Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Bill Rapai, the interim executive director of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance. My organization was founded in 2013 as a project of Huron Pines. Today we are an independent organization and our mission is to help conserve the Kirtland’s Warbler, a rare bird that spends its summers primarily in the northern Michigan in the area of the Au Sable River.
So, you might be asking, if my primary concern is a bird, why am I writing for the newsletter for an organization whose primary concern is a river? It’s because our mutual interests don’t end at the riverbank. If we look at the region as a whole, a healthy jack pine ecosystem is in the best interests of both our organizations.
As you know, a healthy jack pine ecosystem helps keep the Au Sable River and its tributaries healthy by providing the inflow of clean water and shade that keeps the river cool and the trout happy. A healthy jack pine ecosystem also provides nesting areas for the Kirtland’s Warbler, Black Bear, Badger, game animals and other rare plants and animals.
The North Branch of the Au Sable River flows through the heart of the Kirtland’s Warbler nesting area in Crawford, Oscoda, and Otsego Counties. Jack Pine forests in those counties, along with several other surrounding counties, are managed by the Michigan DNR and the U.S. Forest Service to provide nesting areas for the Kirtland’s Warbler. As recently as 1987 there were fewer than 400 Kirtland’s Warblers in the entire population. Through a lot of hard work, a few educated guesses, and a little bit of luck, the Kirtland’s Warbler population is now estimated at about 4,000 individuals. And with good management practices going forward, the population will continue to grow.
You probably heard that the Kirtland’s Warbler was removed from the federal Endangered Species List last October. That’s great news and a major victory for conservation efforts, but the story does not end there. That’s because the Kirtland’s Warbler is what is known as a “conservation-reliant species.” The idea of a conservation-reliant species is a relatively new concept. The phrase was coined by J. Michael Scott, a professor of biology at the University of Idaho.
The Kirtland’s Warbler might just be the perfect example of Scott’s concept. The recovery of the Kirtland’s Warbler depended on human intervention—government agencies and stakeholders organizing and conducting on-the-ground conservation efforts to create nesting habitat through a regular cycle of tree harvesting and replanting. And to prevent the warbler from crashing right back on to the Endangered Species List, humans will need to continue on-the-ground conservation work for as far as we can see into the future. Without human intervention, the warbler likely would not survive.
Historically, Kirtland’s Warbler breeding habitat was created by fires that would regularly sweep across the landscape. The northern Michigan outwash plains ecosystem is fire dependent and everything in it is built to burn. The jack pines in particular are adapted to fire; their seeds are sealed inside cones that open primarily from the intense heat of a wildfire. Since we no longer allow fire to run across the landscape, we are forced to harvest mature trees and replant young ones to renew the ecosystem and provide nesting places for the warbler.
When the Michigan DNR and the U.S. Forest Service plant new young trees for the Kirtland’s Warbler, they attempt to mimic the randomness of wildlife by leaving regular one-acre, diamond-shaped gaps in the forest. Those open areas are attractive to the warblers by providing them with blueberries, an important food source. You can see some of these Jack Pine plantations along Lovells and Twin Bridge Roads.
Jack Pine management has direct benefits for the Au Sable River. Wildfires historically had a dramatic negative impact on the health of the Au Sable River. Fires caused sections of the river to fill with ash and sediment from runoff, filling in low areas where fish would normally breed. And because fires are indiscriminate, they can burn everything in its path right up to the riverbank. As you know, trees help to regulate the temperature of the North Branch by blocking direct sunshine. Even a minor increase in water temperature can prevent trout and other fish from spawning.
Many people know that the warbler has been delisted but wonder why beautiful forests must be cut down for a bird that is no longer endangered. Helping people understand the story of the Kirtland’s Warbler is one of the reasons why the Alliance was created. We are working to fill the knowledge gap through outreach and education activities across Michigan and Wisconsin. We have regular conversations with regular folk, community leaders, and people of influence. Our hope is that these people can then act as ambassadors for the Kirtland’s Warbler in particular and for Jack Pine management efforts in general.
We also have become an important advocate for the Kirtland’s Warbler through our communications with state legislators at the state and federal levels. We don’t ask for additional taxpayer dollars to support Kirtland’s Warbler conservation efforts. Instead we help educate public officials as to why Kirtland’s Warbler conservation must continue and how Kirtland’s Warbler tourism helps to boost the economies of small towns that don’t otherwise see many dollars from tourism.
Despite years of teamwork and collaboration among government agencies, non-governmental organizations and individuals, there’s one impediment to Kirtland’s Warbler conservation that should not surprise anyone. That is, of course, finding the money to pay for the continuing conservation work. The Endangered Species Act mandates post-delisting funding that pays for some conservation and monitoring efforts. Knowing that that federal money is going to be cut off soon, the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance is working with its partners to build an endowment that will continue to fund conservation work and research.
The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance looks forward to working with the Au Sable North Branch Area Foundation on projects that will benefit the health of the Jack Pine ecosystem and the Au Sable River. To learn more about the connection between the Kirtland’s Warbler and its habitat, we invite you to join us for Jack Pine Planting Day next May. We will share the information with your organization when details are finalized, likely in March or April of 2021.
In the meantime, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Bill Rapai is interim executive director of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance. More information is available kirtlandswarbler.org. Please “like” us at facebook.com/Kirtlandswarbleralliance.
If you would like to learn more about the Kirtland's Warbler, the following links will be useful:
The Cornell Lab