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Annual Christmas Bird Count

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Join others for the Christmas Bird Count on 3 Jan 2015. Experienced birders will help identify about 60 species during the National Audubon, Michigan Audubon, and Grand Rapids Audubon Club sponsored Christmas Bird Count. Meet at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center (WWC) across the road from Lowell High School.

We assemble at 7:30 a.m. and are searching various count circle sections by 8 a.m. Spend the morning or the whole day. There is no charge to participate but the National Audubon welcomes an optional donations. A lunch will also be provided for $5 for those that desire or people can brown bag their lunch.

This is my 28th year coordinating the Kent County event. Plan to discover birds in their winter nature niches and celebrate the diversity of life that abounds during the winter. About 60 people gather and divide into small groups to explore various areas with section leaders. The count area has a 7.5-mile radius surrounding the Honey Creek and Two Mile Roads intersection.

It is a mystery what species will arrive to compliment our regular winter residents. Some people are surprised that American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds are regulars each winter. Their primary winter diet is berries found in wetlands. Birds from more northern areas might arrive if food is scarce farther north or if weather is particularly harsh. Other species like the Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Song Sparrow might linger here instead of heading south if winter conditions are mild. Many species of waterfowl will be expected on open water.

The Grand Rapids Audubon Club and WWC invite families for this free family event for part or all day. Previous bird knowledge or experience is not necessary. To enhance a great birding experience we carpool. The WWC is located at 11715 Vergennes Rd across the street from Lowell High School. The co-sponsoring WWC has a great facility where you will see many live mounts of birds displayed. The hiking trails are open for hiking every day of the year. We hope to see you on January 3, 2015.

Come dressed in layers that can be removed or added as temperature changes. We are in and out of cars at many locations. Bring binoculars and bird books if you have them. People will share if you do not. Call me ahead of time with questions or just show up on count day.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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Weekly fishing tip

OUT-muskellungeGetting too cold to catch muskellunge? Never!

Everyone knows muskellunge are a difficult species to catch, but as the temperatures cool does it get even harder to find them? Not so according to some anglers!

In the fall many anglers use larger lures and slow the speed of their presentations. They will often search for them in shallower and warmer water and take advantage of this fish’s larger appetite that comes prior to winter’s arrival.

Want even more insight on targeting muskellunge – during all times of year? Check out their page on the Michigan Fish and How to Catch Them website.

This tip was adapted from Michigan Outdoor News.

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Federal court order returns wolves to endangered species list

The gray wolf. Photo from the Encyclopedia Britannica online (Britannica.com)

The gray wolf. Photo from the Encyclopedia Britannica online (Britannica.com)

Ruling suspends Michigan’s lethal control laws and permits

A federal court judge has ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to immediately return wolves in the Great Lakes region to the federal endangered species list, making it illegal for Michigan citizens to kill wolves attacking livestock or dogs.

Under endangered species status, wolves may be killed only in the immediate defense of human life.

Two state laws allowing livestock or dog owners to kill wolves in the act of depredation were suspended by the ruling.

Additionally, lethal control permits previously issued by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to livestock farmers to address ongoing conflicts with wolves are no longer valid; permit holders have been contacted regarding this change.

The return to federal endangered species status also means DNR wildlife and law enforcement officials no longer have the authority to use lethal control methods to manage wolf conflict.

However, non-lethal methods—such as flagging, fencing, flashing lights and guard animals—may still be used and are encouraged. Compensation for livestock lost to wolves continues to be available through the DNR and Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Citizens in need of assistance with problem wolves should contact their local DNR wildlife biologist or DNR wolf program coordinator Kevin Swanson at 906-228-6561.
Friday’s federal court order came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove wolves in the Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment from the federal endangered species list in January 2012. The ruling affects wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“The federal court decision is surprising and disappointing,” said Russ Mason, DNR Wildlife Division Chief. “Wolves in Michigan have exceeded recovery goals for 15 years and have no business being on the endangered species list, which is designed to help fragile populations recover, not to halt the use of effective wildlife management techniques.”
The DNR will work closely with the Michigan Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the full impact of this ruling on the state’s wolf management program and identify next steps.

“In the meantime, the Wildlife Division will continue updating the state’s wolf management plan, which includes the use of hunting and other forms of lethal control to minimize conflict with wolves,” Mason said. “Although the federal court’s ruling prevents the use of these management tools for the time-being, the Department will be prepared for any future changes that would return wolves to state management authority.”

For more information about Michigan’s wolf population and management plan, visit www.michigan.gov/wolves.

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DNR’s fire program celebrates 100 years

Historical photo depicts a pull-behind water unit connected to hand lines for fire suppression.



Historical photo depicts a pull-behind water unit connected to hand lines for fire suppression.

Historically, it’s the years with the large wildfires that garner the most public attention. For example, in 2012—the year of the Duck Lake fire—497 fires burned 23,814 acres.

In 2014, Michigan set a new record when it came to wildfires—a record low. This past fire season, 167 fires burned 550 acres across the state.
“The record low numbers for wildfires can be attributed to damp weather conditions,” said Paul Kollmeyer, who oversees the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ wildfire suppression and prevention efforts.
In addition to the wet weather conditions keeping fire numbers low, Kollmeyer said the DNR’s work to spread fire prevention messages has been key in helping to reduce the number of wildfires caused by people.

DNR fire tower near Arnold, Mich., circa 1965.

DNR fire tower near Arnold, Mich., circa 1965.

“Nine out of 10 wildfires are caused by people,” he said. “Our strategy has always been to get an educational prevention message out to folks of all ages. Through our efforts most people now take extra steps to be careful with fire. They also understand that they need to check if the DNR is issuing burn permits before they burn leaves and yard debris.”
Spreading the fire prevention message across the state requires a lot of boots on the ground at schools, parades, fairs and other events. The DNR has 68 fire officers deployed at 48 stations across the state who, in addition to suppressing wildfires on public and private land, join their friend Smokey Bear to remind folks to be careful with fire.
“Fire officers are required to have diverse job skills,” Kollmeyer said. “They might be interacting with elementary school kids one day and building a firebreak the next day. Their jobs require a lot of specialized training. It’s a job that has evolved a lot over the past 100 years.”

The historic low number of wildfires corresponds to another historic event in Michigan: 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of William J. Pearson being appointed as the state’s first full-time forest fire officer. Pearson developed the state’s fire control organization, starting with the aid of a few game, fish and forest wardens and some part-time assistance from a handful of temporary patrolmen, lookouts and fire wardens.
He also developed a system of lookout towers and telephone lines for spotting and reporting fires. These tools and techniques gradually evolved into the fire suppression organization the DNR has today.

Prior to 1914, forest fire suppression and prevention was handled by the timber industry, funded by a fee assessed on their ownership acreage paid to the Northern Forest Protective Association. By 1907, the Legislature authorized the employment of “not more than 10 district deputy game, fish and forestry wardens to employ firefighters, impress labor and enforce the fire laws.” But it was the appointment of Pearson in 1914 that really got the ball rolling. That year, there were 935 fires reported that burned 408,765 acres. The private fire associations began to fall by the wayside as the state stepped up fire prevention and suppression efforts. Tactics for fighting fires began to change at that time, too. When World War I began in 1914, horses were still being used to haul cannons and other heavy equipment; by the end of the war, tanks and other mechanized equipment had proved their value in navigating difficult terrain and began to be incorporated into firefighting tactics replacing horse drawn plows, axes and shovels. This was a turning point in the way Michigan battled wildfires back then and mechanized firefighting remains the most efficient means to combat wildfires today.

“The reason we don’t have million-acre fires anymore like we did in the 1800s is because we have mechanization and a road system to quickly respond with off-road firefighting equipment operated by skilled fire officers,” Kollmeyer said. But it didn’t happen overnight. In 1923, 1,336 fires burned 466,474 acres. Two years later, 3,887 fires consumed 733,750 acres. And in 1930, there were 4,690 fires reported, burning 290,300 acres. But gradually, both the number of fires and the destruction they wreaked were reduced.

A big change occurred in 1944, when Smokey Bear was adopted in a national campaign to engage the public in fire prevention.
“We still message with Smokey’s help, even after 70 years,” Kollmeyer said. “Our fire program is not just about fighting fires, it’s about preventing fires, too. People have changed and their mindset has changed.”
But the mission of fire officers hasn’t. “Fire officers were originally hired for prevention and coordination,” he said. “That hasn’t changed.”

Prescribed fire designed to enhance wildlife habitat or reduce hazardous and invasive vegetation has become a large portion of a fire officer’s duties in recent years.
“This year in Michigan, there were more acres of beneficial prescribed burn treatments than what we responded to for wildfires,” Kollmeyer said. “We conducted 105 burns for 10,488 acres to enhance wildlife habitat, improve forest regeneration, to control invasive plants and to reduce the risk of wildfires.”

When not actively suppressing fires, fire officers spend a lot of time training—maintaining their skills as well as developing new ones. “We cooperatively train rural fire departments in wildfire fighting techniques, maintain equipment and assist with the development of new equipment,” explained Dana Pelton, a DNR forest fire officer supervisor in Gaylord. “Additionally, we write plans outlining parameters that will provide the desired results for upcoming prescribed burns.”
Fire officers will also assist with other forestry activities—marking timber for sale, treating diseases and removing hazardous trees (such as at Belle Isle in Detroit this year), she said. A background in forestry is helpful for fire officers, but it isn’t the only attribute the DNR looks for when recruiting. Ability to communicate with the public, make presentations and mechanical aptitude all come into play.

“It’s a multi-faceted job,” Pelton said. “There’s a lot more to it than just driving around a fire truck.”
And, of course, fire officers will continue to work on enlightening the public to the dangers of wildfires. “You never know about the fire you prevented, but that’s the way we like it,” Pelton said. “And for those that aren’t prevented—we’ll be ready.”

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DNR officers seek info on Baraga County moose poaching

 

Conservation officers with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are seeking information regarding the illegal killing of a bull moose that occurred in late November in Baraga County.

The moose carcass was discovered on Saturday, Dec. 13. Based on evidence collected at the site, officers believe the moose was killed in late November along Heart Lake Road near Petticoat Lake Road in the Three Lakes area. Logging is occurring along the road and road hunting violations have been reported in the area, according to officers involved in the investigation.

A cash reward is being offered for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible. Anyone with information related to this case, or any other fish, game or natural resources violation, is asked to call the DNR’s Report All Poaching hotline at 800-292-7800; the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division at the Marquette Customer Service Center at 906-228-6561; or may report the information online at www.michigan.gov/conservationofficers. Information may be left anonymously.

Michigan currently does not have a moose hunting season, and moose are protected under state law. Penalties for poaching a moose include up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000, restitution of $1,500, and a mandatory loss of all hunting privileges for four years.

For more information about the Upper Peninsula’s moose population, visit www.michigan.gov/moose.

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Wolves in Ecosystems Part 3

The gray wolf. Photo from the Encyclopedia Britannica online (Britannica.com)

The gray wolf. Photo from the Encyclopedia Britannica online (Britannica.com)

In wilderness ecological functions can maintain natural processes with limited human influence. Human activity in non-wilderness areas results in significant disruptions. Society does not maintain many large intact wilderness areas but those that do exist allow species to go about their business. Such areas allow scientists to study ecological nature niches to learn how ecosystems function. George Monbiot wrote about the role of wolves driving trophic cascades that cause changes from top carnivores down. I outlined in part 2 of my series how hares caused plants to die to the ground causing hares to starve and that in turn caused top predators to starve.

No one species drives all major events in ecosystems but individual species do drive major changes. Overriding physical influences such as global climatic change and pollution have impacts making it difficult to determine how even “pristine” environments function unhampered. It is an over simplification to attribute credit or blame to a single species. The hypothesis about how trophic cascading works in nature is a self-correcting study in progress.

After writing parts 1 & 2 about social, political, and ecological aspects of wolves in ecosystems, L. David Mech, a world-renowned wolf researcher wrote me regarding trophic cascades and human views towards wolves. Dave has conducted wolf research on Isle Royale and has been involved in biological and social aspects of wolf study across the continent since 1958. My articles were reasonably accurate. There are aspects that could use clarification. It is an enormous challenge to adequately discuss a topic in short space. George Monbiot’s description has validity and supportable evidence but L. David Mech and I think other variables influence how much wolves direct trophic cascading. Evidence-based scientific studies will help self-correct current knowledge.

Key points from the previous articles were that some people want wolves protected, others want them exterminated, while others want them managed to protect livestock, pets, and wildlife populations while allowing wolves to thrive. The November ballot options were both defeated. One ballot proposal would have allowed a small politically appointed group to make decisions regarding hunting. The other would have created a wolf-hunting season managed by DNR wildlife biologists. The current practice to manage wolves on an individual basis when and if a problem develops will continue. That is social/political aspect.

The greatest numbers of votes were probably cast on emotion rather than science supported data. Most people do not have the time or inclination to read scientific studies before decision-making.

Scientific research gathers data to draw conclusions. It is the nature of science to challenge all studies and look for weakness in study design and conclusions. Through the process, studies are repeated to verify data accuracy and to correct errors. Science is self-correcting and is constantly refined toward making accurate conclusions.

Our instant satisfaction society wants definitive answers and conclusions immediately. Such conclusions are often applied to all situations instead of being applied to specific circumstances. Historically wolves were hated (emotional) and extirpated from most of the United States. The Endangered Species Act allowed recovery in some regions including Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where biological recovery has been achieved. The species was delisted in recovery areas but most of the continent’s historic wolf range remains without wolves. That is the scientific aspect.

Studies regarding wolves as the driving force behind trophic cascades in ecosystems continues. Wolves do cause elk and deer to move and evidence indicates vegetative communities recovered where once stationary elk moved from degraded overbrowsed habitat. Other natural factors have influence. No one species is responsible for ecosystem changes.

In national forests, where human alterations are used for watershed management, timber harvest, cattle grazing, hunting, hiking, other recreation, and mining, there is greater impact on plant growth and associated animal species than is caused by wolves. Human activities dramatically alter non-wilderness areas. Though Yellowstone National Park is massive in size it is not adequately large to meet wolf needs. Wolf hunting is allowed outside the park in national forest. Management plans are working to largely exterminate wolves rather than manage a healthy population in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Even a radio collared research pack was killed when it entered the national forest. You can review part 2 of this series regarding trophic cascades by Googling Cedar Springs Post, click Outdoors, and click Nature Niche to read previous articles. You might want to read George Monbiot’s book, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, and Human Life and Mech’s book, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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Watching like a hawk

OUT-Bird-sighting-Coopers-Hawk-Mike-DeGrootMike DeGroot, of Solon Township, sent us this photo of a bird he saw in his backyard recently. “I spotted this bird closely watching over my squirrel feeder in my backyard on White Creek Avenue,” he wrote.

Mike thought it might be an American Kestrel Falcon. We thought it looked similar to a sharp-shinned hawk. We passed the photo on to our resident expert, Ranger Steve Mueller, and he identified it.

“It looks like an immature Cooper’s Hawk,” said Steve. “Adults have bands across the breast and immature’s have vertical tear-drop markings on the breast. It appears this one has the vertical markings.”

He added that the Sharp-shinned hawk looks nearly identical and can be difficult to separate from the Cooper’s Hawk. “The Sharp-shinned is not as common and is smaller than Cooper’s Hawk,” he explained. “The Cooper’s also has a rounded tail caused by the outer tail feathers being shorter. The tail feathers are equal in length on the Sharp-shinned,” he said.

Thanks, Mike, for sending us your photo, and to Steve for identifying it!

Please send us your wildlife photos. Send them to us at news@cedarspringspost.com, and we will run them as space allows.

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Firearm deer harvest down from last year

The 2014 firearm deer season wrapped up Nov. 30, and challenging conditions and lower deer numbers in some areas likely have led to fewer deer being taken this year. Each year the Department of Natural Resources generates preliminary estimates of the firearm deer harvest shortly after the season closes. Those estimates are later replaced by a rigorous assessment of harvest and participation over all deer seasons using an annual hunter mail survey.

The 2014 firearm deer season harvest appears to have decreased in all regions this year, but particularly in the Upper Peninsula. Experiences can differ widely within regions. DNR biologists estimate that, compared to 2013, the harvest was down approximately 30 to 40 percent across the Upper Peninsula, decreased perhaps as much as 10 percent in the northern Lower Peninsula, and was down about 5 percent in the southern Lower Peninsula.

Deer populations in the Upper Peninsula are down after two severe past winters. The DNR significantly reduced antlerless quotas prior to this season and has invested in habitat improvement and research assessing the role of predators, habitat and weather conditions in driving U.P. deer abundance. The 2014 deer season forecast indicated hunters should expect to see fewer deer in the region, and some locations also saw more than 40 inches of snow accumulation before the firearm season opened, making hunting access challenging and driving deer to migrate out of such areas earlier than normal.

“The number of deer brought to our check stations declined as much as 60 percent in some locations, though hunter success was somewhat better in areas with higher deer densities,” noted Upper Peninsula Regional Supervisor Terry Minzey. “Winter severity has moderated since then, but we’ll continue to monitor conditions and regional deer populations through the months to come.”

Deer harvest did not decline so dramatically in the Lower Peninsula. “The tough winter last year did not impact deer populations below the bridge as it did in the Upper Peninsula,” noted Ashley Autenrieth, Wildlife Division deer biologist for the northern regions. “But reduced antler size this season indicated deer condition was affected.”

Concentrations of standing corn that provide secure cover for deer contributed to adverse hunting conditions in some locations. Brent Rudolph, Wildlife Division research specialist, also shared that “department research in one southern Michigan study area indicates deer numbers are still only slowly rebounding following an extensive outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease several summers ago.” The research project is being conducted in collaboration with Michigan State University, with assistance from many hunter volunteers, and also has received financial support from Safari Club International.

Rudolph also stressed the importance of cooperation with Michigan’s hunter harvest survey, what he called “a vital tool for Michigan’s deer program, and another important way in which data provided by hunters contributes to our information base.”

Hunters who do not receive a survey in the mail but who wish to provide their hunting and harvest information may visit www.michigan.gov/deer and select the “Complete a Deer Harvest Survey Online” link. Hunters should only provide this information once they have completed all of their 2014 deer hunting activities.

For more information about hunting opportunities or deer management in Michigan, go online to www.michigan.gov/hunting or www.michigan.gov/deer.

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Expect the Unexpected

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The pine siskin is a North American bird in the finch family. Photo credit: “Carduelis pinus CT7” by Cephas - Own work.

The pine siskin is a North American bird in the finch family. Photo credit: “Carduelis pinus CT7” by Cephas – Own work.

 

Identification of some critters is difficult. One needs to have a proper frame of mind to expect the unexpected. On November 17 I saw my first Pine Siskins of the year, and that is the only day so far they have been present this year.

They look somewhat like female House Finches and blend into a group of birds at the feeder. The first thing one might want to look at is the bill. Siskins have a narrowed, sharp, pointed bill compared to House Finches’ thicker, heavy bill used for crushing seeds. Pine Siskins seek conifers with small cones like cedars, tamarack, hemlock and spruce that are easier for extracting seeds. Large cone conifers are not suitable, because the cones are difficult for accessing seeds. The seeds are too large and hard in their diet. Conifers with smaller seeds can be eaten and digested more easily. Some seeds are stored in their crop for digestion during the cold subfreezing nights.

Siskins are nomadic birds and move from location to location and one habitat to another. They are encountered in fields eating weed seeds and gather seeds from a variety of deciduous shrubs, in addition to using pine forest like their name indicates. Seasonally their diet adds insects and this is especially true when feeding young.

At winter bird feeders, these small finches spend time on the ground retrieving seeds that other birds have caused to fall and they feed directly from feeders. The recent foot of snow likely brought siskins to the feeder. It is the only time I’ve seen them this year. Their winter arrival brings my annual total to 255 bird species for the year.

Pine Siskins have yellow banding on wing feathers but it might be hidden until they spread their wings. Their tails have yellow along the side but it also may not be evident until they fly. Females and immature birds do not have much yellow making use of color difficult. The birds at the feeder did not show yellow and led me to first to think House Finch. I knew immediately they were not American Goldfinches because goldfinches do not have streaking on their breast. The siskin has heavy streaking on its breast and back. They lack the characteristic red that is found in male House Finches but female House Finches also lack the red.

Generally siskins are sleeker than other finches. Once when I was leading a birding tour, we encountered a bird in late June when visiting good siskin breeding habitat but I did not have my mind set for encountering this species. I spent twenty minutes trying to identify it while others had given up and were waiting for the “all knowledgeable leader” to come through. I was getting frustrated also and the yellow would have helped. It was not actually the lack of yellow that was the problem. The problem was in my head. I was not considering the Pine Siskin as a possibility. It is always important to expect the unexpected in nature niches. The habitat was great for Pine Siskins and finally after about 20 minutes one flashed a little yellow and identification fell into place. I should have recognized it by other characteristics.

It should not have taken so long to make the identification except I had narrowed my thought process too much. One tour participant also thought it should not have taken so long because she needed a restroom break and did not tell me. Instead she began to anger. Fortunately there was a toilet about a half-mile away in a national forest campground. I hope she has forgiven me and hopefully other participants will voice their needs on tours.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Do not move firewood between state parks 

Lethal tree infection caused by transport of firewood

OUT-Oak-wilt

Oak wilt outbreaks are increasing in Michigan and the Department of Natural Resources has conducted treatment at several state parks to halt the spread of the disease.

Oak wilt is an introduced disease that causes rapid death of infected trees. The fungus is easily transported by beetles from infected wood to nearby wounded trees. Trees cannot be cured of oak wilt, and once a tree is infected the disease can rapidly spread to neighboring trees through underground root graft connections. The loss of large numbers of oak trees in parks can be dramatic, both for the park visitor experience and the ecology of the natural habitat.

“The likely cause of the oak wilt outbreak at Michigan state parks is the movement of infected firewood into campgrounds,” said DNR natural resources steward Heidi Frei. “Campers and other park visitors can help prevent the spread of the oak wilt fungus by not moving firewood between campgrounds.”

DNR Parks and Recreation Division staff has been working the last several years to stop the spread of oak wilt at Michigan state parks throughout the state, including P.J. Hoffmaster, Otsego Lake, Interlochen, Warren Dunes and Hartwick Pines state parks; and Fort Custer, Rifle River, Waterloo, Brighton, Pinckney and Island Lake recreation areas.

Treatments in 2014 included using a vibratory plow fitted with a special blade (designed and fabricated at the DNR’s Forest Fire Experiment Station in Roscommon) that severs grafted tree roots, isolating healthy trees from infected trees. Treatment also included the application of fungistats, which inhibit the growth and reproduction of fungi, and which have been used in areas declared critical dune habitat.
“If left unchecked,” Frei said, “oak wilt will continue to spread and result in large pockets of standing dead oak trees, which may be hazardous to park visitors.” Some parks, such as P.J. Hoffmaster, have experienced considerable losses. More than 100 large red oaks, including the most picturesque grove of red oaks in the campground, have been killed by oak wilt.
For more information on oak wilt prevention and stewardship, visit www.michigan.gov/foresthealth or contact Heidi Frei at 517-202-1360 or freih@michigan.gov.

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