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From birds to butterflies to wolves, Michigan creatures once endangered and on the brink of extinction are coming back. Here’s how.

LANSING, Mich.—Once upon a time, Michigan officials didn’t know if they’d see the Kirtland’s warbler ever again. 

With its neon-yellow feathered chest and distinctive tune, the palm-sized songbird is unmistakable to those who love to bird-watch up north.

But for people born in the late 1900s, Michigan’s “bird of fire” was more myth than reality. Population numbers had sunk below 200 pairs in the entire world, and the Kirtland’s warbler teetered on the brink of extinction.

In 1973, the warbler was included on the country’s initial list as part of the Endangered Species Act, as federal officials rolled out protections and state officials worked on the ground to support the bird’s habitat. 

From sustainable forestry, including harvesting timber and planting fresh trees, to setting aside areas for nesting, the Kirtland’s warbler rose from the ashes. 

Over time, locals began to see more of the songbird, before it made its yearly winter excursion down to the Bahamas. By 2019, nearly 2,000 pairs nested in the Upper Peninsula and Canada. Michigan’s phoenix was back.

“It’s always a group effort,” said Dan Kennedy, the endangered species coordinator for Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources.

When the Kirtland’s warbler was finally removed from the endangered species list in 2019, after five decades of recovery efforts, the DNR engaged in a little office celebration. There, Kennedy posed in front of a massive printout of the yellow-bellied bird, grinning widely.

The arc of revival for the Kirtland’s warbler is something he dwells on as one of the greatest successes of his career, and it’s something the team has looked to for inspiration. 

“We believe we have the skill set to bring species back from the brink of extinction like the Kirtland’s warbler,” Kennedy said.

The story taught preservation officials several lessons about how to protect all kinds of endangered species, from bugs to big mammals. 

Kennedy said the defining success of the warbler’s revival was a product of the communication and teamwork throughout its recovery. In the process, not only did the DNR find that the Kirtland’s warbler was returning to Michigan—with a line of birdwatchers not too far behind—but it was also helping the tinder industry alongside it.

“A lot of the actions we do for endangered species benefit a lot of other plants and animals,” Kennedy said.

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Not the First Time a Species Has Come Back

Conservation is a cause-and-effect science of upstream and downstream changes. What happens to one species will bleed into another life in the ecosystem. The job of the Michigan DNR is to predict the tides of these changes and adjust their plans accordingly.

Every year, for example, the DNR conducts a survey on deer deaths in the state, to track how many die from natural causes, how many are hunted by humans, how many are hunted by predators, and how many are hit by cars. The department uses this data to inform their plans for the hunting season and what the impact on other species might be.

One species of particular interest from environmental groups and Indigenous communities is the gray wolf. The gray wolf was once found across the state of Michigan, but because of habitat destruction and overhunting, its numbers were shaved down to next to nothing. By 1935, wolves were out of the lower peninsula, and the Upper Peninsula similarly saw numbers wane.

But for the past 10 years, wolves’ numbers have remained steady, though they’re now found only in Michigan’s vast Upper Peninsula. Wolves exist on Isle Royale, where they control the moose population, and span 143 packs in the Upper Peninsula.

To Nichole Biber, a librarian in East Lansing and a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, wolves have always provided a sense of comfort. Biber’s a Mishiike Dodem, or a member of the turtle clan.

“Knowing there’s that resurgence feels very important emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually,” she said.

Ma’iingan, or the wolf, tracks back to the creation story from Biber’s ancestry. She sees parallels in the modern time to how wolves were being exterminated not too long ago, to protect livestock, to how Native children were being taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools, where many died.

“What befalls one will befall the other,” Biber said. “Seeing how they were almost wiped out, we were almost wiped out.”

But both wolves and Indigenous communities in Michigan have bounced back. And Biber isn’t ready to let the hunting season resume when wolf populations have remained steady and regained their original land.

Recently, she hosted an online event from her library celebrating the importance of wolves to the ecosystem and their significance to Anishinaabe people locally.

Biber’s daughter has designed shirts and insignia for their preservation efforts, showing a human face and a wolf face merged at the nose. Above the intricately drawn work is the word “gidinawendimin,” which means that “we are all related,” according to Biber.

Though some consider wolves to be competition for deer to hunt, Biber doesn’t see it that way. True subsistence hunters have historically followed in the footsteps of wolves to learn how to hunt and when to strike, Biber argued. Wolves also tend to take out deer that are stragglers, eliminating those that are sick. For hunters, it means they’re getting meat that’s safe to consume.

Kennedy said that the DNR is in the process of updating its wolf management plan for 2022. Until then recreational wolf hunting remains illegal in the state. Wolves can be shot if they are in the process of attacking livestock, pets, or people, though there’s never been a recorded instance of human being attacked by a wolf in Michigan.

Wolf hunting has resumed in neighboring states in grizzly fashion. The Trump administration removed wolves from the endangered species list—prematurely, according to some environmental groups—and to date states have had trouble limiting the practice.

This year, Wisconsin opened up a wolf-hunting season, only to close it three days later after more than 200 wolves were killed, far exceeding its threshold for a week-long period.

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The Push for the Poweshiek

Michigan preservation efforts don’t just cover well-known animals like wolves and birds. Currently, the Poweshiek skipperling is a top priority for the DNR. The gossamer, slight-of-frame butterfly used to be found across the Great Plains and Midwest, but its population has been so reduced that southeastern Michigan is now one of few remaining havens for the Poweshiek.

Kennedy said bringing back the Poweshiek won’t be easy. Its habitat has been destroyed, and many people don’t know the Poweshiek as well as they do the more prominent monarch butterfly. It can also be hard to prove to lawmakers the value of a little butterfly, as compared to wolves and songbirds, which can generate tourism.

Though the Poweshiek skipperling may not be as economically valuable as wolves or birds, it’s an important part of Michigan’s nature and culture that cannot be replaced, Kennedy stressed. 

“Each species plays an important role in the ecosystem,” Kennedy said.

Now, as the Poweshiek skipperling population rehabilitates, zoos are taking up the species to breed it and keep it alive, while Michigan restores its habitat. The process of habitat rehabilitation helps not just one creature, Kennedy said, but a phalanx of animals that all exist together in the same sphere. For example, the diverse grasses that monarchs love are a draw for deer and other herbivores as well.

Kennedy remembers as a kid, picking up caterpillars, taking care of them, and watching them metamorphosize into butterflies. He doesn’t know if that’s something most kids still do, but he knows his nieces and nephews play the part.

The DNR is determined not to let the Poweshiek go extinct, Kennedy said, which is why it’s devoting so much time to bring the Poweshiek skipperling back, just like it did for the Kirtland’s warbler.

“It’s the group mentality, the group effort. It takes all of us to do that,” Kennedy said.

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