by Anne Fleming
Published in Covers Summer 2020
The hunting community has a long-standing land conservation legacy across the United States. A tremendous amount of conservation is and has been funded by hunting license fees, firearm and ammunition taxes and other related user costs. In Michigan, the Ruffed Grouse Society Drummer Fund is yet another example of the ability to leverage fundraised dollars toward forest management and wildlife diversity while maintaining upland-hunting traditions that we hold so dear.
In more recent history, the national land trust community has also been accomplishing remarkable – and permanent – land conservation across the United States. The national Land Trust Alliance reports that more than 1,300 member land trusts have protected nearly 60 million acres throughout the country.
It was only a matter of time until these two communities of conservationists began to form partnerships to protect and enhance the resources we all depend on for happiness. For a local RGS & AWS chapter and a land trust, both based in northern Michigan, such a partnership is currently evolving and making real conservation work happen … together.
“For us, the first step was recognizing what we have in common,” said Little Traverse Conservancy (LTC) Executive Director and avid hunter, Kieran Fleming. “Most hunters know the importance of protecting our forests and fields from fragmentation and development,” said Fleming. “LTC has been doing just that for almost 50 years. What many in the hunting community don’t often realize is that almost half of the 62,000 acres we’ve helped protect and manage are now open to hunting.”
“When Kieran became director of the Conservancy, we saw it as an opportunity to form a partnership,” said Scott Carbeck, president of the Al Litzenburger chapter of RGS in northern lower Michigan. “I think the relationship became established when we presented to the Drummer Fund committee at the state meeting. The success of having our joint project idea funded galvanized that this is a good thing and something we can build on in the future. It felt so good to have support, not only from our local chapter, but also from chapters all over the state.”
LTC protects land using three primary tools: ownership, conservation easements on private land and assisting the federal, state and local agencies with acquiring land. A unique example of one of these “assist” projects came in 2007 when a partnership between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and LTC resulted in the permanent protection of 2,434 acres, now known as Lee Grande Ranch. State budget constraints at the time made a timely purchase of the land impossible, but a creative solution allowed for the land to be acquired and held by LTC until the state could move forward and add the property to its holdings. Today, Lee Grande Ranch is a Grouse Enhanced Management Site (GEMS) and one of the most popular upland-bird hunting locations in northern Michigan. And this isn’t an isolated example. To date, LTC has completed over 80 assist projects protecting more than 18,000 acres of land.
In 2015, Little Traverse Conservancy created a new category of protected lands, calling them “working forest reserves.” Unlike LTC’s nature preserves, working forest reserves are lands on which active forest management is planned or taking place. “This was about finding balance,” said Fleming. “It was time for us to acquire some land that would play a direct role in the regional economy and that we could actively manage. These working forests improve conditions for all wildlife while also providing more locations for hunting.”
Currently, LTC owns 17,900 acres of nature preserves and 4,300 acres of working forest reserves. Together with assist projects, more than 33,000 acres are now open to the public for hunting.
In the spring of 2019, the partnership with RGS & AWS took a big step forward when LTC received a $9,000 grant from the Michigan Drummer Fund to improve habitat at a 640-acre property in northeastern lower Michigan.
“The Drummer Fund is the only program dedicated to benefitting ruffed grouse and American woodcock life-cycle habitat needs on the landscape. The proposal that RGS received from the Little Traverse Land Conservancy in 2018 was an exciting step toward broadening the wide diversity of partners working with the Ruffed Grouse Society works. This project not only supports management towards healthy forests and wildlife diversity but it’s also a perfect example of privately-owned working forest adjacent to over 4,000 acres of state lands undergoing active forest management – the Pigeon River Country State Forest. We are excited to work with such a reputable organization with staff who share our passion for Healthy Forests, Abundant Wildlife and a Conservation Ethic,” said Heather Shaw, RGS Wildlife Biologist in MI.
LTC is restoring the fallow farm fields and cropland of the Jack and Tucker Harris Working Forest Reserve into ideal habitat for a multitude of species, including upland game birds. Last year, the Conservancy also partnered with the American Bird Conservancy and the local United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) office, to create early successional forest habitat for golden-winged warblers and the numerous other species which utilize similar habitats, including ruffed grouse and American woodcock.
In 2019, the Al Litzenburger RGS chapter and LTC co-hosted a field trip to a different nature preserve owned by LTC to watch the woodcock mating ritual, the sky dance. It was an ideal location for hunters and non-hunters alike to gather over one of the things they all had in common: a fascination with wildlife.
“Part of our mission is to recognize that good habitat is good for all wildlife, and this preserve also happens to be a good location for woodcock mating and nesting in the spring,” Carbeck said. “The birds were very cooperative during our field trip last spring because they like to be there. Also, some of the donors were at the presentation, and that allowed them to see what was going on.”
Carbeck was recently recruited to join LTC’s Stewardship Committee, which oversees the management activities on the lands that LTC owns. Fleming knows that having Carbeck’s perspective from the RGS is invaluable. “Our committee members come from a diversity of backgrounds. Scott’s knowledge helps others understand the bigger picture.”
After all, protecting and caring for land is one of the biggest pictures we can all envision when it comes to caring for our natural world and all the plants, animals and people who depend on it. “Doing this work together in a meaningful way just adds the icing on the cake,” Fleming said.