On December 18, 2018, Audubon's Director of Conservation for the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Flyway, Nathaniel Miller, provided the following written testimony in opposition to Senate Bill 1211 to members of the Michigan Competitiveness Committee.
Chairman Chatfield and members of the House Michigan Competitiveness Committee, I am Nathaniel Miller, Audubon’s Director of Conservation for the Great Lakes & Upper Mississippi Flyway, where I lead a conservation and science team that looks to birds to inform ecosystem management. My team and I are currently working in and leading wetland restoration projects throughout the Great Lakes region, including Ogontz Bay, St. Clair Flats, Wigwam Bay, and in Grand Haven, at the mouth of the Grand River. Thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony today in opposition to Senate Bill 1211 on behalf of Audubon Great Lakes and the more than 35,000 Audubon members in Michigan.
Even though Michigan has lost more than 50% of its original wetlands, this state continues to be a critical refuge for migratory and breeding birds. Bordered by the funneling effects of Lake Michigan, Huron, and Erie, and at the convergence of the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, Michigan provides habitat for more than 400 diverse migratory bird species passing through the state twice every year on their annual migration. Many of these birds depend on the availability of wetland habitat to rest and refuel on their long journeys or to settle in to breed and raise young. However, wetland bird data tell us that many bird species in Michigan are near the brink and cannot afford to lose any more habitat. Species such as Black Tern, Least Bittern, and Pied-billed Grebe were once abundant in the state, but, consistent with the loss of quality wetland habitat, have been in steep decline for the past 30 years.
As true for all states in the Midwest, development has fragmented the majority of large wetland complexes throughout the region, leaving smaller pockets of marsh or wet grasslands for birds and other wildlife. Virginia Rail and Sora, for example, are both known to successfully breed in wetlands smaller than five acres. When cross-referenced with the 103 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) of Michigan, National Wetland Inventory data highlights the debilitating impact SB 1211 could have on birds. More than 70,000 acres of wetlands within IBAs will be vulnerable to unchecked development. These IBAs were evaluated across strict criteria and are broadly recognized as providing the most critical bird habitat in the state.
Of particular concern is SB 1211’s proposed rollback of protections for any wetland that is artificially managed or that is not filled with water year-round. Because the impact of development has been so great on Michigan’s wetlands, it is sometimes necessary to recreate the original ebb and flow of many remaining wetland systems. Oftentimes, the only way to achieve that is by building water control structures that allow land managers to control water flow for the benefit of birds and other wildlife as well as surrounding communities. One such site, Maple River State Game Area, an Important Bird Area, is managed by the State of Michigan in order to provide nesting habitat for Prothonotary Warblers and Rusty Blackbirds, and many breeding marsh birds, migrating waterfowl and waterbirds. Similarly, Wigwam Bay, home of one of the most significant colonies of nesting Black Terns in the state and a Michigan-designated “species of concern”, is an artificially created wetland, one where many agencies and conservation organizations, including Audubon Great Lakes, have invested considerable time and resources. Another IBA we are concerned about, because it is artificially created and managed, is Point Mouillee State Game Area, a wetland of key significance to waterbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds, and that boasts impressive diversity and numbers of bird species, including Black-crowned Night-Heron, a vulnerable species that’s been designated a species of “special concern” by the state.
SB 1211 isn’t just a threat to birds that rely on small wetlands and artificially-created and managed wetlands however, it is also dangerous to birds that rely on large wetlands. One example of this is a site like the Winegar Moraine and Iron County Northern Goshawk IBA, where there is a mix of wetlands of varying size but also the densest population of nesting Common Loons in Michigan. Although this species favors larger wetlands, they are very sensitive to disturbance, so development on small wetlands near their habitat poses a big problem for this iconic bird.
Abundant, healthy, and varied wetlands do not just benefit birds and wildlife. These same wetlands, no matter the size or location, are also critical to providing clean water for the entire Great Lakes region. The state of Michigan lies wholly within the Great Lakes watershed, which means that every single acre of wetland helps to filter and clean the waters of our Great Lakes. Plus, wetlands protect local communities from flooding and drought and keep the water in our inland lakes and streams clean.
Furthermore, this legislation represents a significant change to Michigan’s wetland policy and program and deserves a fair and open process that includes input from the general public, stakeholders, and the state agencies who are charged with the protection and management of Michigan’s natural resources, not a rushed process at the close of a lame duck session.
Aptly nicknamed the “Great Lake State,” Michigan is more intimately connected to our most precious natural resource than any state in the country. SB 1211 is fundamentally at odds with Michigan’s strong conservation ethic. This bill is bad for wildlife and bad for Michiganders. We urge you to oppose SB 1211, or any bill that threatens protections for Michigan’s remaining wetlands.