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Paths to Survival

Pilot program helps landowners build wildlife corridors

October 16, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Carolyn Kelly

Jeff Breuker of Conservation Resource Alliance works with landowners across northwestern Lower Michigan to build “wildlife corridors.” The process often includes mechanically planting seeds that grow into wildlife forage.

PELLSTON, Mich. — It looks like rain on this chilly morning in Emmet County, but the impending drizzle has not dampened the enthusiasm of the four men huddled around a cool new gadget. The small machine, known as a Plotmaster, is not only fun to pull behind an ATV, but will also help them further their goal of wildlife conservation.

Two of the men, Ray and Craig Bonter, a father-and-son pair who enjoy hiking, hunting, and bird-watching on their adjacent properties in northwestern Michigan, are participants in Wild-Link, a relatively new, voluntary program that aims to create “wildlife corridors” where deer, wild turkeys, grouse, and even an occasional black bear or bobcat can safely travel between large tracts of undeveloped land. The other two men, Jeff Breuker and Jim Haveman, are from the Conservation Resource Alliance (CRA), a non-profit organization that coordinates regional natural resource stewardship programs, including Wild-Link. Out of their office in Traverse City, they work to protect land and rivers in 13 counties in northwestern Michigan, from Emmet County in the north to Osceola, Lake, and Mason Counties in the south.

CRA spent approximately five years mapping out strategic “wildlife corridors” along rivers and wetlands and between stretches of state-owned land in this part of Michigan.  Now it is taking the next step: Engaging private property owners along those corridors and, hopefully, persuading them to participate in Wild-Link. The two Bonters, who between them own about three hundred acres of forests, river land, and meadows near the Maple River outside of Pellston, are among the first to participate in the free pilot program.

“It’s just when you get older you do things like that,” said Ray, the elder Bonter, explaining his interest in the voluntary program. “You think about nature, you think about preserving. I think it comes with age.”

Ray, who is 64, grew up in Pellston, where his parents operated a small grocery store. He used to commute downstate much of the year for construction work, but now he’s semi-retired and, along with his son, owns a Holiday Inn in Pellston. Craig, who is 42, also owns a motel in Mackinaw City; he used to live in Bloomfield Hills but grew tired of the corporate world and moved back up north with his wife and three children, where he and his father were assembling what is now a sizeable chunk of land. Given the businesses they own, they are not about to say they oppose economic or population growth. But they do say that the growth must be guided in directions that protect the land, the wildlife it supports, and the many thousands of tourists its stunning beauty attracts every year.

When asked whether they had any hesitation about getting involved in CRA’s Wild-Link program, Ray quickly spoke up: “No, absolutely not. We had thought about it before and we were already doing it on our own.”

“He’s already planted about 10,000 trees on his own,” Craig chimed in, blue eyes brightening beneath sandy colored hair.

Corridors of Life
Northwestern Michigan still has many large stretches of land, many owned by the state, where wildlife can forage, mate, and live. However, CRA wildlife experts say, it is essential to preserve not only those large swaths of relative wilderness, but pathways between them. That ensures that wildlife, especially species like black bears, otters, bobcats, hawks, eagles, and other mammals and birds that require large wild areas to thrive, have a way of traveling between those stretches. Wildlife corridors can prevent animals from overcrowding, over-grazing, and wearing out their habitat. Such corridors also ensure continued genetic diversity. They are even more crucial for bird, amphibian, and fish species that need different habitats at different stages of their lifecycles. And, according to CRA staff, corridors along wetlands and streams help humans as well, by protecting water quality.

That’s why, according to the CRA Web site, as more and more people move to northern Michigan it is important to designate, cultivate, and protect such wildlife corridors as quickly as possible, before bigger roads and more subdivisions and strip malls cut off those paths to survival. According to CRA, habitat fragmentation is one of the chief threats to wildlife: Many animals suffer from higher mortality rates along roads or, unable to cross them, are restricted to increasingly small and isolated pockets of habitat where populations become inbred and many animals do not succeed in reproducing at all.

By designating wildlife corridors and directing future development away from them, CRA experts say, northern Michigan can continue to grow without sacrificing the wildlife and outdoor recreation that enhance residents’ quality of life. According to Mr. Haveman, a senior biologist for CRA who will retire next year after working for the organization for 24 years, wildlife corridors can also enhance local pocketbooks.

“People pay to view wildlife and to hunt and fish on private property,” he pointed out. “More and more people are going to private land to pay for that and other kinds of outdoor recreation. A lot of farm families overlook that source of income.”

Partnering for Preservation
With the aid of cutting-edge Geographic Information Systems technology, CRA has already mapped corridors throughout northern Michigan based on patterns of wildlife migration, wetlands and streams, and human development and activity, and is now enlisting the help of people who own land along those corridors. According to Mr. Breuker, one chief attraction of the Wild-Link program is its voluntary nature.

“Property owners have been pretty instrumental in introducing us to landowners they know and who they think would be interested,” said Mr. Breuker, who has been working on the new Wild-Link program since joining the CRA staff ten months ago. “Sometimes they’re a little bit worried that we’ll come in there and tell them what they have to do, that they’ll be forced into signing some kind of binding contract before they know what the program’s about. They’re put at ease when we say that there’s nothing binding, it’s free of charge, we can take it at the pace of the landowner.”

CRA views private landowners as key players in the effort to preserve and connect habitats and hunting for future generations. The organization uses a collaborative approach for conserving land and fastidiously avoids any approach that includes litigation or regulation. Property owners meet with a CRA team member and discuss their goals for the land, which can be quite varied and range from generating extra income from sustainable timber harvesting, to hunting, to simply preserving fragile ecosystems.

Funding by private dollars from the Frey Foundation and tax dollars from Michigan's Coastal Management Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Business Enterprise Grant program allows CRA to lend its expertise free of charge. The alliance helps landowners develop management plans that conserve their land while simultaneously meeting their particular needs. Landowners pay for the actual implementation of the program — including things like providing an ATV, renting the Plotmaster, or purchasing the seeds and seedlings that CRA experts suggest for planting.  

Mr. Breuker says that by building trust, credibility and, most importantly, relationships with property owners, CRA is quickly establishing a credible track record: Although the organization is still in the pilot study phase of its Wild-Link project, the group has already completed ten management plans, most of which will take approximately 10 years to implement. Four more plans, including the Bonters’, are in progress. CRA staff members say they have visited 10 other landowners who want to devise management plans. And, Mr. Breuker says, there are fifteen more property owners who have expressed an interest in participating.

True Land Lovers
Craig Bonter says his father instilled in him a deep attachment to northern Michigan. Even before he moved back up north, he and his dad had already been thinking of ways to attract more of the deer, eagles, and other wildlife that continually pass through their woods and fields. The two were well into their ambitious tree-planting program, which included spruce, pine, and cherry trees, when a friend told them about CRA and the help it offers to landowners in developing wildlife management plans. They say they were eager to get some expert, free advice.

That’s when they met Mr. Breuker, who brims with energy. A 1995 Michigan State graduate with a degree in wildlife management, he has been helping property owners develop land management plans since joining CRA ten months ago. Together, he and the Bonters have developed plans for their specific goals, which will increase the recreational and financial value of their property while preserving native ecosystems. Yet, while Craig estimates that their tree planting and the vigorous growth of the local real estate market have probably tripled the value of their property, he swears that he and his father are not doing it for the money.

“It’s more of an emotional factor than a financial factor,” he said. “Me and my dad don’t ever want to sell.”

As they tinker with the Plotmaster, the four men discuss what mixture of grains and legumes should be sowed in a small field tucked between tall pines and maples. The plucky little machine hooked to the ATV will plow the ground, sow the seeds, and cover them with a layer of earth as they tow it. The Bonters want to create a small forage area surrounded by plenty of cover for deer. It would be difficult to run a tractor over the narrow, rutted path through the woods to the field, but the compact, multi-tasking Plotmaster can do it because it is small enough to be towed by the ATV.

Now, with Craig astride it, the ATV roars to life and bounces off across the field, dragging the Plotmaster behind it. The machine cuts deep furrows into the ground. If things go well the deer, otter, bobcats, hawks, and eagles will follow its hopeful path for generations to come.

Carolyn Kelly, a senior at the University of Chicago, wrote this article while working as a writer this summer on the Michigan Land Use Institute's news desk. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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