Central Michigan University's Institute for Great Lakes Research is helping the U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identify and restore Great Lakes coastal wetlands and, in the process, make them more resilient to a changing climate.
Supported by a $103,069 grant from the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CMU scientists are overseeing the development of a mathematical decision-making tool that will aid the federal government's new Resilient Lands and Water Initiative.
Matthew Cooper, IGLR research scientist and biology faculty member, and Donald Uzarski, IGLR director and professor of biology are leading the collaborative effort with scientists from the University of Minnesota-Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute.
"Our tool helps to identify the most critical areas where restoration efforts are most needed and feasible," Cooper said. "The decision-making tool that we are developing will help ensure the federal government's greatest return possible on specific, targeted and prioritized coastal wetlands restoration investments."
The federal agencies have selected the Great Lakes — along with Washington, Hawaii and southwest Florida — for the Resilient Lands and Water Initiative, a key component of the Obama administration's Climate and Natural Resources Priority Agenda.
The initiative is a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive commitment by the federal government to support America's vital natural resources. It aims to foster conservation efforts and regional collaborations to develop strategies and address key issues over the next 18 months, including the protection of drinking water for urban areas and provision of habitat for wildlife.
Uzarski said that Great Lakes coastal wetlands are extremely important because they trap, process and retain nutrients, sediment and toxicants, but unfortunately, half of them have already been converted to other land uses. In addition, they also are not immune to ecological stressors related to climate change, including altered lake levels, severe storm surges, droughts, wildfires and invasive species.
"Our Great Lakes coastal wetland habitat has significant ecological and economical importance," Uzarski said. "The health of Michigan's coastal wetlands is crucial to the survival of the $7.5 billion commercial and sports fishing industry."
Supported by a grant from the U.S. EPA, Uzarski and Cooper, along with a consortium of scientists from nine universities and three government agencies, have collected five years' worth of data that documents baseline conditions for fish, amphibian, invertebrate, bird, plant and water quality for all coastal wetlands across the entire Great Lakes basin.
These monitoring data are now being used to inform wetland restoration and protection.
Cooper said that Great Lakes coastal wetlands provide a critical habitat for many species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. They also provide an essential spawning and nursery habitat for many fish species.
"There have been many large coastal wetland restoration projects initiated in the Great Lakes but little regional or basin-scale prioritization of restoration efforts," Cooper said. "We are the first to provide a decision-making tool that can enable wetland managers to systematically prioritize areas for protection and restoration."
Uzarski said that the prioritization tool could be used to adapt landscape-scale management approaches to Great Lakes coastal wetlands to enhance carbon storage capacity.
"Action to restore coastal wetlands is needed now because these systems are increasingly impacted by climate change stressors," Uzarski said. "This tool is invaluable because it will ensure protection of our important natural resources and a strong Michigan economy."
Central Michigan University is a recognized leader in studying the Great Lakes, with more than 20 faculty in the Institute for Great Lakes Research supported by state-of-the-art facilities in Mount Pleasant and at the CMU Biological Station on Beaver island. A $95 million Biosciences Building due to be completed in 2016 will provide enhanced infrastructure to support faculty and student research and classes.