching or other activities once complete.
The dike will be accessible only from the nearby River Raisin Heritage Trail, which runs from E. Elm into the park.

“Although there are currently no plans for a designated or improved trail on the new dike, pedestrians may wander off the Heritage Trail onto the dike at their leisure, if they wish, for fishing, wildlife observation, or just walking around once it is completed,” Mr. Palmgren explained.

The Sterling projects are on schedule and are expected to be substantially complete by the end of the year, assuming no significant problems arise in the months ahead, he said.

by Charles Slat
source: Monroe Evening News

Saving Sterling Island

September 15th, 2012

A $500,000 federal grant is being used to prevent further erosion of the small man-made island near Hellenberg Park.

In a classic battle between man and nature, workers are using big machines and tons of rock to restore the shoreline and prevent more erosion of man-made Sterling Island in the River Raisin near Hellenberg Park.

Work is under way on a $500,000 grant-funded project to preserve and contour the deteriorating banks of the island, which is connected to the park by an arched footbridge.
The project is using a federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and it could be completed within a month, officials said.
When finished, a “rock vane,” or stony barrier, will jut into the river from the western tip of the island in an effort to keep debris and ice floes from further eroding the shoreline and depositing silt along the downstream riverbed. A stony barrier also will line portions of the riverside shoreline to guard against further erosion caused by waves. Erosion already has undercut some parts of the shoreline by as much as five feet, officials found. A timber stairway and earthen landing also will be created on the island end of the footbridge.

The work is part of a coordinated series of projects to get the lower River Raisin near the Port of Monroe removed from a list of federal “areas of concern” – dozens of sites around the Great Lakes where waters are so polluted that wildlife and recreation uses are impaired.

“It’s a one-man show right now,” said a worker for Michigan Marine Services, a South Rockwood subcontractor for Inland Lakes of Pontiac, who was constructing the stone barrier on Wednesday.
The worker, who declined to be identified, was using a massive backhoe to load tons of rock onto a barge at the shoreline of the park, then periodically ferrying it to the island’s shoreline, gradually building the barrier out into the river from the tip of the island.

“We put about 120 to 140 tons of rock on each barge load,” he said.

Once the barge is full, a portable engine jacks up two anchoring pilings and the barge is positioned by boat at the project site and the backhoe is used to build the barrier in the water, bucketful by bucketful.

Part of the project will include gradual sloping of badly eroded island shoreline and creating a shallower area near the banks to create a better habitat for fish and vegetation. Early in June, state surveyors found 29 species of fish near the island, including bass, walleye and pike.

The area is cordoned off while construction continues and the entry to the footbridge is blocked. The work has been continuing for almost two weeks, although availability or rock and theft and vandalism to the machines have hampered efforts, the worker said. Vandals smashed out the rear window of a small earth-mover, damaged the controls and have stolen batteries.

by Charles Slat
source: Monroe Evening News

Trucks roll in major marsh project

September 8th, 2012

When the work is completed at year-end, prairie and marshland will be restored and fish habitat enhanced, officials say.

Crews have begun a wetland restoration project at Sterling State Park that will improve fish habitat and make part of the lagoon system shallower.

Construction of a temporary earthen causeway/dam has begun that will stretch across the northernmost portion of the lagoon system not far from the park’s entry road, just south of the existing paved causeway.

Once the temporary dam is completed, water will be pumped out and soil added, reducing the depth from about nine feet to create a 3 to 3½-foot contour in an area of about 17 acres, said Ray Fahlsing, stewardship unit manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ parks and recreation division. “It will be contoured to eliminate the deeper water closer to the shoreline,” he said.

The area then will be refilled with water, submerged plants cultivated and the earthen dam then removed. “The project is slated to be completed by the end of the year,” Mr. Fahlsing said.

When the project is done, the area will not appear much different to the casual observer, but below the surface the difference will be dramatic.

He noted that the lagoons initially were created decades ago when original marshland areas were excavated to create the park.

Mr. Fahlsing said the effort is to restore wetlands, improve fish habitat and improve shore-fishing opportunities in that area. The $1.5 million project is funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant and is part of a larger $3.4 million program to restore wetland areas, prairieland, control invasive species in the park and improve dikes.

by Charles Slat
source: Monroe Evening News