Newsroom Midwest Region

Freshwater estuary returns to Michigan

September 28, 2016

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Rebecca Kelly/USFWS.
Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Rebecca Kelly/USFWS.

Part of Michigan’s largest freshwater estuary has been restored thanks to Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding and the vision of biologists and land managers at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. Together with partners at Ducks Unlimited, we restored a highly-altered agricultural landscape and reconnected rivers long separated.

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge is part of an area known as Shiawassee Flats, historically a 50,000 acre wetland complex. The refuge and the “flats” lie within the Saginaw Bay watershed. At almost 9,000 square-miles, Saginaw Bay is Michigan’s largest watershed and home to 1.4 million residents. Four rivers, the Shiawassee, Flint, Cass, and Tittabawassee, all converge at the refuge to form Saginaw River, which is approximately 22 unobstructed river-miles from Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron. Shiawassee Flats is one of the most unique wetland complexes in the entire Great Lakes, because it functions as a freshwater estuary even though it is 20 miles inland.

Refuge staff wanted to honor the first inhabitants of the area by naming the restored wetland in their native language. To do so, staff reached out to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan for their input and worked together on crafting the place name. In the traditional language of the Chippewa, and related Ojibwa Tribe, mannkiki is Anishinaabemowin for marsh or marshland of any size.

In 2011, Ducks Unlimited was granted 1.5 million dollars through a Sustain Our Great Lakes Grant and we were pleased to welcome them to put that grant to work at Shiawassee. Before work could begin in January 2016, we completed a full hydrogeomorphic study and worked with biologists at Ducks Unlimited to develop a restoration plan.

“This has been the most significant restoration project I have worked on in my career,” notes Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge wildlife biologist Eric Dunton. “Restoring 10 percent of the refuge, almost 1,000 acres of our land base, will directly benefit fish and wildlife populations on a huge scale,” continued Dunton.

With more than 50,000 ducks, 30,000 geese and 2,000 shorebirds during peak times of the year, it is no surprise that Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge is designated as an Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy.

“Opportunities are few to restore areas of this size in the Great Lakes region,” said Dane Cramer, Ducks Unlimited regional biologist for Michigan. “Waterfowl used to skip right over this project area during migration. Now, they’ll look down and see a healthy and productive habitat.”

What makes this restoration effort different is the huge amount of information we have about the area before work even began. Since 2012, our biologists have been collaborating with researchers from University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment and U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center to capture a snapshot of the watershed’s overall health before the area was restored. By collecting baseline data on everything from phytoplankton and macroinvertebrates, to fish and waterbirds we will be able to fully gauge our success as the natural processes return to Maankiki.

The real benefits to wildlife and people will start to become apparent in the months and years to follow. We look forward to welcoming the marsh back and seeing all of the benefits of wetlands return as well. From flood storage and retention, to the natural filtration of contaminants, Maankiki will improve our overall water quality for healthy wildlife populations and for people.