Saving our hemlocks

Alex Doty • Oct 27, 2017 at 10:00 AM

New funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be used to take aim at a threat to hemlock trees across West Michigan.

The EPA recently awarded the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission a $600,000 grant through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The commission will partner with its West Michigan Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area partners to launch efforts to control and eradicate the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), an invasive species that has damaged forests along the East Coast over the past decade.

The grant will allow the treatment and protection of 65,405 acres of Lake Michigan shoreline and coastal zone from the effects of the invasive species, and it’ll also help cover treatment costs for private landowners.

“Funding at this critical point, in which HWA is not yet widespread, is crucial to start the outreach and treatment,” said Kathy Evans, an environmental program manager at WMSRDC. “In order to keep management costs low and the possibility of eradication high, the immediate initiation of control efforts is of the utmost importance. We are grateful for the support of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to help contain this forest pest before it spreads across the state.”

Distribution data from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will be used to begin treatments, but grant funds will be used to survey and record other infestations throughout Lake Michigan’s coastal zone. The project also includes outreach and education for public and private landowners; effective data management; and early detection, rapid response and treatment of infested sites.

Evans said the eastern hemlock tree plays a “crucial role” in Michigan’s forests.

“Hemlock trees are long-lived and provide habitat for a large variety of birds and animals, offering both shelter and forage,” she said. “The heavy shade given by hemlock trees keep the forest temperatures lower and rivers and streams cooler, which allows for more robust fisheries.”

In 2016, eradication efforts led by the West Michigan Conservation Network and Ottawa County Parks transitioned from a few contained escapes from nursery stock to a more widespread problem.

“After speaking with biologists from the East Coast, there are many factors that lead us to believe that early efforts can contain the infestation and prevent the major loss of forest, but immediate action must occur if we are to remain optimistic,” said Melanie Manion, the natural resources management supervisor for Ottawa County Parks.

Public outreach and education will be conducted in Ottawa, Muskegon, Allegan and Oceana counties in an attempt to obtain information on additional infested trees. Newly discovered sites will be recorded and inspected.

The campaign will also educate the public about the spread of the invasive species via birds at bird feeders and infested yard waste, and the best practices to mitigate the spread.

Hemlock woolly adelgid can be identified by looking for a white woolly substance found on the base of the hemlock tree’s needles. This woolly substance is actually a mass of eggs.

These small adelgid insects suck on the sap of hemlock trees and cause a tree to slowly lose its vigor. As the insect continues to feed and spread throughout a tree, the needles will turn gray and begin to shed.

From a distance, a tree will look very stressed and unhealthy as its foliage thins out and bare branches are exposed. Severely infested trees will eventually die.

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