National Wildlife Refuge System

A Great Lakes Restoration First at Shiawassee Refuge

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Progress in central Michigan once meant wrestling farmable land from the 40,000-acre wetlands expanse known as the Shiawassee Flats. Today, progress means turning some of agricultural lands back into wetlands.

Credit: Steve Kahl/USFWS

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, MI

That's the basis of a project dedicated last fall at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, on the edge of Saginaw. The wetland restoration project is the first completed under President Obama's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest regional director Tom Melius.

Eleven federal agencies are involved in the initiative, a five-year plan to return Great Lakes ecosystems to health. The initiative's objectives are: cleaning up toxins and areas of concern; combating invasive species; promoting near-shore health through protection of watersheds from polluted runoff; wetland and habitat restoration; and outreach and education.

The Shiawassee Refuge project, which began in 2010, involved breaking the underground tiles installed long ago to drain the land and make it suitable for farming. Now, low earthen berms will help keep moisture within the area. Water control structures - floodgates and pumps - will let the refuge add or remove water, as needed. Nature will do the rest. Ducks Unlimited biologist Russ Terry said wetland plant seeds can remain in soils for up to 100 years, awaiting only sufficient moisture and other environmental conditions to awaken them from their dormancy. Soon, he said, smartweed, wild millet, foxtail and other wild foods will be growing, and wildlife is sure to notice.

The Birds Will Come

"You name it, and they'll be here." Terry said of the waterbirds, including dunlin, lesser yellowlegs, least sandpiper green-winged teal and northern shovelers.

Shiawassee Refuge manager Steve Kahl said the restored 141-acre former Flint River floodplain had been farmed, most recently for corn and soybeans, for at least 75 years.

Normally, planting is not necessary in a restoration. But, Kahl said, his staff planted some wild millet, smartgrass and even leftover sunflowers seeds in his first year, 2005, to anchor the soil and keep invasive alien plants from stepping into the void.

During peak times in late October, as many as 40,000 ducks and 25,000 Canada geese can be visiting the 9,620-acre Shiawassee Refuge, which is 100 miles northwest of Detroit. The refuge was established in 1953 to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl and since has been designated a Globally Important Bird Area and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site. More than 280 species of birds have been documented at the refuge, including raptors, shore and wading birds, and more than 100 songbird species. It is also one of six focus areas designated by the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Basin Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

Ducks, geese and songbirds have already flocked to the restored wetlands, Kahl said.

The field will be flooded each fall to the 6- to 18-inch depth waterfowl like best. It will remain inundated through spring migration time, when the water will be removed so that wetland plants - which sprout only in dewatered soil - will propagate again.

Ducks Unlimited, through its Ann Arbor, MI, regional office, coordinated the Shiawassee Refuge project, providing topographic survey, engineering design, bidding, contracting and consultation management. Terry said the project cost was "a little under $100,000." In addition to Ducks Unlimited and the refuge, the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Upper Mississippi River & Great Lakes Region Joint Venture were partners in the restoration.

Last updated: October 28, 2010