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PETERSBURG – On warm spring afternoons, rare butterflies dance across small patches of prairie covered with wild lupines.

But first there must be fire.

The future of the Karner blue butterfly – now a federally threatened species in the Great Lakes State – lies with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources intentionally setting fires known as “prescribed burns” to restore the oak savannas that once dominated these landscapes.

“Without these prescribed burns by our Forest Resources Division to keep the woody vegetation from taking over, the Karner blue butterfly would not exist at the Petersburg State Game Area,” said Zach Cooley, DNR wildlife biologist.

That is because the beautiful species relies on wild lupine to survive. Female butterflies will lay eggs only on wild blue lupine because caterpillars feed solely on lupine leaves.

And wild lupine flourishes only after fire clears the way for its hard seed coats to have contact with soil and creates the open-canopied, sunlit habitat necessary for lupine to grow.

“If an area becomes overgrown with trees, the lupine can’t grow and Karner blues have no place to lay their eggs,” said Dan Kennedy, DNR endangered species coordinator.

The DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service work together with conservation groups and private landowners to manage habitats that are more conducive to the blue, nickel-sized butterfly.

DNR staff simulate the historic role of fire with annual burns on about 100 acres at Petersburg State Game Area in Monroe County, one of only 10 spots in the state where rare Karner blues are found. The species can also be found in west Michigan – including Allegan, Ionia, Kent, Lake, Mason, Mecosta, Montcalm, Muskegon, Newaygo and Oceana counties.

Many ecosystems, as well as wildlife species and native Michigan plant communities like wild lupine, are vitally dependent on the regenerative role of periodic fires.

The science-based practice of prescribed burning involves careful planning, community involvement and appropriate safety measures. Furthermore, each prescribed burn must meet specific objectives, such as improving habitat for wildlife. As a result, most burns provide a boost for wildflowers, native grasses and threatened or endangered species.

Without fire, healthy prairie, wetland and woodland systems are at risk, jeopardized by overgrown shrubs or invasive plants. Once a prescribed burn has taken place, native plant species will begin to return, attracting wildlife species such as deer, turkey, Karner blue butterflies and a variety of others.

“Prescribed burning by our trained staff is an important management tool to maintain native grassland communities,” said Debbie Begalle, chief of the DNR’s Forest Resources Division.

DNR conservation management policies and practices applied to urban, suburban and rural forests are distinctly different and unique to their respective landscapes.

But no matter the setting, the growth and preservation of Michigan’s forest-based economy is key to the state’s overall future.

“It’s crucial for Michigan to ensure we have healthier and more resilient landscapes; better and more fire-adapted communities; improved habitat, air and water quality; and a host of other public benefits that come from actively and sustainably managed forests,” Begalle said.

Managing the circle of life

From metro Detroit to Copper Harbor on the Upper Peninsula’s northern tip, the Great Lakes State is blessed with billions of trees. The DNR is responsible for the professional, sustainable management of one of the largest state forest systems in the nation – encompassing 4 million acres.

But trees don’t just take care of themselves. Careful planning and implementation of forestry management practices, such as prescribed burns, are required to maintain our state’s forests.

Forestry – the science, art and practice of sustainably managing forests and all their resources for the benefit of humans – is critical to ensuring that Michigan’s almost 20 million acres of forest land are here for generations.

To do this, the DNR carefully plans every tree harvest, planting and prescribed burn to regenerate Michigan’s aging state forests, control invasive species, remove hazardous wildfire fuels or improve wildlife habitat. In addition, the forests are managed for timber, recreation, aesthetic and ecological values.

“Carefully managed and sustainable forests in every corner of Michigan are essential for healthy wildlife,” Begalle said. “That’s why we work so hard to keep our forests strong and abundant.”

The work continues

When Michigan was granted statehood in 1837, nearly all of its land was forested.

However, with European settlement, human impact on the forests increased dramatically. Michigan led the nation in lumber production nearly every year from 1870-1890. By the early 1900s, millions of Michigan pine trees worth more than all the gold mined in California had been felled in the Lower Peninsula. 

Once carefully managed and sustainable forestry practices were introduced, Michigan’s forests made a powerful comeback. While Michigan forests have changed a great deal in the past 180 years, they are still considered one of our greatest natural resources.

The state inventories and evaluates one-tenth of its forest land each year. This state-of-the-art inventory program provides key information on how to best manage the land so it fosters a healthy, sustainable forest that supports and balances the needs of people and wildlife for generations to come.

That work continues each day.

“It’s hard to imagine Michigan without its abundant forests and diverse wildlife, such as the Karner blue butterfly. That’s why we’re constantly assessing where we’re at and where we need to direct our efforts and resources,” Begalle said.

“It’s always our goal to be good stewards of this priceless natural heritage.”

To learn how sustainable forestry benefits your life, visit Michigan.gov/forestsforalifetime.

This story is provided and presented by our sponsor Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.

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