ESCANABA - It was late summer in 2002 as a group of vehicles headed toward Crystal Falls. The reason, creation of the UP Wildlife Habitat Work Group.
Former Natural Resources Commissioner Bob Garner initiated the concept shortly after listening to testimony at a Natural Resources Commission meeting in the eastern Lower Peninsula. The same mix of individuals had traveled there to provide testimony as to the benefits and need of emergency supplemental feeding of deer during stressful winters.
Then the NRC granted the UP a one year stay to their intent to close winter feeding programs statewide. Garner wanted to put the issue on the table looking at all perspectives, and start the conversion of the need to use supplemental feed, to that of natural sustainability.
The message we received was the key to the future was habitat, habitat, habitat!
Upon leaving the NRC, UP Commissioner John Madigan took over the reigns as UP/WHWG chair, progressing further in a much needed evolution of mind-set, educating sportsmen on the fundamentals of habitat management, and working toward long term goals.
Today, our other UP representative to the NRC, commissioner JR Richardson, sits as the chair to the group and continued the process at a meeting Wednesday.
Also in 2002, UP Wildlife Biologist Bill Scullon was appointed to a newly created position as the Deer Range Improvement Program Coordinator. DRIP came about as part of an amendment of Public Act 106 of 1971, allocating $1.50 from every hunting license sold to be used to improve deer range.
To date, Scullon has created a UP wide inventory of active and inactive deer yards, a place that deer migrate to during the snowfall season. The yards are mostly lowland conifer stands that provide thermal cover and food sources to naturally sustain deer through the winter.
Once completed, the MDNRE made land acquisitions of parcels that were determined to be key for the future. To date, approximately 20 square miles (13,400 acres) has been purchased and will stay as designated habitat and open for public recreation (hunting and trapping) in perpetuity.
Now the process is to put these lands into the mix of maintenance and repair. Unfortunately it has been long and drawn out as it is done through the state land compartment review and open house process, a10-year cycle. Discussion among the members of the UP/WHWG learned the slow progress could be moved forward in a more timely manner, an important component towards reaching goals. Also troubling is that there is just so much public land that can be managed.
The MDNRE recognizes the fact that almost half of the forestland in the UP is owned by private parties, and 3/4 of that mix are non-timber producers.
Two years ago the MDNRE took $50,000 of the DRIP monies and established a partnership arrangement, with emphasis on private land habitat management. Cooperatives have been established, utilizing an application, review and award procedure to fund specific projects.
In 2010, there were nine applications with only two being rejected. The remaining seven plans involved conservation clubs and partnerships with industry.
Projects included the planting of hard mast species of trees such as red oak, many of which were more mature than those usually planted. If they survive, the oaks should start yielding acorns within four to five years.
There were also stands of hemlock and cedar planted that included fencing protection to guard against browse damage. Wildlife openings within certain tracts of land have also been established and/or restored from being left without maintenance for years.
Additional financial assistance through the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund was also explored. Here successful candidates can utilize funds for cost share on similar projects. However there is stiff competition from a lot of other governmental entities for grant monies from the fund.
The NRC has committed another round of financing DRIP projects under the private land partnership for 2011. The time frame for application will be forwarded to interested parties after the first of the year.
One additional plan being implemented by the NRC will be the creation of a UP Regional Deer Advisory Team. The idea came as one of Gov. Granholm's Executive Orders in 2010 to restructure the MDNR and combine it with the Department of Environmental Quality.
The State of Michigan will now be established as five regions, to better manage the resources at a local level. The UP/RDAT will see appointments of various members, each serving staggered three year terms. The role of MDRE staff will be in an ex officio capacity, keeping the RDAT autonomous in their action.
Those interested in appointment to RDAT will be selected from representatives from the Citizens Advisory Councils, Timber Producers (who work under the Memorandum of Understanding with the MDNRE established some years ago), hunting organizations, non-affiliated hunters, disabled hunters, youth hunters and adults (parents or guardians) that work in mentoring programs. The MDNRE was encouraged to bring representatives from the US Forest Service in with their own staff to advise the RDAT on policy and law.
The UP will be the first of similar teams to be established in the northern and southern Lower Peninsula.
The establishment of RDAT's and news of progress of the UP/WHWG is another sign that the future is looking good outdoors.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.