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Volunteers Improve Public Land Wildlife Habitat in Hillsdale County

August 6th, 2013

When Department of Natural Resources biologist Kristen Bissell emailed us for volunteer help with a DNR project to plant food plots at Somerset State Game Area in Hillsdale County, I was intrigued. This was just the kind of on-the-ground project that the Michigan On-the-Ground program was created to do. And when the volunteers started pulling into the parking lot off Stearns Road on Saturday, I knew it would be a success.

Patricia Johns digs out a root under the supervision of Drake VanWormer

Patricia Johns digs out a root under the supervision of Drake VanWormer

Hillsdale County is in the middle of Michigan’s big buck country, where farm-fed whitetails grow record-book racks, like Michigan’s current archery record. Most of this is private land, though, leaving public land hunters just a little behind the curve. So when Bissell said they planned to plant a clover-wheat-rye mix on twelve acres of public land dotted with apple trees, surrounded by oaks and bordered by corn fields on one side and a waterfowl refuge on the other, I bet that there would be some public land hunters who would jump at the opportunity. And I was right.

The fields had been bulldozed into strips on rolling hills, creating massive brush piles at woodlot edges that will provide cover for small game like cottontail rabbits, which will love the clover mix, too. But numerous roots, rocks, and small trees and branches lay scattered over the fields and could damage planting equipment, and due to an unexpected staffing shortage the DNR wouldn’t have time to clear it in time to plant. So we scheduled a volunteer workday on August 3 and put the call out for volunteers, and they responded.

When the project day arrived on August 3, the fields had grown thick weedy vegetation and small autumn olive that made locating debris on-the-ground a challenge. Some debris was located only after it was kicked or tripped, and what looked like a small twig turned out to be a four-foot chunk of root!

Volunteers search for roots and rocks to remove from a field.

Volunteers search for roots and rocks to remove from a field.

Twenty volunteers showed up to clear debris in the hot August sun, including men and women, adults and youth. Volunteers threw roots and rocks out of the field and into the edges of bordering woodlots, separated them from the earth with axes, hatchets, pickaxes and shovels, and worked so hard that they cleared the approximately twelve acres by early afternoon and just in time for a “parking-lot party” of burgers and hot dogs grilled up by Jack and Judy VanRhee and Tracy Bross while Dennis Tison, Farm Bill biologist for the Lenawee County Conservation District, talked to the volunteers about the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative.

Volunteers on Saturday included Dennis Tison, Andy and Mitch LaRou, Jack and Judy VanRhee, Kelvin, Tracy and Levi Bross, Gary and Bev Surratt, Gabe, Shelley, Drake and Reed VanWormer, Kevin Berning, Dan Kaser, Doug Small, Mike Warden and Patricia Johns.

Projects like this ensure quality hunting on publicly accessible lands for the next generation of hunters.

Projects like this ensure quality hunting on publicly accessible lands for the next generation of hunters, like Reed VanWormer.

For many of these volunteers, it wasn’t just about improving the specific piece of land they hunt. It was an opportunity to do something beneficial for the wildlife that has earned their love and respect through their hunting experiences and providing better public access hunting opportunities for others.

If you’d like to do the same, our next project will this Saturday, August 10, building small game habitat at the Crane Pond State Game Area. Click here to volunteer!

Michigan On-the-Ground is a public-private partnership between the Wildlife and Fisheries Divisions of the DNR and Michigan United Conservation Clubs to improve fish and wildlife habitat and increase volunteer stewardship in Michigan. It is supported in part by the Consumers Energy Foundation and is a part of Outdoor Life Magazine’s Open Country program to promote public hunting access.

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